In consolidation of what is an established and flourishing trend in the Chennai art arena, more than 2000 memes were released on social media, to coincide with the recent release of the Vijay-starrer Master. Indeed, the release of any star-studded, big-budget film in Tamil Nadu is now inevitably accompanied by the creation and promotion of hundreds of creative memes. But did you know that the creators of these memes slog at it for at least two months before each release?
Memes are hugely popular today and Chennai has pretty much established itself as the meme capital of Tamil Nadu.
How did the culture of memes evolve in Chennai?
Memes burst into the mainstream with the Jallikattu protest as a large number of these creatives emerged to encourage more citizens to take part in the protest.
“It is not fair to credit the protest and its success to memes. At the same time, it would be unfair not to credit the memes at all. Memes played a key role in spreading the message and invoking a sense of togetherness among people,” says Vignesh, a student reformist.
There has been no looking back for meme artists since then. Roads of Chennai flooded after a drizzle? Create a meme. Tamil Nadu allows hundred per cent occupancy in movie theatres post COVID? Communicate public opinion to the government through a meme.
Memes are now an accepted form of communication in educational institutions and workplaces of Chennai, too. In a few colleges, students no longer go to offices to check the notices about important announcements! “There are official meme pages on social media where members of the college union post creatives on every development — from exam dates to cultural events,” says Harish R, Chairman, College Union Society, Madras Christian College.
Meme out the message
Even though sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek humour is the guiding force behind most memes, they can also be outlets for emotions such as anger. Most importantly, perhaps, they have become quick, effective ways of communicating information on day-to-day affairs, especially to those who may not have the palate for serious news consumption. In that sense, memes are no longer merely off-beat, but slowly occupying the space of the mainstream in Chennai.
When actor Rajinikanth quit politics, for example, hundreds of memes surfaced on social media platforms. “A few of these got more views than the news articles on Twitter. Some memes criticised and trolled the actor. Others supported him. They are crisp, bring perspective and are a perfect mode of providing news and information to millenials,” said Raghav, a meme creator, who works under the pen name Pollachi Peter.
For artists such as Raghav, Chennai is a hub of opportunities. Five years ago, creating memes was not a job that fetched a lot of money. But now the field has evolved to such an extent that famous social media pages hire full time meme artists.
Chennai memes provide content on all issues related to Chennai, either by connecting these with iconic comedy scenes from Tamil cinema, or through other pictorial representations. “It is interesting to see how movies from the 1970s or even ’60s come to the fore again with these memes. Memes have brought back to life some of the funniest scenes of Kollywood involving old time comedians Vadivelu and Nagesh,” says Abdullah Mohammed, a social media analyst.
Even though most of the memes are widely political, few of them also speak about city-based issues such as battered roads, dangling electric cables and road blocks.
The meme economy
But how do these platforms that rely on memes generate income? They rely on indirect advertising and marketing.
An inauguration of a restaurant or a fitness centre are often converted into quick memes. “It is the same concept as around advertising in print or digital media. It is more like an advertorial in newspapers, where the owners pay for promoting their spaces through these memes,” says Nandha S, a professional meme-creator.
“I earn more than Rs 25,000 for creating memes on social issues pertinent to Chennai. I get additional income if the meme goes viral,” says an employee of a famous meme page called Chennai memes.
Calling for caution
Like any form of media, the meme culture has a dark side too. Memes with foul language and vulgarity are not uncommon on social media platforms. Dark humour and lack of propriety often have a thin line of separation between them. As memes becoming an increasingly popular medium of communication, how does one ensure that line is not crossed?
“The freedom to express is what inspires people to create memes, but some amount of self-regulation and restraint has become the need of the hour, for that is the only way to deal with vulgar and inappropriate content,” says Mrs Rachel Jacob, Head of Department, Journalism, Madras Christian College.
How to be a meme artist
Memes are an artistic mode of communication, but just as with all other art forms, not all can ace it. The connection with the pulse of the crowd is what makes good or popular memes. Humour may be the most obvious strain but the issue must be relevant or appealing to a large number of citizens.
So, where could one start? The huge popularity of the brand of comedy and sarcasm by Vadivelu in Tamil Nadu is well known, and so, perhaps, “One can try Vadivelu templates to begin with,” says Allan, who creates memes for the Madras Christian College meme page.