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A man sporting a black cap and pink T-shirt sits on a bullock cart, a pile of grass behind him, and busts a rhyme to a camera while riding across the dusty streets of India’s Tulsi village.
The hip-hop video is just one of many home-grown, Bollywood-inspired productions being created for the village’s flagship YouTube channel, which boasts nearly 120,000 subscribers and has more than 200 uploaded videos.
Inspired by videos seen in the streaming service, Gyanendra Shukla and Jai Verma set up the “Being Chhattisgarhiya” channel in 2018 as mobile Internet service became cheaper in India. They have both given up their day jobs to focus on the channel.
Residents got increasingly involved as a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 put many out of work, and now about a third of them participate in some form of content creation for YouTube, from acting to post-production work.
“Initially, we were clueless about what kind of videos to make and how to make them,” said 32-year-old Shukla, who is from Tulsi, located in the state of Chhattisgarh.
“We started using mobile phones to shoot and edit but later we thought we should upgrade.”
They now produce two to three videos a month, from slapstick comedy and action dramas to educational shorts and music videos. As a result, they earn about 40,000 rupees ($483.93) a month from YouTube, more than the roughly 15,000 rupees per month they each earned in their previous jobs.
YouTube pays creators for content after their channel registers at least 1,000 subscribers and secures 4,000 hours of watched content over a 12-month period, according to its website.
But most of the money earned goes towards upgrading equipment, with only a few popular actors getting paid for their work. The rest volunteer in their free time because they like to see themselves on the screen or have a love for acting.
“I aspire to be an actress. I want to keep trying… yes, I will obviously go (to Bollywood) if I get an opportunity,” said Pinky Sahoo, 24, a popular face in the videos.
The actors vary in age, with anyone from toddlers to grandmothers in their 80s taking part.
But for some, the channel is an opportunity to dream big — well beyond the confines of the small village.
“We want the entire world to know us, not just India,” said Verma, 30.