The host of India's popular online chat show, Chai with Lakshmi, talks about technology and her focus on "people making a difference."

She’s the face behind Chai with Lakshmi, an online chat show about people and ideas shaping India for the future. Former model, marketing consultant and social worker Lakshmi Rebecca started the show in 2011, at age 30. Since then, her YouTube-only show has had over 110 ‘webisodes’ and 2.8 million views, mostly from within India, and has won several awards. 

This girl from Hyderabad grew up in Chennai, studied and worked in the UK, and moved to Bangalore in 2009, where she and her boutique film-production firm Red Bangle are now based. She tells her story to Prasanto K Roy.

Why the Internet?

For someone without a television or show-hosting background, the web is the way to go: low-cost, quick-start-up, without the entry barriers of TV. 

Isn’t it limiting in India, with just 15 million broadband users? And 200 million mobile data users who don’t watch video?

Yes, the Internet is limiting for video in India today, but that’s going to change. It’s a matter of time before broadband reaches a bigger part of our population, and when that happens, we’re going to be there with great content. This is a game for the long haul.

Did you start the film-production business later?

Yes, that came later. Chai with Lakshmi was first, and I guess I’d expected the show to take off and make me a lot more money than it has. But that’s okay. You start with a nice idea and along the way you realize that something else needs to be your bread and butter. It all works out if you have an open mind. 

So the production service is funding your show?

No, the show is now breaking even, and is a year from being profitable. We get sponsors, and Google AdSense revenue cushions some expenses. And our production business is very profitable.

You did many things in your twenties, before this show…

Social work in the poorest slums of South India, social research for documentary films for BBC and Discovery…seven years of all this led me into a burnout. I stumbled into modeling, and then anchoring. Then I took a break for a post-grad in marketing in the UK, and started consulting to local businesses there.

And did any of this help when you took on a chat show?

Yes, the skillsets I’d acquired came together in creating Chai With Lakshmi. And then we became good at making films, so people said ‘We like what you’re making, so can you make films for us?’ and that’s how Red Bangle happened.

What was the learning curve like?

I’d worked in marketing, I understood digital, I’d worked on documentary films. The skill I did not have, film direction, I acquired gradually. After we got on board our first employee, we started doing it all in-house. We made web videos, then ad films and corporate films and animation. So it’s been a journey of learning and improving. I now absolutely love film-making, though it’s hard work.

Do you use consumer cameras, or professional equipment?

We don’t use traditional video cameras, but professional digital SLRs. We mostly shoot with the Canon 5D Mark III or Mark II, whichever’s available. We hire the cameras—there’s no point owning things that will get obsolete in six months.

An SLR is an unusual choice for a film-maker…

Look at the finish, depth, color richness and flexibility it gives! And it’s small enough to carry around easily.

What production tools do you use?

A Mac Pro runs our editing suite, Apple’s Final Cut Pro. We use Photoshop for graphics, and CorelDRAW or Illustrator, and After Effects for special effects. It’s a lean setup with the usual video and graphics software, nothing out of the ordinary.

Consumer tech is really powerful today…has that helped you?

It would be time consuming with pure consumer equipment. Our videos are HD, and several gigabytes each. We’ve made 230 films in the three years. So we need robust hardware and software and lots of storage.

What does an episode cost to make?

If I were to bill for it, salaries and all, it would be about $2,000 an episode. We don’t do vanilla interviews. If I’m doing a show on low-cost incubators for babies, we spend time on research, our crew travels to where they’re being used, and grabs footage, and then we travel back and edit it. There are voice overs, music, all the social media activity…it’s a week of work on each episode.

What was the toughest part of your journey?

Going it alone as an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t want to start up again on my own. It makes it way harder than if you had someone in it with you.

What’s your top challenge today?

We’re growing. Growth challenges are different. More projects, bigger projects come in, and you have to deliver, maintain quality, train the team on processes, ensure that client communications are professional. So as a services business, growth brings those kinds of challenges.

So are you hiring?

Maybe we’d want to hire a couple of people, but then I don’t want to scale in a big way. I want to be boutique, to be really good at what we do. So we have to find the balance in the long run.

Do you mostly shoot in Bangalore?

Not at all, we just filmed in Mumbai. We travel. We do many interviews in Bangalore, but if the story’s based in Orissa, then my crew would go out to Orissa and get that footage. Our services business is everywhere, anywhere in the country there’s work, we go there. Going forward, we’ll probably have a foot in Mumbai.

What’s your top technology wish?

It would be awesome, if our DSLR cameras could directly connect to the cloud, so that whatever we film goes into the cloud. So then editing work could begin on it all right away without waiting, sometimes for days, to travel back and download it. That would be really awesome.

News TV crews do transmit in real time, but with expensive equipment and bandwidth!

Right, but what about independent filmmakers like us.  I’m sure one day the tech will be available to us, with cloud-connected cameras and enough bandwidth for HD video!

Anything yet for the hundreds of millions of low-end, low-bandwidth mobiles in India?

We have a mobile version of the website, but that’s about it so far. When we tested a distribution platform from a startup, we did find some of it going to mobile. But that startup moved on to something else. We’re open to mobile, but haven’t found the answers yet. This year, though, we are looking at doing an app.

What’s next? Where do you want your show to go?

The show’s taken on a life of its own, while we take on other things. We’re already doing the film services part well. But I want to go on and create other products that are not ‘Lakshmi-centric’…this business has to grow beyond me. We’ve launched a small YouTube documentary series, and are exploring others. This is just the beginning. The vision’s way beyond Chai With Lakshmi.


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About Prasanto Kumar Roy @prasanto

Prasanto K Roy is a New Delhi-based veteran journalist and speaker on technology, social media and greentech.