COVER STORY: The Unstoppable Bhuvan Bam
From music to comedy to acting, this internet sensation is acing it all. What’s the secret?
Talking to Bhuvan Bam is a lot like catching up with an old friend. He smiles a lot, listens with a patient ear and likes to grab every opportunity to taunt playfully. “I loved that pink suit,” he says of his wardrobe from the cover shoot, knowing very well I had missed the shoot and hadn’t even seen the photographs yet. He laughs at my FOMO-fueled frustration, but it’s easy to forgive because he’s just so damn likeable. With over 14 million subscribers on YouTube, the New Delhi-based Internet star has built an empire around video content that spans music, humor and social commentary—all before turning 25.
His channel BBKiVines chronicles the life of an Indian teenager and his typical middle-class family through several quirky characters—all portrayed by Bam. His content revolves mostly around awkward familial situations, friendship, breakups and the like. The humor swings between witty, crass and shock-and-awe, but it works because it is highly relatable. In North India, you’d be hard pressed to find a high school or college student who doesn’t know who he is. Bam’s snack-sized content has also been a favorite of WhatsApp groups or Instagram DMs. In fact, the first time I discovered him was when a friend sent me a link to one of his videos with the message, “Dude, remember when we did this in college?”
Bam first started making videos back in 2015 after watching the news on TV about the Kashmir floods. On the show, a reporter was extending the mic to a local woman who had lost her son in the floods and asking her how she felt. Appalled at the general insensitivity of the media during humanitarian crises, he uploaded a 15-second satire skit to Facebook as a personal protest. He soon realized that making videos was a brilliant way to express himself and also vent his frustrations about society. He began filming and uploading videos regularly, creating online caricatures of individuals he encountered in real life. Bam gained viral traction in Pakistan first and then in India, making the move to YouTube later that year to start BBKiVines. In just seven months, he gained over a million followers.
His accolades since then include becoming the first Indian YouTuber to cross 10 million subscribers (2018), clocking in over 1.8 billion views in total, making a film debut (in 2018’s Plus Minus with Divya Dutta), replacing leading Indian celebrities in brand endorsement deals and finally building the music career he always wanted. As BBKiVines turns four this year, Bam’s never been busier—in one weekend he’s had to fly in to Mumbai for the cover shoot, make it back to New Delhi in time on Sunday to attend a panel, film videos for his channel and fit in other exciting projects we aren’t yet privy to. “I want to collab with BTS,” he reminds me when I ask what else he wants to work on in the future. We’d discussed the popular South Korean boy band when we had last met and he doesn’t hesitate before putting me on the spot. “It’s on you to make it happen now!”
In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Bam talks about dreaming big.
Congratulations on BBKiVines’ fourth anniversary! How are you feeling about how far you’ve come in these past four years?
I still don’t feel like I’ve achieved much yet. There’s a long way to go. This is just the beginning. I’m still learning and will keep learning throughout. These four years have been like a rollercoaster ride for me because I’ve seen things that I could never have imagined and have realized that dreaming and dreaming right is the best thing and everyone should keep dreaming.
You were a musician even before you became a comedian and got into social media. Was that your big dream initially? Music?
Yes, it’s still something I really want to do in life. Because when I’m done with comedy and writing jokes, music is my escape. I turn back to my keyboard and start humming tunes. So music is still there and it comes naturally to me.
Are you currently working on any music projects?
Yeah, I’m working on a song that will be coming out this month hopefully. It’s basically a travel song called “Chhuo Na Mujhe.” I dropped a teaser of it which I recorded six months ago and used it in my vlog. And people kind of loved it. So I decided that I owed them a complete version.
Is a lot of your content still inspired by what happens to you in real life?
These 25 years, whatever I’ve ever learned in life, whatever I’ve been through… I think everything is content. Life is basically content. Especially in a middle-class household, you get so many things you can make fun of every day. Be it even a funeral! They say that there is comedy in tragedy.
As a YouTuber, you put your life out there for everyone to see, which is why so many are able to connect to you. Do you ever feel a sense of fear before you put something personal out or before you discuss something that might be controversial?
I think, unlike other YouTubers, I don’t put my personal life online. I put up stuff that most people can relate to. So whatever I put on social media or YouTube, it’s stuff that might have happened to most families in India. It’s not just my own experiences. Personal things I keep to myself.
Does that help you stay sane in the ruthless world of trolls? Recently, I experienced a lot of hate on Twitter, which really messed with my mental health. When someone with your kind of following experiences it, I’m sure it’s on a scale that is much larger. How do you disconnect yourself or move on from that negativity?
First of all, I really hate Twitter. It’s a war zone. And I think in my case, there is hatred of course. Hate is everywhere. But I don’t think there is reasonable intent to it. People abuse you for two reasons: either they really do hate you or they are seeking attention. I think the second one happens most of the time. That’s why I stopped giving a fuck about people who abuse me. I know it is very difficult… But you need to realize ki use kuch kaam nahi hai (the haters are pretty much jobless.) They’ll look at a photo of Hrithik Roshan and abuse him, they’ll abuse Shah Rukh Khan, they’ll abuse anyone.
Hearing this from you is so reassuring, because I think a lot of the time all the people who are diving into the world of social media might find it quite scary. What is the advice that you could give someone who wants to start a career like yours?
First of all, these comments and criticisms come later. All this comes from a place when you’re already a public figure. It means that you’ve made it; having haters is like a blessing. Maybe you’ve done something right that has offended someone. Most of the time people can’t digest someone else’s success. For them, everyone else’s success is… isko toh mil gaya raatoraath (he made it big overnight.) Iska toh luck bahut achha hai (he’s just lucky.) Wo pata hai iceberg ka saying, neechey ka kuch pata nahi chaltha hai? (You know the saying about the iceberg? That you only see the tip. You don’t see all the hard work behind something?) It’s the same thing. That is social media in a nutshell. People who actually adore you and respect your work, you should dedicate your time to them and to making them happy rather than satisfying the people that hate you.
What is the biggest misconception that people might have about YouTubers outside of the usual, ‘It’s not a lot of hard work’?
So people think that YouTubers mostly are living their best life. They are getting huge paychecks and ‘Unka life mast hai because unko sab cheez free mein milta hai’… Jo ki sahi hai! (They must be living their best life because they get everything for free…’ Which is kinda true!) [Laughs] The thing is YouTubers are always looking for content. That’s why they make sure their videos are gorgeous, which is why they might sometimes show things which may not be true. Not everything in the video or vlog is true; they are exaggerated. But people on the outside think, ‘Wow, what a life they’re living!’
Does the majority of your income come from YouTube?
Yeah, so the income comes from YouTube but mostly originates from the third parties we endorse or the brands we integrate.
And that’s also another task: to make content that keeps brands happy and also yourself. Do you feel like it is difficult to balance that?
No. Firstly, a creator is not a salesman. He is not supposed to write for the product, he needs to show people that he uses that product. That’ll be more than enough. Like a creator knows that if I love this product, I will show that I use this in my daily life. Then the audience will get convinced rather than if I keep repeating ‘Use this, use this, use this.’
Ours is the first generation making a living via social media. Naturally, a lot of people still don’t know what a creator’s job entails and where it is going to go. As an industry pioneer, do you think a career in social media is sustainable today?
The situation right now is a bit dicey. There are so many creators now on digital media. Everyday there are hundreds of web series coming out… I think we are reaching a saturation point where hundreds of things are happening at once. People have so many choices that nothing is exclusive anymore. I always wanted to do YouTube but looking at the current situation… I wonder what else I can do that will help me stand out from other creators. That’s the fight which keeps going on in your head. You keep thinking, ‘What should I do? Should I switch or not? What should I avoid?’ Plus the barrier between YouTube, the digital space and TV is wearing out. It’s getting blurred and everyone from the film and television industry has realized the potential of YouTube. YouTubers are working in movies, they are working in television. Five years ago you had to stand in an audition queue for everything. Now you have a digital platform where you can post anything for free and earn money. You are your own boss. You don’t need to listen to anyone to record your content. You don’t need anyone’s validation.
Something (YouTube pop star) Darshan Raval told me recently was that when he was singing and trying to audition, people said, ‘Oh ye toh bas YouTube singer hai, (Oh he’s just a YouTube singer,)’ and they didn’t take him seriously at all. As an actor and comedian, is this something you’ve experienced?
I love it when people call me a YouTuber. I don’t like it when they call me an actor. Actor matlab (is synonymous with) Bollywood. And there are so many actors there that you really can’t stand out. Being a YouTuber is a unique thing. I feel like I’m right in my own territory. If I want to make a jump, I will do something else but on YouTube because that’s my forte. A laptop screen is my forte. If they want to see me in theaters they will have to wait. If I’m being frank and honest with myself then maybe they don’t want me on a bigger screen. But I think they will always love me on a smaller screen.
Do you feel you’re more accessible on a smaller screen?
Yeah and that’s the best part! Engaging with the audience and talking to them. For example, when I do an Instagram live, I do this split screen thing. I choose four or five people at a time and talk to them. That’s the difference between digital and Bollywood. A person sitting at home will always feel like, ‘Kaash main woh actor ko choo paata, kaash mujhse baat hoti, kaash, kaash..’ Kaash hi rehta hai. (‘I wish I could connect with that actor, I wish I could speak to them, I wish, I wish…’ And it remains just a wish.) But social media is very transparent. You need to talk to them to survive on social media. It doesn’t work without feedback. That’s why social media has so much connectivity.
What’s a fan interaction that you really loved that has stayed with you?
The last seven months I’ve spent in the hospital. My father had a brain stroke. That neurology floor had many rooms and my father was in one of them. When I came out of his room, there was a kid standing outside, talking to his mother or someone and he recognized me and he said his sister had a brain stroke. She was in a similar condition to my father and going through the same things. He told me, ‘She is a big fan of yours but she hasn’t spoken, hasn’t eaten anything since a week. Can you come and talk to her?’ This was the scariest part because you feel like the entire thing is on your shoulders now. So I went into the room and when she saw me she paused a little bit, looked at me like she didn’t believe it and she sat up and started talking to me and we spoke for half an hour. During this half hour, we just told someone to get her some food. While we were talking she was eating too. That was the best one.
I just got goosebumps. That’s amazing.
I don’t know what impact creators like us have on people but I really think that this is the kind of love that everyone should share with each other. To think of yourself as a star is completely idiotic. I think you should keep your ego aside and when you start talking to your people—they genuinely admire you. The balance between the content creation and the interaction with the fans is also an art. Some people cannot manage both at once. It is tough. But not impossible. Everyone is not busy all the time. We are so vaila all the time. [Laughs]
When did you feel you sort of got a hang of this balance?
See, interacting with them comes naturally. When I post a picture, the first 15-20 minutes is just for interaction. If you have uploaded a picture, you definitely have some time and you can use it to say thank you or to say ‘I love you’ to someone. It’s easy if it comes from within. So I think I have it. You’ve always loved talking to your fans. The last time we spoke you mentioned that you’d prefer it if they spend time talking to you rather than just than taking a selfie and leaving. Talking to them… you get a reality check, to be honest. When you talk to them you realize that whatever you are thinking is just an illusion. Especially if they didn’t like a video of yours and have the guts to say it to your face… Most people avoid this — you are always surrounded by ‘yes men’. But I don’t like that. That’s why interaction is the best.
You like it when they have criticism and when they are honest with you?
You can sense when it is criticism and when it is hatred. You can sense when they are genuinely asking you to change your content or something else. A hater will always start with an abuse.
You’ve said in the past that you might make the jump to Bollywood. Do you still feel the same way?
I really want to do Bollywood… but after some time. I really want to spend some more time on YouTube and I want to do things that no one has done on YouTube. Once I’ve done that, I’ll move on.
Do you want to do more production or acting or do you want to do it all?
Acting is my main thing. Other than that, I need to do background scoring!
What’s a message you want to tell your fans?
A lot of people tell me that, ‘Mera kuch ho nahi raha (I’m getting nowhere.) We’ve lost hope. I don’t know what to do.’ That’s something that I can’t respond to. I’m really sorry for that. One thing I really believe in is that even if you are taking baby steps, it is better than stopping. So if you aren’t getting what you want now, you might get it a week later. But if you stop, you might not get it even five months later. Keep on going. People talk, they’ll say things to you, but you shouldn’t stop. If you’re really passionate about something, go for it full throttle.
Bhuvan Bam photographed by Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India
Styled exclusively in United Colors of Benetton
Hair and makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Location courtesy: Invincible Boudoir and Jardin