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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Unusual stars in unexpected places

In Shillong, Kong Thrash, a popular character sketch, has shown people entertainment can be more than just running around a tree in love. Ferdinand Rani interviews Chi iung, the young stars taking YouTube by storm.

Before, to be a star, you needed to make a journey to the big cities and you needed to either know the right people or be born with rare luck. But with the advent of the Internet, stars have come and gone in unusual forms and from unexpected places. In Shillong, Kong Thrash, a popular character sketch, has shown people entertainment can be more than just running around a tree in love. Ferdinand Rani interviews Chi iung, the young stars taking YouTube by storm.

Didi Pong Pong, a music video on YouTube, touched a million views in two weeks. In it, its singer says “Didi pong pong doesn’t have any meaning at all”. Yet, the song, based on a childish rhyme, Didi Pong Pong Sohlah Langdong, continues to be played across Shillong, in buses and cabs and at weddings and parties.

The song is the ingenious work of Chi iung, meaning “one family” in Pnar, by a group of young, talented artistes. Based in Jowai, West Jaiñtia Hills, Chi iung have created YouTube video content since June 2020 and have over 116,000 subscribers. Since their viral fame during the 2020 lockdown, Chi iung have continued making videos.

Chi iung’s central attraction, however, has been their titular character sketch Kong Thrash. Kong Thrash is made to be a Pnar woman, a single mother with one son living in Jowai, and nearly always draped in a jaiñkyrshah. Kong Thrash is proud, arrogant, hot-tempered, flirty at times, but honest and sincere, an amalgam of diverse feminine archetypes that have been employed in literature for thousands of years.

Bimosh Langbang, who plays Bah Flirt, and a member of the team, says, “Kong Thrash is a great actor, and people love her”. Chewidonmi C. Khonglah, who plays Paloi, says, “Kong Thrash means to be brutally honest”.

“Everything about her is ‘thrash'”, says videographer Macdonal Syiem Sutnga, referring to the slang, “from the way she speaks to the way she dresses”. Enrique Lamin Gashnga, the newest member of the group, adds, “She’s like a mother at home who scolds and beats us, so her personality fits her character”.

Kong Thrash’s character has so far been the most attractive feature of Chi iung’s videos and continues to gain them, new followers. But Kong Thrash was borne out of chance, with nary a plan to create her. The man within the avatar of Kong Thrash is Kynpham Lawmurong, a graduate of forestry from Doon Pg College of Agriculture, Dehradun. Lawmurong hails from Mihmyntdu, also in West Jaiñtia Hills. Before the group was named Chi iung, the channel was first created by Lawmurong and his sister, but slowly included new people. “It was never planned. It was all God’s leading. We were shooting a video for a channel called ‘Mom’s Character’, and we found no woman to take the role. For the sake of the script, we had no option but to put on a wig on boys. Every one of us in the team tried the role, but none could fit the character until I tried it on”.

The initial plan was to simply write a script and direct the videos but stay firmly behind the camera until Lawmurong put on the wig. “When Kong Thrash came, she suited the channel’s name because there is no ‘family’ without a mother. Earlier, we thought of the name ‘Hot Mom’ too, but it didn’t suit her. It was Vino [Vinolis Syngkon] who got the idea of ‘thrash’, and it sounds raw. It is not ‘trash’, as in garbage, but ‘thrash’, which means carefree”, says Lawmurong.

Ever since the concept was born and put into action, Chi iung’s views and subscriptions on YouTube have been on the rise, with most audiences saying the character is “relatable” to the common people. “I am not the first who came up with the cross-dressing idea. We have plenty of those here, but the difference is that they act feminine, but I do not. I portray my character as a lady, but one who doesn’t act like one. Maybe that’s why people liked it”.

He said, “I realise now that Kong Thrash is a character combination of my parents: My mother who is a motherly figure as herself and my father who is brutally honest with everyone and cares less about what others think about him”.

The team of Chi iung

Chi iung currently has nine members, many of whom are still pursuing their further education: Kynpham Lamurong, Vinolis Syngkon, Bimosh Langbang, Macdonald Syiem Sutnga, Enrique Gashnga, Nathaniel Dkhar, Cheiwidonmi C. Khonglah, Wanmidame Dkhar and Emboklang Paswet.

Though their videos are popular and widely watched, making them is quite a challenge. Lawmurong says the challenge is with the story ideas that he needs to create after every video. “Once I’m done with one content, I have to think of another, and it goes on like that. It is difficult for us, yet that’s the fun part”.

Because most of the team are still students, getting sponsors for their production is difficult. In terms of technicalities, the team uses a simple smartphone to shoot their videos and a common laptop for their edits, a far cry from the advanced equipment many other already well-off YouTubers are able to afford early on in their careers. “You saw the condition of our laptop; it doesn’t function well. Financial problem is what we are facing since we don’t come from a well-to-do family”. But Lawmurong and the team are grateful that there is no pressure from any of their families in terms of employment, which allows Chi iung to prioritise making videos, a time-consuming art and science.

On the side, however, Lawmurong also runs a corner shop near his house; but the purpose of this shop has evolved. “The shop is where we edit our videos, but I’m only giving 20 per cent of my time to the shop and 80 per cent in making videos. There is always an understanding of whatever we earn or how much we earn from each project. We share more on big projects and share little with smaller ones. There are times when we have to go nil, but we still keep going for the sake of our subscribers”.

Chi iung also performs live shows in different parts of the state. So far, the team have performed 15 live shows at fêtes, weddings, awareness programmes and other events that provide them alternative financial support. “We are new to this business. We don’t have advisers or managers or even experts in this field who can guide us; therefore, our rates fluctuate. Sometimes we ask too less and at times we ask too much. But every time we go out on stage, we perform for the audience, not the organisers. It doesn’t matter how much we get but what matters to us is how much effort we put in. We perform with all our hearts, entertain people and go home”.

The entertainment Chi iung offers include songs, dance and drama. Every member has their own set of skills. Despite their wildly popular acts, the young artistes have not been immune to criticisms from sections of society that find their sketches and songs unappealing. Sometimes, viewers simply do not believe such acts have a place in Meghalaya, and trend better suited to an audience outside the state.

“Usually in Khasi–Pnar society, there’s always this negative thought that this will not work in Meghalaya. The question for them is have they ever done it? Have they even tried it yet? If they haven’t even tried it, then how do they know? We Khasi–Pnar have a huge potential to reach a global level. We are very close to getting there. Look at Kiki Garod’s production; it looks like Bollywood now. Even State of Mind production has another level of creativity. The reason is that we are exposed to the West and learn about the way they make content. Our mind is more diverse now. This is all because of the Internet. We share the same platform with the West today. Artists like DJ Wanshan and DBRYN are some of the most talented people at their level”, argues Lawmurong.

The fame and love Chi iung has received now inspires them to set their hopes higher. “Our goal is that, possibly, we could be the ones to make people realise that this field is also working”.

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Ever since the Internet, the options for entertainment in India have exploded and are no longer limited to television. This stands true for both audiences and artistes and entertainers. “There was no Tik Tok or Reels in the past. A lot has changed in terms of entertainment now. People can avail all types of entertainment today through their smartphones and the Internet. Just like our video, many people can watch it now,” says Sutnga.

“There is an open gate now and it’s very easy to get into platforms like YouTube. Earlier, even recording studios were hard to find, since only a few operated them. Now many have come up with home studios using DIY ideas”, Lawmurong adds. But for content creators from small, newly developing states like Meghalaya, the playing field is not a level one. “It’s a two-way effort from both content creators and the audience for constant support. In that case, we get a lot of support from the comment section”.

Chi iung is not only known for its comedy content also for the value that they add to their sketches. Many of their videos are centred around every morality, which makes the videos appeal to the local audience.

“There is a lot of comedy, but we don’t do it recklessly. There should be a reason behind whatever we do. Why do we make that video? What’s the message from the video? If there is no such message or if we are not able to give value to the viewers, then that video is useless for us”.

Sutnga, who is a teacher by profession and a mother, says the morality sketches Chi iung does has made Kong Thrash her favourite YouTuber. “Whatever she says it’s with honesty; she does things that take place in every household. There are many lessons that we can learn from these videos. There are children in the community who don’t have anyone to guide them, but watching videos of Chi iung and particularly Kong Thrash will somehow teach them a lesson or two which can guide them on the right path”. In her youth, Sutnga had no mobile phones, and television sets were scarce. But with the kind of exposure

that is available now online, young people, she says, can learn many things and make money too. “Everyone has a phone today and that can easily create a livelihood. I urge the young people to try explore this field just like Chi iung is doing. Don’t wait for government jobs; try something, even if it’s a small effort. Like they say, ‘A little drop of water and a little grain of sand make a mighty ocean and a pleasant land’. So start something small”.

Rani, another subscriber from Shillong, says, “Kong Thrash is effortlessly funny and brutally honest. They do not sugarcoat or fantasise anything. She represents the common lifestyle and common day-to-day issues of ordinary Khasi–Pnar people. [Chi iung] is the first natural comedy YouTube channel in Meghalaya that always has a moral lesson or gives the audience something to reflect about at the end”.

Lawmurong, who is only 24 years, says, “This for me is like oxygen. I can’t breathe without this. Apart from this, I don’t know anything else”.

Kong Thrash and Chi iung serve as an example of how small incidents can bring out a star from ordinary people in today’s world. Their story of how things can develop from one small beginning is a similar story of many artistes here in the state who started their journey with nothing. The many encounters and challenges these artistes faced in the past has eventually given birth to the unexpected stars of today. YouTube, as one of the platforms available on the Internet, provides an equal opportunity for everyone to explore their hidden talent; and unlike the limitation in the past, it can let not just one or ten but hundreds of stars to shine.

But the cost of stardom can be high too. Even with this popularity, there are times when Lawmurong feels “left out”, as more people begin to identify him with his persona online than his own identity. Somewhere, the artiste is lost in his art: “People love Kong Thrash more now, not me; I’m no longer required they would say”.

(The writer is a reporter with The Meghalayan)

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