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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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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.