‘You Should Be Yourself.’ How a Viral YouTube Star Is Embracing His Indian Roots

When Indian YouTuber Ajey Nagar steps out of his house, even in the sweltering summer heat, he wears a black hoodie to disguise himself. Nearly 7 million people subscribe to the 19-year-old’s YouTube channel, and Nagar is regularly accosted by teen fans. “I can’t go to malls or restaurants,” Nagar tells TIME from his studio in Faridabad, a city bordering the Indian capital of New Delhi. (The team use part of his family home to produce Nagar’s popular comedy sketches.)

Popularly known as CarryMinati, Nagar posted his first video on YouTube at the age of 10. He successfully tried his hand at video game live streaming, before finding his niche in 2016: producing diss tracks taking on what he calls, “cringe-worthy” user-generated videos on platforms like Facebook and TikTok. Since then, his channel has taken off, in part because of soaring Internet access in India, Nagar says. Some 500 million Indians are already online, making India the world’s second-largest online market, and nearly 900 million others could be joining them soon.

India is also home to a massive YouTube craze. With about 265 million monthly users, India overtook the U.S. in 2018 to become the country with the biggest YouTube audience in the world. And with his energetic presentation style and Hindi lyrics, Nagar is now one of the most followed YouTubers in India.

His career got a massive boost in January when his diss track against controversial Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg, popularly known as PewDiePie, went viral. With over 95 million subscribers, PewDiePie has been in a race against Indian music record label company T-Series to retain his title of most subscribed YouTube channel. The two channels have since surpassed each other several times in a subscriber battle that has gained global attention.

CarryMinati in his studio at home in Faridabad, India, April 25, 2019.
Smita Sharma for TIMECarryMinati in his studio at home in Faridabad, India, April 25, 2019.

But many Indians, including Nagar, took offense when PewDiePie released a video that mocked the use of broken English by an Indian man. (PewDiePie has been criticized for his “ironic” use of anti-Semitic imagery, and racist and sexist language.) In a Jan. 1 video titled “Bye PewDiePie,” Nagar raps in Hindi to tell PewDiePie that “one day, India will rule the whole world.” His goal, he says, was to inspire Indians to stand up to anyone who ridiculed their culture and embrace their identity instead.

That motivation has been a driving force for Nagar to produce videos in Hindi, one of India’s 22 official languages and spoken as a first or second language by more than half of India’s population. Although India is the second largest English speaking country in the world, studies suggest that most Indians prefer to access the Internet and online videos in their own regional languages.

That’s the audience Nagar is reaching. Despite a brief tryst with Hollywood celebrities—he interviewed Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill to help promote their film Mission: Impossible- Fallout in India last year—Nagar feels no compulsion to switch to English. He believes his popularity lies in his ability to stay connected to his roots and he remains reluctant to change in order to appeal to Westerners. “I want to send out the message that you should be yourself,” Nagar says. “If you try to be someone else, you won’t find acceptance.”

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