It is because the Indian diaspora is always finding ways to stay closer to its culture, says Sidhu, 31, who was born in a small town of Jagraon in Punjab and raised in New York by his immigrant parents. Toor, 29, agrees. Born in Malaysia to Punjabi parents, she grew up in California where they enrolled her into bhangra classes while she was in school. “We would also visit a gurdwara every Sunday.”
Besides ensuring children don’t forget their culture, Indian immigrant parents are also known to obsess over their education. Traditionally, that has implied having a career in medicine. In a recent video series, comedian Hasan Minhaj (born to Indian immigrant parents in California) asked Indian American kids: “Is medicine still a thing?” He got a response in the affirmative. Even Minhaj had applied for pre-med in college, he admitted later in that conversation.
Little wonder then that Sidhu and Toor studied medicine in college. But a few years ago, they did something unconventional that went against what their parents were pushing for. They decided to forsake their medical careers to pursue their dream of becoming an artiste.
“Growing up, I was heavily influenced by singer Malkit Singh and would dress up like him,” says Sidhu, a trained adult and child psychiatrist. In 2014, he decided to build a career in music alongside work. Today, Sidhu’s music videos rake in millions of views on. Last year, he performed for live music shows across the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and even Norway. He charges $6,000 per show, and practices psychiatry 3-4 days a week.
Toor, a former medical assistant, decided to go the whole hog in 2016. Now, she is a fulltime Bollywood and bhangra choreographer. Toor has a million subscribers on her You-Tube channel and another half a million on Instagram, is the brand ambassador for a USbased ethnic fashion label, and frequently collaborates with various Indian and international brands. Next week, she is launching her own merchandise with the tagline “Nachna te nach” (If you want to dance, dance).
As children of Indian immigrants, Toor and Sidhu are among a rising cohort of young first-generation foreign citizens who are leaving stable jobs to become. In the process, they are giving up well-paying jobs and careers to focus on their dreams — often quashing the dreams of their immigrant parents.
Sidhu’s family, he recalls, had categorically instructed him to stick to medicine when he started with his dual life. Toor says: “Our parents come and struggle so that we get a proper education. They live for that. Seeing me drop out of a medical career worried my parents a lot. I was lucky they didn’t disown me.”
Indian immigrant parents are known to have crazy expectations, says Zubin Damania, 46, an erstwhile physician. “I am the oldest of three children in the family but sometimes my parents consider me the only child because the other two are not doctors,” he quips.
Damania was born in New Jersey to Parsi doctors who immigrated from Pune in 1970. He grew up in California, in the midst of the Punjabi and Gujarati diaspora. In 2010, Damania, then an assistant professor of medicine atMedical Centre, started to feel he was burning out. To channelise his frustration at work, he decided to create parody videos exposing flaws in medical practices on his YouTube channel ZDoggMD. In 2015, he decided to focus on the content gig full time and see patients on the side for free. It was a tough pill to swallow for his doctor parents, he says.
Their criticism mellowed only after they saw the impact he was making on the healthcare community. Today, Damania’s channel has millions of followers across Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. He conducts a live Q&A session onevery night. Over 6,000 subscribers pay $5 a month to participate in these sessions. In the past few years, several healthcare brands have approached him for collaboration.
Damania says he would have been making $300,000 a year now had he stuck to being a physician all these years. He concedes the money flow can be cyclical and the fame fleeting in the gig economy. He doesn’t regret it though. “Creative burnout is real, too, but the community you build helps you bounce back,” adds Damania.
The lure of the content gig isn’t confined to the Indian diaspora in the US alone. In Dubai, Gaurav Chaudhary, 28, a certified security professional, has been uploading two videos a day on his YouTube channel, Technical Guruji, for the last four years. Here, Chaudhary talks about all things tech in Hindi. Even when Chaudhary manages the channel alongside a full-time security systems business, Technical Guruji has managed to attract over 14 million subscribers so far. Besides this, Chaudhary also runs a lifestyle channel on YouTube that has amassed close to 3 million subscribers within two years. Over 90% of his subscribers are people based in India, making him a magnet for brands. He has collaborated with every leading smartphone brand and done several campaigns for Emirates airline. “The Indian crowd is a huge business for these companies, especially during international sports leagues when they want to target travellers from the country,” says Chaudhary, who was born in Ajmer before his parents decided to move to Dubai.
Money isn’t a bother, it seems. “Several people speculate how much I make in a year. Recently I heard it is Rs 2 crore a month.” Chaudhary neither confirms nor denies that claim, but says there is no fixed income. “Money hardly matters as I am pursuing this as a hobby.”
London-based NRI YouTuber who goes by the initials AB, is also choosing user growth over revenue at present. The 28-year-old was born in Navsari in Gujarat and raised in Belgium and the UK. Three years ago, she left her marketing job to focus on her lifestyle channel called Laughing Ananas (Ananas is Hindi for pineapple). “While the Indian community back home supported my decision, the diaspora found my videos cringeworthy at first.”
Over time, she won them over too. Laughing Ananas now has 139,000 subscribers. Brands from both India and the UK often reach out to her for collaborations. “A UK-based brand offers £2,000 for a reach of 25,000 views, whereas Indian brands tend to pay Rs 40,000 for 100,000 views.” Even the YouTube ad revenue goes up if the viewership is from the US or the UK. But growth in subscribers comes from India, she says.
Besides Damania, whose content is targeted at the global healthcare community, most of these people make content for the Indian audience — both back home and across the world. That said, even ZDoggMD resonates with the South-Asian medical community within and outside the US. “After the attack on medical students in West Bengal earlier this year, the Indian medical community asked me to take it up in my videos,” he says.
For the rest, absence from the homeland doesn’t make the heart grow fonder.
Sidhu, popularly known as “Amreeke aala Sidhu” (Sidhu from America), says that 50% of his audience is
from India but he covers only 10% of the Indian audience that consumes Punjabi music. “He is so popular in countries like the UK and the US that if he were to step out in any of the Indian neighbourhoods there, people would throng him for selfies,” says Gurpreet Singh Bhasin, cofounder of Multi-Channel Network One Digital Entertainment, who has worked with several Punjabi artistes. “We struggle to even promote our work in India. And that is our primary market,” Sidhu says.
For Toor, knowing which songs are trending the Punjabi heartland is a daily struggle. AB works hard to make her videos in Hindi (even when it is not her first or second language) because her audience prefers it. In Dubai, Chaudhary keeps tabs on the latest trends in Indian pop culture to incorporate them in his videos. “If there is a Guruji meme from Sacred Games doing the rounds, I have to capitalise on it to stay connected to my audience,” he says.
Sometimes, the distance makes children of Indian immigrants reverse migrate. Take the case of Lisa Mishra, who quit her data analyst job in Chicago and relocated to Mumbai to pursue a career as a singer. Last May, her amateur YouTube video of Veere Di Wedding’s famous track Tareefan caught the attention of the film’s co-producer Rhea Kapoor.
Mishra, 25, agreed to Kapoor’s request to fly down to Mumbai to properly record and release her version of the track. The success of the track helped Kapoor convince Mishra — who was born in Odisha before her parents decided to migrate — to leave her $70,000-a-year job and take up singing full time. “As a child of immigrants, I was more concerned about the shift than my parents,” Mishra says. In the last one year, though, she has done 25 music shows, signed up with a popular music label, and sung tracks for mainstream movies like Judgemental Hai Kya and The Sky Is Pink. “Many diaspora stars, like Manj Musik, have relocated to India in the past. The trend is likely to follow in the future, too,” says Bhasin of One Digital.
Meanwhile, their popularity has sparked a parallel movement the creators didn’t envisage — of instilling hope in diaspora students that they can tread unconventional career paths. “I get Instagram direct messages from Southeast Asian diaspora kids asking my advice on making that switch every day,” says Mishra. “Those are the messages I do try to answer. It is something you owe to the community you belong to.”