x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

YouTube star films in Dubai, thanks to army of fans

Indian cult hero shoots scenes for movie he wants screened in UAE.

Wilbur Sargunaraj, India's biggest Youtube Star.
Wilbur Sargunaraj, India's biggest Youtube Star.

DUBAI // A man hailed as India's first YouTube star has spent the past week in Dubai filming an extended scene for a semi-autobiographical feature film.

Wilbur Sargunaraj, whose online hits include Love Marriage and Chicken 65, spent three days filming a sequence for his comedy-musical in the emirate.

The film is called Simple Superstar and has been made on a shoestring budget.

Shooting took place at sites including the desert village of Lehbab to an apartment in the Burj Khalifa. He also spent an afternoon singing to labourers in Al Quoz.

"Basically the premise is, what is the meaning of life or the definition of success," he said.

"For so many people, especially in South Asian countries, for them it might be coming to a fine country like Dubai [sic]."

Sargunaraj, who is from rural Madurai in Tamil Nadu, has also made dozens of how-to videos including one in which he demonstrates how to use an "eastern latrine". A third of the 1 million viewers of the video are UAE residents.

Sargunaraj distanced himself from the video last year, saying he was "not just a random person sitting on a toilet, there is some substance to this".

Laetitia de Pelichy found Sargunaraj on YouTube and became friends with him on Facebook. She took three days off work to help with the Dubai leg of the filming by driving him and his crew to different locations.

Ms de Pelichy said he lived up to his eccentric YouTube persona.

"He's hilarious; I loved him," she said. "I think he's like a Mr Bean. He's very innocent and a little naive. He sees things in a very simple, honest way and wants people to connect on that level.

"I think this movie's going to be wonderful. I can't wait."

The film was made largely through contributions from fans.

Some have cashed in their frequent-flyer miles to provide transport for the filming crew, while others have lent Sargunaraj their cars - including, in one instance, a Rolls-Royce - to use in the filming. Actors in the film are also volunteers.

He has a huge grassroots fan base he has gathered under a "Wilbur World Wide" project to improve people's "cultural intelligence".

"Everyone is giving, this whole film is a big community project," Sargunaraj said. "We don't have a budget, we're making it with whatever we get.

"Having people like that believing in you when no one else seems to know, it's really wonderful."

Sargunaraj flew to Chennai on Wednesday night to begin the next stage of filming. Post-production will take place in the late summer and the film will probably be ready by October.

Sargunaraj said he hoped the film would be shown at a film festival in the UAE next year.

The film, a road trip, will be a spin on the traditional Bollywood musical with his songs spread through the story.

In one scene he appears as a superhero, taking on bullies in the street with martial arts moves, while in another he consoles friends who have been drafted in by their parents to an arranged marriage.

Sargunaraj said that in the movie he wanted to live up to his motto of "making the common extraordinary".

"No matter whether you live in the Burj Khalifa or you are a labourer, we are all human, and this film is a celebration of humanity," he said.

mcroucher@thenational.ae