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The simple superstar

KARUNYA KESHAV
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People YouTube sensation Wilbur Sargunaraj tells KARUNYA KESHAV that he does not have plans to take up the film and television offers coming his way. However, he will join Wilburwood and make his own movie soon

The joke is on me Wilbur Sargunaraj Photo: R. Ravindran
The joke is on me Wilbur Sargunaraj Photo: R. Ravindran

M y grandmother is a discerning critic of regional comedy: many a brash Tamil comedian has been at the receiving end of her disapproving stare. My teenage cousin, meanwhile, turns her nose at any entertainment that doesn't involve flashy guitars. The only thing they've agreed on — bent over the computer, chucking in unison, is that Wilbur Sargunaraj is funny.

With over 90 music and “instructional” videos on the Internet, and two (mostly) English music albums to his credit, Wilbur (34) is “the YouTube sensation from India”. His videos have collectively been viewed over 3.1 million times and counting, with his 2010 hit “Love Marriage” getting over 8 lakh views.

That's a lot of people singing “Mummy Daddy I want the lou marriage” and doing the Cobra dance. All the time wondering, ‘who is this guy?!' Was he to be greeted with scepticism like most things online?

On his first tour of India, Wilbur gives fans an opportunity to see if his thick accent and trademark look – white shirt, black pants and tie, shades – are for real.

In Bangalore, on the eve of a concert to launch his second album “Simple Superstar”, Wilbur says, “I hope the people here have the energy to dance to my music!”

With clinically catchy beats, and lyrics that are both ridiculous and astute, this entertainer from Tamil Nadu, seems to have that inexplicable something that any social-media-type would give their right arm for.

“I stay true to myself as an artiste and a performer — very natural, very improvised,” he says. “I'm original, and I'm not making music to please anybody.”

His ‘logo' is a fan-made “Quality, First Class, Sargunaraj Trademark”, but Wilbur is uneasy about being called a superstar. He's a “simple superstar”, he says. And he's using this platform to “make a statement”.

“I want to make the common, extraordinary,” he says. He features the most unlikely of people in his videos – beaming women from a destitute centre in Rajapalayam, an endearing roadside Chicken 65 vendor, or an opera singer. A refreshing change from the PYTs of manufactured pop.

Wilbur, who also has a base in Canada, says this attempt to engage with people comes from his passion to increase “cultural intelligence (quotient)”, or CQ. “The mark of a person with CQ is that they know their background, but are willing to engage with a different culture.”

Hence, his “field trip” videos that have him travelling the world talking to the locals about intrinsic customs, encouraging outsiders to learn new things.

He points out that most people abroad would not know “how to use an Eastern latrine”, while people from India are clueless on “how to order a burger in a drive through”. For anyone else, these videos are entertainment gold.

Wilbur has often come in for flak for “mocking” Indian culture. Social media, which he has built his fame on, is as quick to spew vitriol and abuse. “I'm celebrating culture, not mocking it,” he insists. His may, literally, be toilet humour, but it is “respectful”, never “vulgar”.

He is also quick to dismiss suggestions that he's a product of clever viral marketing. “If I was a viral success, why would the Centre for Cultural Intelligence in Singapore want to partner with me to write a children's book? Why would Ottawa Tourism ask me to make a video for them?” he asks.

Nor does he plan to take up the film and television offers coming his way. However, he will join “Wilburwood” and make his own movie soon, he proclaims.

At the Bangalore concert on Tuesday, this announcement is greeted with cheers.

The theme for the evening is charity, raucous tapanguchi, a shout-out to cricketers Robin Uthappa and Manish Pandey who are present (“C-R-I-C-K-yeee-T”), and non-conformism wrapped in questionable rhyme (“When I was a little boy in the Tamil Nadu school, I was told to be the doctor, not the artistic fool”).

He continues to engage people in different cultures, getting them to salsa, bhangra and belly dance. Wilbur is a natural performer – it's lively, funny and entertaining. And it turns out Bangalore did have the energy for him.

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