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Where popular protest art goes mainstream, The Times of India. Dated, 19th December, 2016

When Sofia Ashraf rapped `Kodai kanal Won’t’ in 2015, Chennai woke up and took notice.The music video, which addresses mercury pollution in Kodaikanal from Unilever’s thermometer factory, became a viral hit overnight. Today the video has more than 38 lakh hits on YouTube and has taken protest art mainstream.

Ashraf is just one of many artists, hosted by media brand PutChutney and Blush.

“Both India and the US today have become very polarised. There are people taking to social media in large numbers with radical views. They troll, they hate, they drown and debate. We are trying to counter that with our brand.We want a more plural culture, alternate viewpoints and healthy debates,” said Venkat Prasad, co-founder, Culture Machine.

Started in June 2013 by Sameer Pitalwalla, an ex-Disney executive, and Venkat Prasad, who was earlier with YouTube -Culture Machine now has diverse verticals.With clips and long-format programming in music, plays, satire, comedy, news and lifestyle, Culture Machines’ brand get more than 700 million clicks a month.

Prasad, who has had stints with Google, Yahoo and Intuit, worked for many years in creative content and digital marketing before deciding to venture out on his own.”When I met with Sameer, we clicked. He had the same passion for digital that I did. I came back to India to start Culture Machine with him,” said Prasad.

Sameer Pitalwalla also felt the need for better digital content in India. “We wanted to showcase new artists. Bring fresh thoughts, better music and hip-stuff to the table,” said Pitalwalla.

Within a few months, videos produced by Culture Ma chines started going viral.

In 2014, the startup got its series A funding of $3.5 mil lion from Singapore-based venture capital fund Zodius Capital. The next year, the company raised $18 million in its second round of fund ing, from Tiger Global, Zodius Capital and Times Internet.

A lover of Bharathiar po ems, Kambaramayanam, Athichuvadi, Thirukurral, Prasad said he always wanted the company to be a melting pot of different cultures.

“My love for classic litera ture was fostered by my great aunt Lakshmirajam. A kalaimamani award winner, Lakshmirajam was a classi cal dancer who went on to star in more than 60 movies with heroes like MGR, Chandra Babu,” said Prasad.

Culture Machine also hopes to bring to India what Trevor Noah’s Daily Show brings to American critique of Trump politics. “We strongly believe the media should be independent. That is why we had songs, plays, satirical works on issues like Cauvery, women’s rights,” said Prasad. Adding that they were even threatened with personal violence, arrest many times.

With extreme voices having stronger sway on social media, Culture machine hopes to ensure that more rational voices are head.

“Sometimes our own team members don’t have the same views. When the NOTA debate started with Tamil Nadu elections, some of us had opposite stands.
And our song “En Vote Unakillai” captures that,” said artist Sofia Ashraf in an earlier interview with TOI. “Sometimes it just about respecting a different view point.”
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