Nestled along a non-perennial river that floods every monsoon, the people of Jahal, a small village in Odisha, spend most of their time recovering from relentless natural disasters. With a population of roughly 1100 people, Jahal is dotted with mud huts, with just a handful of concrete houses in between. One of these brick houses belongs to Badri Narayan Bhadra and his young wife Monalisa.
When you try to make your way down the winding path that leads to Badri Narayan's house, monkeys of various sizes flock around, scampering across the path and hopping along your side. For those unfamiliar with such sights, it is a bit of a shock. When Badri saw this reporter gingerly stopping on the way, he shouted from his doorstep, "Don't worry ma'am, the monkeys don't hurt anyone. They are like our family."
The truth is, the monkeys – more than 10 of them – are more than just family to Badri and his wife. They are also at the center of the couple's flourishing career as content creators. Badri's YouTube channel, named after him, has 3.5 million subscribers and his Facebook page, Bhagabat Sanctuary Forest has over 900,000 followers. And their content is entirely on animals found in the neighborhood, mostly the monkeys.
'Pet influencers' have been an integral part of the global creator landscape for years, with the people behind viral accounts like 'Tika-The Iggy' finding haute couture brand collaborations and red carpet spots at the fanciest Hollywood and global fashion events. From endorsements, event appearances to collaborations, pet influencers have set up full-fledged businesses creating content on their animals. India too has their share of privileged 'pet influencers' with the markers of affluence adorning their accounts. However, on local content-sharing platforms and Facebook, content centred around animals amass massive engagement and this content mostly comes from accounts that don't have the usual bells and whistles of 'pet influencers' as we know them.
Badri, a farmer who tried to and failed at becoming a film director in Bollywood, is one of them.
A Bollywood Struggler To Viral Content Creator
Badri and his wife Monalisa represent many content creators based out of rural India who despite their number of followers and subscribers, don't get lucrative collaboration offers like their counterparts in the metro cities or get invited to privileged spaces like five-star hotels for Creators' Day celebrations for creators with this kind of following, as they fail to adhere to the aesthetics of the rich.
Having grown up seeing his maternal uncle work in the Odiya film industry, Badri was drawn to it because of its glitz and glamour. So, after completing his B.Com in Odisha, he decided to try his luck at the National School of Drama, Delhi. After multiple attempts, he failed to get into any of the courses. However, he refused to give up.
In the same year, he moved to Mumbai and started looking for work. After months of struggling, he finally found work as an assistant on the set of a small advertisement. He spent more than a decade trying to find good work in Mumbai but his lack of academic training in filmmaking and connections, made it difficult for him to survive, he told Decode.
In 2013, he was married off and had to start thinking about his income with more urgency. In 2016, Badri, now 41-years-old, started his Youtube channel from his rented room in Goregaon (East), Mumbai.
Having been in touch with the Bollywood and Bhojpuri film industries, Badri was aware of the growing popularity of Youtubers and the opportunity of making money through the platform.
This was the same time India witnessed the fastest growth rate of 4G users owing to the cheap data packages and 4G phones launched by Reliance Jio.
Badri told Decode that his content creation journey started with purchasing the Jio 4G phone that cost him Rs. 1,500. Once he came back to his village, he realized that most people could not afford the 3G data packages, let alone high-speed internet, so, he would share his internet through a hotspot, with some of his neighbors, from that smartphone.
"I really wanted them to have access to the internet because I truly believe that it has a lot to offer,", he said.
Badri's village Jahal is organized into caste clusters. Belonging to the Kshatriya caste, all his neighbours are his relatives. Most of them are land-owning farmers.
One of the first videos Badri uploaded in 2016, when was still based in Mumbai, was of his wife Monalisa, feeding stray monkeys in their village home. The video had glimpses of his toddler son bonding with the monkeys and cows, too.
"It was a candid moment that I had shot when I was home. It seemed unique to me so I thought of uploading it on Youtube. Once people saw that, they started asking me to upload more such videos. Soon the focus point of the channel became human-animal coexistence," he said, explaining the video was not something he planned.
Badri found it rather fascinating that the monkeys they grew up shooing away, were bonding with Monalisa. It was amusing for him to see her feed them and to see them respond to her whenever she called them affectionately.
This video got over 40 million views in a week.
In less than a year the channel had met the needs of Youtube's content monetization requirement - over 1,000 subscribers and more than 4,000 hrs of watch time.
"In a matter of a few months, we were able to monetize our content on Youtube. In the first month after meeting Youtube's requirement for monetization, I received twelve thousand rupees in my bank account. After a couple of months, I was able to make a minimum of fifty thousand rupees per month", Badri told Decode. This was a far cry from the times he struggled to make rent in Mumbai as an assistant director.
When he did manage to get a job, he'd be paid around Rs 30,000 for a whole project involving many days of labour. And then, there were months he did not make any money at all.
"After paying my bills here in Mumbai, I barely had any money to save or send home. My family's sustenance depended on my share of earnings from our family's agricultural land," Badri told Decode.
Badri and his family own four acres of agricultural land, where they grow paddy, vegetables, and groundnut.
On realizing that Youtube content creation was a better and more reliable source of income than his contractual jobs as an Assistant Director, in Bollywood and Bhojpuri film industry, Badri moved back to Jahal, in the month of June 2017.
He started filming Monalisa regularly and uploading videos of her doing household chores, in the company of the monkeys named Sundri, Chulbuli and Mangal.
"The filming thing has now become a habit. All the videos on the channel are shot and edited on my smartphone. While most of them are not so challenging to shoot, owing to our comfort with these monkeys," says Badri. In addition to animal centered content, their channel is famous for showcasing Monalisa's ability to do a variety of male-dominated roles - like driving a bus, or tractor, or riding a horse, in a saree.
After money started coming in, Badri said he felt like his future lay in his home, the small village of Jahal. Having had some experience in filmmaking, he began following the online course that YouTube has on becoming a content creator.
They also make it possible for commoners to understand how they can monetize their content while adhering to all the guidelines that it has been laid down in great detail. Aspiring creators like Badri, find it quite useful to break down the illusive content creation process represented mostly by upwardly mobile, metro-cities-based creators, on these platforms.
A study by Oxford Economics has found that Youtube's creator ecosystem has contributed 6.8 INR crore to the Indian GDP and supported 6,83,900 full-time equivalent jobs in 2020. Rohin Bhaumik Director, Creators, and Talent, South Asia at Galaxy Racer, says that the creator economy is estimated to grow by nearly 10 times in the next 10 years.
From A Homemaker To A Viral Youtuber
Born in a tiny village named Dhantapara, in Cuttack, 27-year-old Monalisa grew up with her mother who was a homemaker, and her father who was a government bus driver. After completing high school, Monalisa got married to Badri in 2013. Monalisa recalled she had always had a fondness for animals, growing up. In the village she grew up, rearing goats, ducks and chickens were common and she'd often find herself taking care of the ones at her home and even strays.
A viral YouTuber now, Monalisa said she'd never heard of 'content' or knew much about YouTube when Badri started making videos.
"Badri ji found it amusing that I could feed the monkeys and that they were responding to me but I never thought that such a mundane act would go viral on the internet. I never knew that I could go viral. I didn't even know what virality was," Monalisa said.
Despite being an animal lover, prior to her marriage-induced migration to Jahal, she had never come into contact with monkeys. In her in-law's house, between chores, she would often go to the terrace and find monkeys sitting in the surrounding areas. Unlike most people, her knee-jerk reaction was not to shoo them away. Instead, she started befriending them by feeding them groundnuts.
This soon grew into a pattern where monkeys would come in troops to be fed by Monalisa. The more the monkeys came in, the more content was produced by the couple. Their videos ranged from feeding monkeys as part of their daily routine to having some of them accompany Monalisa in doing her household chores.
Gradually as the channel grew, Monalisa was seen driving buses, tractors, and even riding horses, while donning a saree.
While Badri is the mind behind the channel, Badri told Decode that it is Monalisa and her motherly affection for the monkeys that is the true selling point of their content.
Monalisa today is known to be the woman who can do it all. Badri said that he wanted to show the world that a woman can ride a Bullet in a saree, do her household chores and manage time to take care of the animals. "She is like Rani Lakshmi bai," exclaims Badri.
Monalisa, who had seen her father drive a government bus since her childhood, adapted to these roles quietly and quickly. For the videos, she drove a truck, tractor, and buses, and rode a horse, sometimes in the presence of her child-like monkey, Sundri Chulbuli.
In Badri's words, "Monalisa is what an empowered Indian woman looks like- a goddess, a mother figure, and a caregiver."
Monalisa shows no interest in the tags, she told Decode that she simply wishes to take care of these animals and to have the opportunity to explore new and different things.
An FIR and a threat to drive the animals away
The farmer and content producer, Badri told Decode that their channel grew substantially during the lockdown. "We gave the city dwellers a window into the lives of people from rural parts of India where humans and animals lived very closely. We were able to raise awareness amongst villagers that taking care of animals was important and most importantly everyone was amazed to see the monkeys respond to Monalisa and reciprocate her motherly affection".
Jahal, a farmers' village, produces rice, vegetables, and fruits, which attracts a fair number of monkeys to come and feed off the villagers' produce. They often visit the neighbouring villages and the agricultural lands during day time and move on to the next village soon after. On receiving food regularly from Badri and Monalisa, the number of monkeys in the area has increased, as told to Decode by their neighbours. The monkeys routinely visit their house or immediately appear before them whenever they are outside, assuming that they would feed them.
Villagers believe that feeding this large number of monkeys to film for their YouTube channel, Badri and Monalisa, has played a crucial role in changing the human-animal relationship in that area.
Monalisa said that during the lockdown they would regularly go out to feed the monkeys and Badri would make blogs on that. On seeing positive comments on their blogs, she felt that they were successful in spreading awareness about the need to take care of animals.
The relative permanence of the monkeys all year round started affecting the villagers. Sadanand Sahu, a farmer from Hasinpur village, told Decode that in 2021, some of the villagers, including him, had filed an FIR at the local police station asking Badri and Monalisa to stop feeding the monkeys. They also requested the local authority to allow them to take these monkeys and leave them in the forest area, as they were eating and destroying their crops.
"On hearing this I immediately met all these villagers. I tried convincing them that moving the animals from the village to a nearby forest would disrupt their lives and change their natural habitat. On persuasion and after realizing that I was filming the fight, they gave in and did not do anything to the monkeys. I wanted this to be a peaceful protest because I was afraid that in my absence they could harm the monkeys", says Badri.
The villagers, who have had monkeys come in and cause havoc, tell Decode that post that fight, they had not taken any steps because the farming season was almost over. "If this year also our crops are affected because of Badri and Monalisa's monkeys, then we will be bound to take a step," adds an agitated farmer from Hasinpur, who does not wish to be named.
An attempt to change the village's economy
With increasing involvement with the monkeys, Monalisa and Badri soon found themselves at the receiving end of distress calls. The growing popularity of their association with the monkeys made people reach out to them whenever they would find a monkey caught in an accident.
"We leave as soon as we get calls from people informing us that a monkey has been found injured," said Badri.
On such days Monalisa and Badri travel to the spot where the monkey has been found and then to the veterinary hospital which is about 30 kms away from their village. They often film how they found the injured monkey and how they are being treated by the doctor and taken care of by Monalisa.
"Mostly these accidents are a result of electrocution, as they play around areas where transformers are present, sometimes they are hurt by other monkeys or bike accidents. We try to help them but if help does not arrive on time, they lose their lives," Monalisa said.
On their channel, there are videos of Monalisa crying because of the unfortunate passing away of some monkeys.
Badri told Decode that because of this reason he decided to start a care center for the monkeys and other stray animals in his village.
"From the money that we have made because of these monkeys through Youtube, we have decided to help them in a constructive way. So, we bought a stretch of wasteland near the ghats of the Brahmani river and are in the process of constructing a building whose ground floor will be dedicated to a care center for stray animals, and the first floor will have a small studio for our production work and the larger section of the first floor and second floor for tourists who might want to visit our village," says Badri.
Badri and Monalisa's channel receive an enormous amount of love, support, and encouragement from people all over the world. Some also show great interest in visiting their remote village. Seeing this Badri realized that he could transform his small village into a tourist attraction, so he plans of getting small boats that tourists could use to move across the river and be mesmerised by the tranquility of the river, the greenery of the village and adjacent forests.
In November of 2021, Badri started his journey on Facebook as a creator. He said that the platform approached him for their Creator Partnership Course to create 15 new videos per month. He was further informed that his channel was chosen after seeing its success on Youtube. Facebook, however, had a condition: the videos had to be uploaded on Facebook first and could be shared on YouTube, only 24 hours later. And 45 days after meeting the target views, they would be paid Rs. 60,000 per month for the next 6 months.
Following a steady stream of content that was uploaded, their Facebook page Bhagabat Sanctuary, now has 917k followers from which Badri claims to make at least Rs. 70,000 a month.
While their content creation journey has been a positive experience, Monalisa and Badri are extremely wary about the collaboration offers they receive. They recall that once a collab offer came from a fraudster who sent them a link for the further process and went on to hack their Facebook account. "The hacker didn't stop there, they even posted naked pictures of women on our page and sent obscene messages to some of our followers, " says Badri.
With some help from Meta's security system, he regained access to their Facebook page and since has been careful of even opening chats that purpose any collaborative offers.
Having created a good presence on platforms like Youtube and Facebook, Badri and Monalisa also ventured to Instagram. Despite their account having 35.8K followers, it was the only platform that wasn't welcoming to the creators. The creator landscape in Instagram is almost monopolised in India by people with visible class and caste privileges. Understandably, Badri's product – wild monkeys and spontaneous Hindi commentary – did not find many takers, or sponsors.
"Instagram wasn't a platform that worked for us. We do have a fair number of followers, but we feel far more loved on platforms like Youtube and Facebook. So we decided to not waste time on Instagram and instead focus on Facebook and Youtube," says Badri.
He told Decode that they don't receive lucrative collab offers of any kind, nor do they get invited to prestigious creator day events hosted by Instagram or Youtube despite having such a huge number of followers.
"But we are happy with what we have," Monalisa said, with a smile.