A SMALL, WIRY MAN with bushy whiskers and hollows for cheeks stirs a pot of goat curry. He cooks alfresco on a wood fire, crouched on rocky earth in a lungi and shirt. A dog wails in the background as he finishes the dish with a cup of coconut milk. When the whole goat—freshly butchered, rubbed with chilli, rock salt and turmeric and simmered in gravy—is cooked through, the man hauls it out of the rented-and-dented utensil and onto a banana leaf and sits down to eat it with a heap of rice and curry ladled on top. Upon the cameraman’s prompting, he tears off a leg and crudely munches on it. It tastes great, he declares in Tamil, with a toothy grin. This spectacle, of an unlikely village cook and gorger of meat, has been viewed over 4.7 million times by YouTube users from all corners of the world. ‘We want to watch you eat,’ urges a fan in the Comments section. Others call him ‘boss man’ and ‘a hero’ or offer advice on how the cook should sharpen his knives, stop using aluminium pans, and marinate the meat. The subject of this lively conversation is most famous as ‘Daddy’, the keyword that has sent the page views soaring.
A Gopinath, an aspiring filmmaker from Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu, had hoped for a good response to cooking videos of his father, 59-year-old P Arumugam, cleaning crab in a rivulet, currying quail country-style, making a kuzhambu with the head of a lamb, and frying sting ray wrapped in a banana leaf. But when he started uploading them three months ago, calling his channel Village Food Factory, he had no idea just how popular his father, a retired painter, would become. In a fortnight, they had hundreds of thousands of views. “I couldn’t be happier,” says Gopinath. “I had set out to show off my camera skills, make society respect my father, and earn some money in the process. All these dreams were coming true at once, just like that.” Gopinath, 26, has worked as assistant and associate director in two parallel Tamil films. He has a diploma in Engineering, but he has always known he would make movies for a living. “For six months or so, I had been thinking of shooting videos and earning ad revenue from them. ‘What would people want to watch that I could shoot?’ I asked myself. The answer was easy: food. We are a family of passionate cooks, and father is the most experienced among us. When I was in Class VI, he had a small biryani shop. He had honed his skills cooking for a Chettiar family in his youth,” Gopinath says.
Luckily for him, Arumugam isn’t camera-shy. As effortless a performer as he is a cook, he works quickly and has an ease about him, handling cauldrons using the edge of his lungi as mitts and sprinkling spices by the handful. At the end of it, he indulges his appetite, slurping with relish, unmindful of the eyes on him. “My mother is a tailor and my father painted signs and walls for a living. They struggled to provide for the family. They have always been looked down upon by our relatives who are all well-to-do, with children settled abroad. I wanted my father to do some roles in films, if only to earn their respect,” says Gopinath. After 40 videos—40 more are ready for upload— and tens of millions of views, Arumugam can finally be proud of what he does. He has been interviewed by Tamil magazines and congratulatory messages keep pouring in from friends and family. “Everyone calls me appa, I have got a lot of respect,” he says, in a mellow, measured voice. “I cannot believe I am responsible for my son’s success.” Each popular video earns the family Rs 16,000 or more in ad revenue, with 40 per cent of the views coming from outside India.
Gopinath knows he must cater to a culturally diverse audience, and he does so by selling them the country vibe. “I wanted a village setting, with natural sounds instead of a soundtrack to make it exotic,” he says.
After a string of instructional videos on cooking exotic meats, Gopinath started setting up large-scale cooks such as a curry made with 300 eggs that has been viewed 3.6 million times. “I realised that spending Rs 6,000-8,000 on one dish was worth it. I have made over Rs 60,000 on this video. And all the food got distributed to poor people near Tiruppur bus stand,” he says. The curry itself is unremarkable: eggs cooked in Arumugam’s standard mirepoix of onion-tomato and spices. It is the absurd drama of it that lingers: the eggs laid out, inexplicably, on the red soil of their backyard, the younger son Manikandan, dapper in jeans, tee and loafers, ladling out boiled eggs, and the entire family helping to peel them. Their artlessness is endearing, offering a peek into village life in India, flies and all.
Are they opening a restaurant? Launching a cookbook? The family, ironically, has no culinary ambitions. Gopinath is focused on grabbing more views and buying better equipment such as a drone and a better camera, and Arumugam is happy to cook for his viewers, hoping they stay tuned for dishes close to his heart: blood pudding, dried fish, ragi kali and more.