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Viral Fever

Fever dreams

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An online humour video channel run by IIT alumni pokes fun at the idiot box.

On the wall behind Arunabh Kumar's chair is an empty speech bubble. It gives him the aura of a comic strip character whose silence is a remark. Kumar says he is making a statement on Indian television. For a long time, the 29-year-old has been quietly enduring the torments of the medium. He loves her but she only mocks his passion with mediocre fare and unfunny jokes. For an IIT Kharagpur graduate - who can find humour as proficiently as he can find the value of x - this was torture. So, last year, Kumar enlisted the help of other IITians and launched a rebellion called The Viral Fever (TVF), India's biggest online youth entertainment network.

"It was the result of jilted love," confesses Kumar, who is currently conspiring with other spurned IITians to come up with characters such as Serial Killer - someone who murders the audience's interest with his unending TV serial. Among the spurned lovers, are Sameer Saxena who can mimic cricketers, Vipul Goyal who feels everyone on Facebook has a dark past called Orkut, Prashant Raj who calls Naarad Muni the god of virals and Deepak Mishra, who has become somewhat bigger than the aggressive Raghu of MTV by shouting at people for no reason.

TVF caught the attention of netizens with a hilarious spoof of an MTV Roadies audition titled Rowdies 9 last February. "We have nothing against Roadies, but we couldn't understand why people go bonkers over it, " says Kumar whose video shows, a bald, goateesporting Mishra screaming at a contestant for trivial reasons. At one point, Mishra even calls the contestant "a racist" for not knowing the name of the vice-president of Tunisia. Today, a year and various other original virals later, have evolved into a network with 21 videos, over 49, 000 YouTube subscribers and umpteen college fest invites. "Unlike television's TRP ratings, these aren't arbitrary numbers, " says Raj, who takes pride in his ability to crunch numbers and do scientific research. "These surveys helps us decode the mind of the youth and tailor our material accordingly, " he says, adding that most youngsters today have no "TV memory. They don't remember any series. "

Many of TVF's core members have had a strained history with television channels. Like the rest of the world, this industry too considered them to be snooty on account of their educational qualifications. Their knowledge became a form of delinquency. Maybe that's why all TVF videos begin with the TVF logo crushing a TV set. Raj, who was the content producer for a TV channel remembers 40-year-old executives dismissing him on the belief that "I must be a snob and not very serious about creative work, " he says. Saxena, who writes for a reality show, even recalls a programming head telling him: "Don't evolve. " "They don't realise that talent has nothing to do with education, " says Saxena, who now avoids the acronym 'IIT' in his introduction.

In many ways, this acronym has been responsible for the growth of their funny bone. In the cultural cauldron called IIT campuses, the boys found themselves interacting with students from Tamil Nadu to J&K. From misplaced smileys to social nights that almost always oscillated between Sonu Nigam and death metal, nothing missed their hungry eye - a habit that manifested itself recently in viral spoofs titled 'Gangs of Social Media' and 'Gaana wala Song'. In fact, IIT was also the place where Vipul Goyal met a first-year boy who thought his father was a virgin.

When Goyal, a standup comic, announces that he studied electrical engineering at IIT, it gives him only a minute's elevation but after that, he says he has to prove himself with his jokes. "I am not five point someone. But in my tests, I was a point five someone, " he often says. The latter is also roughly the percentage of students who were involved in cultural activities in his college. "So it was easy to overestimate one's own talent. Everyone would laugh at my jokes. " To do a talent check, Goyal performed in the real world and passed.

He now does 15 shows a month where he talks about everyone from Indian gods to Indian dads and even headlines the 75 to 90-minute segment called TVF Night Out in college festivals. Candidates at the personality contest are grilled in the fashion of MTV's Roadies auditions, complete with a written test and a personal interview. Here, Raghu's impersonator Mishra finds excuses to scream at students. "If they draw inside the box, I ask them to think "outside the box", " says Mishra, who even got mobbed in an institute in Tiruchi. Allowing first year students to rag seniors and teasing engineering boys who try to impress girls by volunteering to finish their assignments, is also par for the course.

"Why should anyone trust us with creativity until we prove it?" asks Goyal, who finds the apprehensions of the entertainment industry against IIT graduates fair. TVF, though, seems to have earned its credentials. Where TV channels once doubted them, companies like UTV and Viacom are now approaching TVF, which is currently comparing Sunny Deol with the Hulk and contemplating a superhero called 'Break Up Sid'. There are also plans to come out with a unique TV channel. "If we are half as funny as we think we are, we would be twice as funny as we should be, " concludes Raj and for a change, lets you do the math.

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