comedy central

Meet Temple Monkeys, the crew behind the hilarious spoof of the NEET dress code

‘What if you don’t become an engineer?’ ‘I’ll be a meme creator.’

Six years ago, when Tamil comedian Vijay Varadharaj and his friend first began making videos for their YouTube channel Temple Monkeys, everyone thought they were wasting their time.

They had no steady jobs and no income. Their early years as struggling actors and directors were spent queuing outside film studios in Vadapalani, the industry hub in Chennai. Viewers for the videos were hard to come by. Each video garnered just a few hundred hits – and when one reached a thousand views, they rejoiced.

Little did they know then that one day, their YouTube channel, among the first in Tamil, will bring them thousands of subscribers and recognition from the film industry’s top directors.

Temple Monkey’s latest video I Don’t NEET You has cemented that popularity. A spoof of the strict dress code enforced by the Central Board of Secondary Education for the National Eligibility and Entrance Test for dental and medical courses on May 7, I Don’t NEET You has gone viral since it was uploaded on May 9. It is visibly generous in its scope: it pokes fun at religious majoritarianism and cultural imposition by the north, while making oblique references to the news reports that at some NEET centres, students were made to cut the full sleeves of their tops, remove nose rings, even take off bras with metal hooks.

Varadharaj was left incensed when he read about the harassment. Once a student of the state education board, he empathised with the irate state board students, especially from rural areas, who felt it was unfair to make them compete with graduates of other boards. The 29-year-old immediately brought together his crew for a shoot. After a day’s work, the satirical video was ready.

“Most of our jokes are spontaneous, I make them up as we shoot,” said Varadharaj. “We try to make our language, tone and look reflect regular people, even if it involves using Tamil cuss words.”

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It is not enough to watch a video of the Temple Monkeys just once. Each YouTube creation, even if a few minutes long, packs a string of pop culture references and is rich with word play and comic timing. That is not all: layers of subversive subtext are cleverly crafted into the joke. For Temple Monkeys, no sensitive topic is off limits, be it religious or caste discrimination – but it is invariably dealt with in a subtle, often sly manner.

For instance, in I Don’t NEET You, Varadharaj plays a cantankerous examination invigilator, Professor Rangabashyam, who spouts archaic laws of the Manusmriti. He eyes a student distastefully while snatching his answer sheet.

“Where is the thread-u?” asks the professor, turning over the single sheet. Bewildered, the student replies, “Only one sheet, sir.”

“Don’t have thread-aa?” asks the professor, incredulously. “Huh. FAIL-u!!”

The Temple Monkeys team. Credit: Temple Monkeys via Facebook
The Temple Monkeys team. Credit: Temple Monkeys via Facebook

Varadharaj is the brain behind Temple Monkeys. Whether it is their take on why Kattappa killed Baahubali or a parody of Airtel’s 4G advertisement, all videos are scripted, directed and edited by him. Most of his crewmembers admit that they don’t even get the subtext of his script until the video is shot and they have watched it a few times.

“When Vijay asked me to speak in Hindi for the NEET video, I had no idea why I was doing this,” said Badree R, an actor in the team. “Only after we saw the final edit did I get his point.”

Despite their casual work ethic and jokes, the team is highly deferential towards their director, grateful for having been given the exposure that the channel provides. While some quit after securing a steady footing in the film industry, others still come back for a new project – even though there is little money to be made in the channel. Abdool, who quit his stable job in the IT industry to pursue acting, has stuck with Varadharaj for two years now, even while taking up offers in movies. “It is only because of Temple Monkeys that many of us are being noticed,” said Abdool, 26.

Indeed, making YouTube videos in their small rented flat down a narrow alley in Vadapalani has brought them recognition among film directors.

“Now the assistant directors don’t even ask us to audition,” said Varadharaj. “They directly assign us our roles, since they all watch our videos.”

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Aspiring actors from across Tamil Nadu have been queuing up to work with the Temple Monkeys. About a year ago, 18-year-old Divakaran, an avid fan from Pudukottai district, moved to Chennai in the hope of becoming an actor. One day, he spotted Varadharaj at a bus stop and pleaded with him to take him on board. “He suddenly drove by in a van and asked me to get in to talk,” remembered Varadharaj, with a laugh. “I thought he was an angry Simbu fan planning to beat me up.”

Many like Divakaran come to work with Varadharaj. One moment Varadharaj is an affable colleague, easy to smile, ready to laugh. The next moment, he is an exacting director – entirely in control of the script. The moment after, he has slipped into the role of Professor Rangabashyam, spewing expletives at his students and teaching them how to watch pornography.

Varadharaj says he owes his creative freedom and smart comedy – he often derides Hindutva propagandists – to the fact that his YouTube channel is non-commercial. Here, there are no sponsors to please, no film-makers to assign cartoon-cutout roles. “In film, comedians are always treated like half-wits, they’re slapped around and made to act stupid,” said Varadharaj. “But online, we feel we have space to be witty.”

Amidst the positive feedback, there has been talk about I Don’t NEET You pushing the Dravidian ideology – of being anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindi. The Temple Monkeys crew denies this. “We do not subscribe to any particular ideology,” said Varadharaj. “Our take on any issue is based on what we feel is the truth. We don’t believe in putting up a facade. If something wrong is happening in society, there is no point in pretending like it isn’t.”

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From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.