Readers Write In #225: Keeping Up With Vanitha Vijaykumar

Posted on July 22, 2020


(by H Prasanna)

Vanitha, who began her career as an actress, has cemented herself as a true maverick of reality TV in Tamil Nadu with her new YouTube channel and (now closed) Insta account. This is decidedly not reality television in terms of production and narrative control. It is a gossip column news story elevated spiritually to reality television by the personality of Vanitha, and the reactions she elicits and sometimes demands. Vanitha’s YouTube channel started off as a cookery show with some make-up tips and her other lifestyle expertise showcased occasionally. It is replete with cheesy clickbait captions, images, and trailers. The show itself, until recently, was mostly done with one shaky handheld camera with limited graphics and cuts, and sometimes featured direct uploads of recorded Insta live sessions. Her style is conversational, without the trappings of the more rigorous cookery shows. She has put this together using experiences from her own fraught history with the media and her appearances on Big Boss and a cookery show.

But I was not there for the cooking, I was there for the full and fierce personality. And oh my, she doesn’t disappoint. The shows are all Vanitha, as they should be: Her relationship with her two daughters, their fierce loyalty, love, banter, and camaraderie, and snippets of her past full of rich, emotional, sometimes tragic, experiences. The devastating circumstances of her personal journey are intertwined with her foray into social media and TV, particularly YouTube. She owns all of her past and with herself at the helm, shows us how she has matured and taken control of life in front of the camera. She picks her fights and targets (only fights when she is attacked), knows her product positioning and audience (constantly interacting with them), and never, ever, lets her guard down. Sure of herself in every opinion and constantly teasing viewers with unnamed celebrity gossip, she is a towering and slightly intimidating presence.

And like much of the best reality shows, the conflicts arising from relationships, especially spousal relationships, are the most engaging. Vanitha herself would not and did not package it as reality TV. After all, the events on which Vanitha comments in all her videos are from her real life, not her production house (not yet, as her brand is building steadily to a more holistic production house). But reality TV viewing itself is akin to being the weird cousins who showed up at the wedding of truth and fiction. We slowly start commenting on the reactions to the events and lose track of why we’re there. It is the experience of a third-party who stumbled upon something everyone was talking about, but no one knew how to define. As Vanitha herself says several times, “there is no Big Boss this season, so people have turned towards my life for community engagement.” A turn of events after her wedding and how Vanitha takes charge fascinatingly binds her life events in this time period and the reactions to it as reality TV. The conflict and conversations that happen with Vanitha outside this YouTube channel turns it into reality TV gold (at par with Keeping up with Kardashians and Real Housewives of Atlanta).

<Spoilers Ahead>

I am only giving a broad overview of the events because I don’t want to spoil it (Yes, I really do want everyone to watch it chronologically in Vanitha’s channel!). The cookery et al show turns into a celebration of her relationship with none other than the cameraperson (with a nice arc involving her brushing off her viewers whenever they comment asking about him). The lockdown love story culminates into her dream wedding (where she finally gets to wear a white dress). Her partner, the cameraperson, is separated, but not divorced, from a previous marriage. His separated wife goes on camera and to the police station to get him back for their son and daughter. The seperated wife story gains traction with some celebrity support on social media. Vanitha launches into a campaign to regain control of her privacy and personal life with an-hour-and-half long tirade (“Are you a journalist? Why should I answer your questions?” Vanitha asks) in which she barely lets the interviewer talk. Enter Lakshmy Ramakrishnan. She has taken the side of the separated wife. Vanitha interviews her partner so that he can say his side of things. After this interview features on Vanitha’s channel, Lakshmy orchestrates an interview with a third-party channel and talks to his separated wife. Now, this third party attempts to interview Vanitha and Lakshmy, in which Vanitha ambushes Lakshmy in an absolutely unapologetic expletive-laden attack. As of this writing, Vanitha is happily married, living with her partner and two daughters. She continues to make videos out of her house to post on her YouTube channel with more than 500,000 followers.

<End of spoilers>

The narrative of this fallout from her personal life is anchored and controlled brilliantly by Vanitha’s expert understanding of her own brand, its relationship to her audiences, and the weaknesses of the third-party channels. For some context, take the Karan Johar reality dating show and Indian Matchmaking in Netflix, which are unengaging and underwhelming. The conflicts aren’t nearly as interesting or “characters” as inspired. The reality stars are not allowed to be nearly as brave, or bring themselves out so fully with everything they do, as Vanitha.

Reality shows need strongly opinionated people whose superficiality is amusing and depth of character mostly confusing. The bite of the reality show crescendoes with the big ugly fight: The day the dam breaks and people say things they don’t want to and don’t know how to. Great reality stars make you feel it. The attacker’s rage is burning into your head when the helplessness of the victim is at the pit of your stomach. All the while you are thinking the attacker has a point and the victim is not blameless. And you’re thinking all this is amped up behind the screens and both parties know they don’t mean what they are saying. Even if they do, they are performing for us, who fully understand this and want them to be as amusing, confusing, loud, and full of themselves as they can be. Vanitha’s story could be packaged as reality TV for millions by Netflix or some other platform. I only hope Vanitha’s pioneering efforts in this regard flourish into so much more for herself and packaging of reality shows in India. The participants of reality shows fuel the engaging conflict with their personal lives as the underlying asset which the production houses leverage. It is high time that they receive bulk of the credit and rewards for their efforts.