By Reya Mehrotra
In August, a video, which had rap added to a scene from a popular soap opera, took the country by storm. The scandalous revelation of the mysterious woman in the rasoda (kitchen) who placed an empty cooker on the stove enthralled netizens. The vicious combination of the imposing Kokilaben and her two paradoxically opposite daughters-in-law—naive Gopi and scheming Rashi—made for a meme fest.
Thanks to the video, its maker Yashraj Mukhate, an engineer by degree and musician by passion, rose to overnight fame. “I had a decent following before that on my YouTube and Instagram pages. Now, I am recognised more for my work and the audience has multiplied manifold,” he says.
In ancient plays, dramatists would often include elements of humour through a character or scene to relieve the tension or break the monotony of serious work. This was what litterateurs termed ‘comic relief’. In today’s world, memes like Mukhate’s serve as comic relief from a hectic work day, pandemic-induced anxieties and other worries in general.
The rasoda meme that Mukhate posted in August has more than 12 million views on Instagram now, while he has more than a million followers on the platform. The songmaker, however, still prefers working from his self-designed studio in Aurangabad and is now in touch with filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj for producing music for films as well.
His other meme videos, too, have gone viral. Actor Taapsee Pannu, in fact, recently posted a video of hers holidaying in Maldives and dancing to Biggini shoot, another of Mukhate’s meme songs. But it is a one-time thing, the musician insists. “Ever since the rasoda song became popular, brands want me to make more such songs and expect them to go viral as well. But I have to explain that it does not work that way. Since people like these songs for now, I will continue making them for some time and then drift to serious music,” he shares.
Birth of a genre
The sudden spurt in meme-worthy videos posted by Instagram content creators has given birth to an as yet untitled genre. Mukhate’s videos, for instance, are part-meme part-song. “Let’s call them ‘meme songs’ for now. I don’t know what else to call them,” he says. Not just Mukhate, there are other creators too who are constantly pushing the boundaries. Videos posted by the likes of Kusha Kapila, Kareema Barry, Dolly Singh, Gaurav Gera, Ashish Chanchlani and Bhuvan Bam blend funny with the sarcastic, oscillating between the vine and meme genres.
But whatever the genre, this new meme culture is thriving on Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio laughing with a wine glass in hand, a bald disappointed cricket fan in wearing shorts, a black half-jacket called Sarim Akhtar, Chinese basketball player Yao Ming’s laughing face, etc, are some of the most popular and iconic faces of memes in recent times.
A common streak among most of the popular content creators, however, remains their loyalty to common life situations. Kusha Kapila enacting south Delhi women at parties and gatherings is as relatable as Ashish Chanchlani playing the notorious student speaking out answers in an exam from behind his mask even as a clueless teacher searches for the culprit. Bhuvan Bam’s BB Ki Vines, inspired by funny situations in his family, is as real as Dolly Singh’s video on ‘conversations with tailors in 2020’.
Delhi-based Manish Kumar Jalan works in social media marketing by day and is a memer by night. “Back in 2015, there were very few meme pages in the Indian media space, so I started The Engineer Bro, a character to connect with users and pass on information easily,” says the 26-year-old. “Memes have transformed over time and are now used to express anger, joy and other emotions. Most of GenZ users consume news via memes as well. So the only way to connect with users is by providing memes that add value as well,” says Jalan, whose page now has 6.28 lakh followers.
While the new byproduct of the genre of memes was inspired by memes itself, it is an interesting fact that the meme itself has decades of history behind it. The term was introduced by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. The word came from the Greek word ‘mimema’, which means ‘imitated’ and meant the cultural parallel to biological genes, as in carrying cultural information and being transmitted from one person to the other.
In today’s simple terms, it would be put as a ‘viral meme’. Blend a little parody, comedy and satire, and a meme is born. However, one should be careful and stay away from toxicity and trolling while making a meme. Actor Rhea Chakraborty, for instance, was trolled for her video, which she posted seeking justice. The video, in which she was seen in a white suit, was turned into many memes.
One thing that most new-age digital content creators agree on is the fact that the internet has given them wide visibility. “Putting up content on the web is the most democratic setup. People will tell you if you are good or not. You just have to upload unlike going to TV shows or waiting in long queues for your chance,” Mukhate says.
Mumbai-based Jitendra Sharma might not be very popular offline, but his Instagram memer alter ego Ted the Stoner has 1.5 million American and Indian followers, with his memes being shared and liked by celebrities as well.
The 26-year-old started the meme page in 2014 for laughs and banter. Its bio reads, “Changing mindsets one at a time” and he does so by providing “Ted’s 2 cents” every now and then on important political and social issues. He also puts up pet adoption posts. Hence, the idea goes beyond just a meme page. Rules for an ideal meme page are simple, he explains. “The goal is to not just make people happy, but to provide and add value in their lives. If someone visits your page, you should either make them smile, help them or let them leave after they learn something new,” he says.
Twenty-year-old student Satyam Gangesh Jha, too, is a popular memer. His page Sarallog has 1.38 lakh followers. It took two years for him to gain popularity, the Mumbai-based memer says. For memes to go viral, he says, “Make them as relatable as possible and select trending topics to make memes on.”
Memes vs jokes
During the lockdown, as people remained confined at homes, digital content grew and prospered by the day and so did memers. So are memes the new jokes? An article published by The Guardian in July 2019 titled Why doesn’t anyone tell jokes any more? Well, we have memes now suggests so. It says, “The internet has changed the mode and means by which we tell jokes. Old joke formats still exist in places like Twitter, where the pullback and reveal joke is still king, but we’ve found a more efficient way of telling the old standard: memes.”
In short, memes are a digital update to jokes. They are both worlds apart but have strands of similarities-they make you laugh and are born out of the simplest things in life and, sometimes, the most obvious ones. After all, as Charlie Chaplin says, in the end, everything is a gag.