In the run-up to International Women's Day 2023 on March 8, Slurrp is profiling female content creators who are flexing their prowess with food online. In Part 1, we hear the stories of four women for whom the act of eating has become a powerful way to foster a creative and rewarding digital footprint.
ON A STUFFY AFTERNOON in Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow, three sisters are squeezed together on a Scooty. As they halt at a signal, a car pulls up next to them and its passengers excitedly point at the girls, and get out so each of them can take a photo with the sisters. “This recognition is a very big thing for me,” says 26-year-old Kalpana Verma, the eldest of the three. “It makes me feel like Shah Rukh Khan when someone recognises me and asks for a photo. It’s a very feel-good vibe,” she adds.
The Verma sisters' claim to fame is food. The girls are YouTube sensations, creating mukbang videos. Mukbang is a genre of videos, originating from South Korea, where hosts eat a large quantity of food in front of a camera, while also interacting with the audience. Among the most popular mukbang videos is one where a woman is seen eating jelly, gummies, cookies and other colourful treats, which has amassed over 431 million views. She’s also focused on the sounds she’s creating, with ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) — the tingly feeling that runs down one’s spine when one hears whispers or other particular sounds — often being a big part of mukbang videos.
In India as well, mukbang creators do well in terms of numbers. Kalpana and her sisters’ channel Foodie Bobby, started in December 2017, has over 49,000 subscribers. The sisters treat this channel as a hobby, but are rather consistent when it comes to uploading content. Among their most popular videos is one where Kalpana and the middle sister Deepika visit KFC and engage in an eating challenge; the youngest, Anamika, is behind the camera. The winner finishes her meal box in 5 minutes and 22 seconds. The video has over 1.6 million views and a barrage of positive comments.
Another genre that calls upon recording oneself eating is food vlogging. There is, for instance, Priyanka Tiwari, whose eponymous YouTube channel has 2.67 million subscribers. She travels to places like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Ahmedabad, among others, taking her viewers through the street food, eating on camera, while also reviewing it and offering insights. She also does themed tasks, like monetary challenges where she must feed herself within a budget of Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 for a 24-hour period, a colour food challenge (where she must eat food of only one colour throughout the day), and challenges involving trying a variety of different foods.
To differentiate herself from other vloggers following a similar format, Priyanka, a former television actress, decided to engage in impromptu conversations with the people around her. “Along with food, you’re giving people entertainment,” she says, adding that given her background, she never had to struggle with camera shyness. “My views suddenly shot up. I realised that people want to see this,” she observes.
Priyanka started uploading videos to her channel in 2017. “By that time Jio had launched its services and everyone had access to the internet. I could see that people were moving away from television and that this would be the next big thing.” Since then, she has been learning and improvising. Today, she treats YouTube like her business, working with a team to ensure everything from planning and ideating to shooting, editing, and engaging with audiences happens smoothly. Although pay on YouTube depends on the number of views and there’s not as much stability as a traditional 9-5, she still manages to earn herself a comfortable living from the videos. “I was at the peak of my acting career when I quit and shifted to YouTube. It was scary, but we have to take risks in life, otherwise we won’t grow,” she says.
There are several newer creators who, like Priyanka, hope to make a living off of YouTube. Among them is 45-year-old Alka Karotia, who started making videos two years ago. On her channel Explore with Alka, she started off with cooking videos, but soon realised that the space was too crowded, and shifted instead to vlogging about food. Among the Navi Mumbai resident’s most popular videos are the ones where she visits different eateries, like Sion’s Gurukripa and Zaveri Bazaar’s Khau Galli, offering detailed information about the food and services, and eating on camera. “Lockdown caused our business to collapse. Now my husband and I are both working full-time on YouTube, although it’s not enough to make a living yet,” she explains.
With 19,000 followers, although satisfactory monetary returns are still some ways away, Alka has found her channel to be a tremendous motivator in her personal life. Between being on screen and getting recognised on the streets by viewers, she realised that “I have to be presentable all the time, for myself.” To this end, her work has motivated her to invest more time and effort in self-care, from looking after her hair and skin to regularly practising yoga to balance out the eating she’s doing, and feeling generally more confident.
EVEN AS these creators are gaining interesting life experiences from their videos, from fame and money to confidence and a platform to talk about food, something they’re passionate about, viewers are also gaining in abundance. “Hats off to you girls, it takes guts to eat like this in front of everyone,” comments a woman under one of the videos. In a patriarchal society like India, seeing women eat so openly and unapologetically, and genuinely enjoying themselves through the process, allows other women to live vicariously through their experiences. Seeing women eat freely is also a new experience for several men. As one man comments: “One thing I absolutely love about you is that you are not like those girls who unnecessarily feel shy about eating food.”
Partaking in these videos by watching them is also a way of celebrating India’s diverse foods and local cultures and cuisines. “Our country is like heaven for foodies. Every state has its own speciality,” comments one user. These videos are a means to relive past happy food experiences and explore and learn about new places. “I used to visit this restaurant frequently during the 90s and have unlimited food. If I recall, that time it [unlimited thali] was priced at Rs 50 and limited was Rs 15. One of the best hotels in Mumbai,” recalls one commenter. And “Thank you for bringing this restaurant to my notice. I frequently visit Mumbai and am always in search of such food places. Will be eating in this restaurant next time. Thanks again. Cheers from Ahmedabad,” says another.
For many viewers, it’s also a way of having company while they eat themselves. “Whenever we eat food, we put on videos of other mukbangers and then we eat,” says Kalpana, who’s as much a viewer as she is a creator. Some see the creators as potential friends and feel a warmth towards them. “You were both looking cute while eating,” notes one comment. And another simply appreciates that food is being talked about: “My mouth is watering.”
These women point at the central place food holds in people’s lives as the reason this entire video ecosystem is thriving. “People love food. It plays a very important part in everyone’s lives,” says Deepika. “If I’m upset or in a bad mood, I want food,” she adds, talking about the comfort it offers. “Whatever profession someone belongs to, and whatever age they are, people like food,” says Kalpana. Irrespective of whether one identifies as a foodie or not, one will certainly have memories and beliefs related to food. Positive or negative, it plays an undeniable role in every living being’s life. And videos like these become spaces to find like-minded people and partake in a shared celebration of food.
WHEN EATING FOR A LIVING, it’s also important to balance it out to maintain one’s health. For instance, Deepika spends between two and two-and-a-half hours at the gym every day. Alka makes it a point to do yoga at least five days a week. And Priyanka focuses on detoxing and eating healthy home food on the days she’s not shooting. But Kalpana, after shooting one of the videos, was almost on the verge of being hospitalised. “I ate very spicy food for a challenge and it was unbearable. The doctor told me to stop for at least a year. That’s why you won’t see me in the more recent videos.” But work takes priority, and after the break, she’ll soon be coming back on screen.
She has also had to deal with innumerable instances of being called ugly and has been accused of overacting multiple times. “At the start it was very traumatising because people would also be abusive and use very, very dirty words,” Kalpana recalls. But her family has been deeply supportive and encouraging of the videos she’s making with her sisters and over time, she learnt to deal with the hate and take it in her stride. “Today, those same people are my followers and supporters. I didn’t respond negatively or react to their comments at the time, and that’s what mattered in the end,” she says.
Likewise, Priyanka also puts her work first. She regularly has to deal with comments about her looks and how she’s put on weight since her television days. “But I always reply to comments, even the nastiest ones. That’s the way to connect with audiences,” she says. “Male influencers can go and meet viewers in every city. But as a woman, I’m not comfortable doing meet and greets, because I’m not sure about the type of people that’ll show up,” she explains. Engaging with viewers takes priority and Priyanka lets the hate roll off her back.
Whether these women approach food on YouTube as vloggers or mukbangers, and treat their channel as a business or a hobby, there’s one thing tying them together — they keep going. Through the lockdowns, challenges and personal affronts, through unbridled hate and stress about numbers, they take everything in their stride and continue creating content.
Their love for food and passion for creating content related to it is bigger than all the lows that come their way. It’s refreshing to see them celebrating and enjoying food, challenging the age-old stereotype of women only enjoying salads and water. In a patriarchal society, in the face of the repugnant gender stereotypes attached to eating habits, these videos serve as yet another reminder of the universality of food.
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Explore With Alka