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What’s prompting Tamil film producers to turn to meme makers?

Actor Vadivelu is a famous meme face   | Photo Credit: Albert Francis J

A few days ago, Twitter exploded with messages of concern pouring in for Contractor Naesamani, after he was injured in a freak accident.

His offence? Not letting his labourer Krishnamurthy know the difference between thevai ulla aani and thevai illatha aani!

As a result, a hammer was dropped on his head though Krishnamurthy’s culpability was never established. Around the same time, Twitterati were vigorously debating the Centre’s suggestion to add Hindi as a third language, raising a united voice of opposition to stop this perceived Hindi imposition.

N Karthik, a full-time marketing professional, and a part-time ‘meme engineer’, was sitting at his office table and sipping a cup of tea, watching things unfold on Twitter. On a break from work, he scrolled through the numerous meme templates he had downloaded onto his phone, and finally zeroed in on two that he thought fit the situation.

One was a still from the film Friends (2001), taken moments before Naesamani was grievously injured. The other was a still from the film Arasu (2003), which showed Naesamani’s alter ego Pichumani being harangued by a Hindi-speaking family.

The caption read, “Such a world famous contractor Naesamani. He never knew Hindi and he still got a Government job!” The context here is: actor Vadivelu, who played both characters, has a comedy track in the film Arasu about him landing a Government job.

Meme Mania

“That meme did the rounds,” says Karthik, who runs the ‘Bypass Buffalo’ meme page on Facebook.

For the uninitiated, a meme is a Gen Z discovery. It is where one or more images, preferably stills from a popular movie or a TV series, are juxtaposed with relevant social commentary that is laced with humour.

Memes are so popular that even the septuagenarian President of the United States, Donald Trump, relies on it to promote his agenda.

What’s in a meme?

What’s in a meme?   | Photo Credit: Mihir Balantrapu

But whether in the US, or closer home, meme makers, especially Tamil meme producers, have risen in prominence so much that even filmmakers have started paying attention.

“It is surprising to note that these dialogues (commentary) come from people who are not writers,” says filmmaker Raju Murugan, who believes that satire in social media is the next level of progress in a democracy.

“They pose a challenge to those of us in the industry... when we develop our content, we are in a position to find something better to entertain the public,” Murugan adds.

So, what works for a meme?

“In any form of communication, one thing that stands out and takes the message to people is humour,” says Karthik, adding that film templates are used because the relatability quotient is higher.

“Considering the attention span of a millennial, memes are the easiest way to educate and inform people about various issues,” says Guru Nicketan, a stand-up comic, and a proud meme creator.

Guru Nicketan

Guru Nicketan  

Nicketan runs a popular Instagram account (@nicketronix), his platform to share memes on everything under the sun. “I dedicate at least 60-90 minutes a day on memes,” he adds.

But for some like Raja* — one of the six admins behind ‘Okali memes’ on Facebook — the process is a pastime. Raja, and the other admins, are all college students between the ages of 17 and 23.

These meme makers built a niche fan base for their content by ridiculing Tamil films, and its investors. “We spare none in Kollywood. We mostly use actors Vijay and Ajith for our memes. We don’t hate them, obviously, but we cannot tolerate their fans,” laughs Raja.

Choosing the template

As with any creative work, meme making is a process ‘the artiste’ must endure.

“There’s always a Vadivelu template for every situation. But I prefer using templates from my favourite films like Panchatanthiram, Alaipayuthey and Vaaranam Aayiram. It’s similar to writing stand-up material. But the key is that the meme needs to be short, crisp and relatable,” says Nicketan.

Choosing the right template is dependent on your ‘MQ’, or meme quotient, says Karthik.

“It is based entirely on your knowledge of Tamil film comedy tracks,” he says. Though the bandwidth for social commentary on a meme is limitless, he believes that a meme won’t click if it appears intellectual.

“Even for my meme about Hindi imposition, instead of Vadivelu, I could have used a picture of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. I read in a newspaper article that when he visited IIT Kharagpur, he admitted to not knowing Hindi. I could have spun a meme on that, but the problem is it would have seemed too serious, and it may not have trended as much,” says Karthik.

New age publicists

But if a picture conveys a thousand words, a meme can convey 10,000 words! Which is why film producers now sense an opportunity to promote their movies through memes.

Put Chutney’s Rajmohan Arumugam

Put Chutney’s Rajmohan Arumugam   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“When earlier producers would try convincing the media to write good things about their films, they do the same with meme pages now,” says Rajmohan Arumugam of YouTube channel Put Chutney.

“I notice the way two people think — politicians and film producers. Because I believe they look at future trends, and they both seem to be sold on the meme culture in Tamil Nadu,” he adds.

Nicketan too believes that memes would continue to grow. “Digital media is expanding. It is likely that corporate companies would want to invest in meme makers,” he says.

An example of this marketing communication behaviour was noticed when a Tamil TV channel, a paint company and a music label all used the #Pray_For_Naesamani hashtag to push their content.

The pitfalls

But the problem with unregulated free speech in India is that neither of those are true. Nothing is ever unregulated, and speech isn’t as free as you think it is.

Meme for dummies by Guru Nicketan
  • Keep it simple and understandable for a better reach.
  • Relatability will fetch you brownie points.
  • See how you can twist the context with the templates.
  • Captions that are crisp and short always help.

Raja and his team discovered this when they started getting abusive messages, and even death threats. “We have never taken them seriously, so we reply with a witty comment or ignore the lot altogether. But we stay away from doing memes on political or sensitive topics. People can be very touchy about it,” says Raja.

The flip side is that memes also play into the hands of social media influencers keen on spreading fake news, and promoting a divisive agenda.

Murugan has the final word on it. “When the situation is such that anyone can satire anything, there will be a lot of bosh and baloney. But no change has ever happened without mishaps.”

(With inputs by Srinivasa Ramanujam, Srivatsan S and Abhirami Rao)

*Name changed on request

Printable version | May 14, 2021 9:48:31 AM |

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