Posted on August 30, 2018
In India, a wiry, weathered man wearing a white lungi (a type of sarong) and no shoes, holds up an enormous steel tray of a hundred raw chicken legs for the camera filming him. He douses them with turmeric, red chili powder, garlic, and yogurt, and then sets a rusted wok over a fire built from hunks of bark. He fills the wok with a puddle of oil and sets the meat bubbling with spices over the roaring fire. Farm animals whistle and bark in the distance, and people mutter in Tamil offscreen. Once the stew is done cooking, the man sets glossy clumps of rice and a few plump drumsticks onto a bright green banana leaf laid on the ground. Then he devours the meal with enjoyment, he looks up with a stern but utterly content expression.
Jaymukh Gopinath, cooks huge meals in plain air, filmed by his son Arumugam, an amateur filmmaker.
Like many of the people behind accidental viral sensations, Arumugam—an energetic twenty-six-year-old who speaks only Tamil and broken English—never set out to make his father a YouTube star. Arumugam used to live in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital, working as an assistant director on Tamil movies. But his salary was so low that he struggled to make a living there. In early 2016, he moved back home and decided to start filming his father cooking simply because, he told him, he didn’t have to pay him.
Jaymukh, who is sixty-two, learned to cook while working decades ago as a door-to-door fabric salesman. He had a hard time finding food that he liked during his travels, so he taught himself to prepare simple dishes.
Arumugam and Jaymukh’s first video, which was posted to YouTube on July 24, 2016, shows Jaymukh simmering crabs in a stew over a fire while a waterfall roars behind him. Arumugam said that the video had garnered just fifteen views after a few days but that, after he started asking his friends to watch, it began to catch on. In just two years, according to Arumugam, his channel, Village Food Factory, has attracted close to two million YouTube subscribers and has earned the family more than seven million rupees, or close to a hundred thousand dollars, in advertising revenue.
The videos have an unpolished, simple feel: Arumugam’s shots are unsteady, the cuts are abrupt, and the dominant sound is often the wind. People wander in and out of the frame, and there is not any attempt made to manicure the food to make it look more appetizing.
With Village Food Factory releasing a new video every three to four days, the project has become a family affair: Arumugam’s mother as well as his wife, Pragathi, prep the ingredients, and his younger brother, Manikandan, assist with cooking (and can often be seen in the videos helping himself to the food). The most unexpected part for Arumugam has been watching his dad become a celebrity.
Most significantly, Village Food Factory has completely transformed the Gopinath family’s livelihood. They once struggled to scrape together five hundred rupees (about seven dollars), the minimum amount required by the local bank to open a checking account. With their new revenue, they have gone from renting a hundred-and-sixty-square-foot apartment to buying a seventeen-hundred-square-foot house. Arumugam was also able to purchase a car and a large-screen TV. “Our life has gone from black and white to color,” he said. As for Jaymukh—who speaks mostly Tamil but was able to talk to me via our limited Hindi—he is characteristically nonchalant about his new calling: “I’m glad this has given my son something to do.