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.”