How did a nice Sindhi lad with an economics degree become one of the more promising YouTube personalities to date in Singapore? We'll let him tell you.
A Vinny Sharp video has the titular Vinny making full use of the space of the rooftop he often shoots on. It’s black and white and yet the background looks richer, laden with details. He reminds us of televangelists blanketed in televised grain, the way he addresses the camera, how with clever editing, Vinny holds your attention. There isn’t a laugh track to cue you in but you know which parts you’re supposed to react to. You hang on to every word, even though sometimes it’s a struggle to keep pace with his thoughts that seem to rattle off faster than the sound coming out of this mouth. His videos run long—six minutes on Singaporeans not getting sufficient sleep; a 13-minute guide on marijuana, 15 minutes on happiness—longer than your average videos put out by most Singaporean YouTube personalities. Throughout his two years of activity, Vinny has less than 10 videos on his YouTube channel. The portfolio might be scant, but Vinny Sharp is the new voice in the millennial wilderness.
Vinny Sharp is Vinesh Nagrani and Nagrani wasn’t always Vinny Sharp.
Eight years ago, Nagrani was at a comedy open mic session when he saw, comedian and actor, Rishi Budhrani performing on stage. I can do that, Nagrani thought to himself and three weeks later, Nagrani signed up and took to the stage as well, his first time under the spotlight.
“I didn’t know him at the time but I looked at [Budhrani] on stage and I knew where he was coming from. He’s Sindhi, I’m Sindhi. Similar backgrounds. If he could do it, so can I. It has nothing to do with talent.”
Nagrani went on stage for a few more open mics before giving up. “I didn’t like it,” he says. “I was limited to three, five minutes on stage and I was pushing myself towards maximising yield on laughter rather than being myself. There wasn’t enough time for me to flesh out what I wanted to do. I was heavily unsatisfied.”
Most comedy open micers would work up to more stage time through practices week after week, but Nagrani didn’t have the patience for it. “It was vanity,” Nagrani admits. “I thought being in the limelight was important. [But] I had my ego tested and confronted throughout the span of NS (National Service) and university mainly. That’s when it changed.”
It’s often said that enrolment in university is a pivotal juncture in anyone’s life. At the University of Manchester, Nagrani was on track to being an economics graduate en route to working in the finance sector. Academia wasn’t Nagrani’s cup of tea but he chose economics because it was the safest thing to take. But it was a confluence of factors that would lead him to become Vinny Sharp. One of which was a quick and lasting friendship with Santi Martyn. Interactions with Martyn made him question every assumption he had about life—himself, religion, family, culture, the whole shebang. “I realised how much in the dark I have kept myself in and I started to re-question everything,” Nagrani says. He was brought low, humbled.
There was also the solitude. He’d never experienced true alone-time in Singapore as he worked his way towards fulfilling what society expected of him. Get good grades, get into a good school… there was always a benchmark for him to attain, but once he got to university he had no one to harangue him. He didn’t have to listen to anyone. He was free to explore.
“When the ego started to diminish, that’s when the genuine thirst
for knowledge began.”
There’s a definite chip on his shoulder. Call it what you want: the System, the Man, the people in charge… they were a constant discomfort to his psyche. “But then again, I’ve always been very uncomfortable with authority.”
Authority figures had never made sense to Nagrani since he was a child. While he has never verbalised it, he knew that the status quo wasn’t healthy. In school, he’d ask a question, a raised hand above the sea of bowed heads, and would be reprimanded for it. “It was that fear that was instilled in a question asked,” Nagrani thinks for a bit. “It really wasn’t about the questions asked, now that I think of it. It was if I got the answer wrong, then comes
It was tough to flourish in an environment where he was not allowed to fail. It was toxic to him, so much so that he needed to escape from it.
So, borne out of fear and desperation, just a year before graduating, Nagrani plucked up the courage and filmed his first Vinny Sharp video. Vinny Sharp was initially amalgamation, a montage of people’s voices through comedy. He didn’t want to be on screen, but he knew that his body, his mouth, needed to be a vessel for these words. “If I didn’t get my act together to prove to the world that I can, at least, do this, then I’m screwed.”
His parents are happy with what he’s doing but also becuase he’s able to earn his keep from it. “They were impressed with the first video that I made,” Nagrani says. “But if your kid does something that’s slightly unorthodox and that gets society’s approval from it, [the parents will] excuse what you do. They value the perception rather than the work.”
“Historically Sindhi families are all about survival,” Rishi Budhrani, who is now also, Nagrani’s friend, explains to me. “We were a people who were displaced and we haven’t planted our roots since the partition. A lot of the Sindhi culture is about entrepreneurship, adaptability and survival. So, Sindhi parents will say, [you may pursue] this arts thing, but have a backup!”
There’s a verbosity that emanates from his Vinny Sharp personae and you can blame two elements from TV.
While paediatricians do not recommend TV for children under two, that advice fell on deaf ears for a young Vinesh Nagrani. When he first set eyeballs on the TV, the love affair with moving pictures started.
He was mesmerised by late-night American talk shows: the Lettermans, Lenos, Fergusons of yore; the image of the man in the suit commanding the attention of the crowd as he critiqued the day’s headlines and affairs. Nagrani points to Conan O’Brien as his favourite. “I like what Late Night [with Conan O’Brien] was doing. There’s the headline, followed by the punchline. Headline, punchline. Its such a pleasurable way to consume what’s going on in the world and how it’s dished out in such a nice appealing package y’know?”
“I think if you were to give me an article, I would be able to write a comical monologue assessing the article much faster than if you told me to make jokes about divorce. Or interracial. It’s when I see someone report something. Because that’s the thing, I’m not strong yet in acting. I’m very strong in reacting.”
Another source of inspiration was Blackadder. Every Friday night when he was still in primary school, he’d watch Blackadder on the Hallmark Channel. He didn’t understand some of the words used, but the comedic physicality of it was endearing to him. “The outfits on that show, the demeanour, the tone… those meant something to me. A lot of people ask me why I speak the way I do and it’s because of Blackadder, how Rowan Atkinson (the titular Blackadder) talked. Most people assume that it’s the people that you live, that you talk to, that influenced you but I’ve never really spoken to anybody. It was the television that spoke to me.”
He never really enjoyed talking to people. He says this as his eyes bore into mine. “I mean, I can converse with people now because there’s intent, but for conversations for the first 20 years of my life, I’d master the art of pretending that I’m listening.”
Always in the pursuit of knowledge, Nagrani slowly discover himself in a sea of realisations and information. He’s changing, evolving. He even deleted the first three Vinny Sharp videos because they weren’t an accurate representation of who he is now.
Nagrani wasn’t always this hirsute. Photos of him before the Beard exist out there. You’ll find a lantern-jawed Nagrani, his eyes lack their current intensity, his eyebrows are not on fleek. His cheekbones sink into the calming roundness of his face. The only constant from then and now is the lack of a smile. It’s hard to imagine that stoic surface being broken up by the upturned corners of a mouth.
“Before Vinny Sharp, I was afraid of what the public would think if I appeared before a camera,” Nagrani says. “Not that I was seeking validation; I just wanted to be myself but what if people didn’t like it.”
So, he decided to grow a beard. He’d never committed to a beard and it took four months to get to the volume and length it needed to get. It becomes a mask; it becomes the Beard. It’s trimmed to a point, giving Nagrani’s face a more chiselled feature; the aura of “don’t-mess-with-me” wafts off him. Coupled with his staple attire of a white shirt with its sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a tie pinned in place by a tie clip that’s wider than the tie.
When quizzed on whether he’s concerned about his looks, Nagrani replies, only when he goes out. He likes to look presentable, but the pendulum swings the other way when he doesn’t give a toss about his appearance especially when he’s elbow-deep in work. He grew the beard partly because he didn’t want to think about vanity, but now he has to maintain the look—his eyebrows are trimmed, his hair is coiffed; not an errant stray hair seen.
He spends a couple of days writing the script. He performs his monologue. For Nagrani, it’s akin to putting his heart on the altar. A willing sacrifice that presented in a performance. “I bring in the theatrics because I like to entertain people,” Nagrani says. “If I were to just sit here and talk to the camera, it’s not the same. I like to entertain people. I like to be physical, I like to
“It’s really just trying to appreciate the full spectrum of perspectives. It’s not about opposing people, saying you’re wrong. It’s saying, guys, let’s all stand in the same line and look at the evidence together. That’s always been the tone. In Singapore, there’s always opposites—left wing, right wing… but I’ve always seen it as a circle and there are different degrees of how close we are together. Everyone is on the same team. What I want is for us all to progress in learning. That has always been the impetus. I don’t like hurting people because that sucks. Especially if your perspective isn’t right or if your shit is not factually accurate… there’s no need to make someone feel like shit because they are wrong. If you wanna educate, just put it on the table and have some fun with it. You will inspire growth. You want a flower to blossom, you don’t instruct it. You just… let it be.”
He wants to invest as much time as he can into Vinny Sharp. The pauses between each video are left open for commenters’ ire: You make a video every six months? This is bullshit. You can’t say you make content like this and then stop for so long. Nagrani hears you. It’s infuriating to him but he’s not beholden to his viewers. And it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about putting out more videos; he just needs to work in an environment that allows him to be creative. He was also busy with work, making videos for clients under his Vinny Sharp Production company. That took time and eventually his priorities shifted.
He works on Vinny Sharp Productions seven days a week, putting in an average of 10 hours a day. With today’s technology, Nagrani is the cameraman, editor, writer, talent, sound engineer. “I wanna do it myself. I would never let anyone touch it, when it comes to shooting, yeah. I don’t need anyone. I don’t want anyone.”
The refusal for aid might also stem from his natural inclination for solitude. You wouldn’t read with someone else who is sitting next to you, y’know?” Nagrani lives in his head so often that he has his own counsel. He’s singular in that respect with a clear plan in his head. He finally got a real sense of being alone since moving out of his family’s house.
Nagrani is intense. You’d have to be if you’re always trying to refine the work that you do. “If I wanna do something, I’d do it right,” Nagrani says. “I give it my all. I don’t see the point of doing it half-arsed. If you spend your time doing something, why not give everything? I’ve always been ambitious. You should be intense, you should.”
But he’d draw the line on being “deep”. Much to his chagrin, he gets labelled that a lot. Nagrani thinks a lot, gets lost in the hedge maze of his thoughts, but he doesn’t think he’s deep. He was out the weekend before last and it was the kind of night where he is so wasted that he didn’t know how he even got there. Sitting at a table, he started chatting with a friend and the topic soon led to her asking him for career advice and Nagrani gave it to her straight: he told her that she’s still young and if there was ever a time to be selfish, this is it. Risk all. Go pursue that dream. “And then she was like, yeah you’re right… Vinny, you’re so deep.” Casting aside his incredulity, Nagrani beelined towards the DJ deck and started dancing. He got into a conversation with another rando on the dance floor. Nagrani doesn’t know what he said but he remembered the guy saying, dude, you’re so deep, man. I love it.
Nagrani might baulk at being “deep” but he is well-read. He eschews fiction and can spend time poring through scientific journals and studies; anything on social sciences, economics. “I don’t have time to read these days because I’m editing all day. But I watch a lot of documentaries. That’s where a lot of my time goes into.”
Nagrani doesn’t have the follower numbers and it’s easy to see why. He’s verbose, some might be put off by it. The humour of his videos doesn’t have the easy jokes, the slapstick humour that Singaporeans are used to. These sorts of things can alienate the average viewer. But the thing to remember is that Nagrani started Vinny Sharp primarily for himself. He had a vision and wanted to see if he could make it happen.
“Of course, I want people to enjoy it, but if I don’t enjoy it, to begin with, I don’t see value in it,” Nagrani says with a shrug. He brings up the “surprise factor”, saying that it’s easy to surprise people because they don’t know what’s going on in his mind. But it’s extremely tough to surprise himself, especially when he lives most of his life inside his head. That’s not to say that he doesn’t value his audience; he does but he didn’t ask for their feedback.
The videos he shoots are often black and white, an aesthetic choice that Nagrani says is to “draw all attention towards the dialogue… and also to standardise the shots to make editing easy” but we offer our own added take, that the video is more grey and further scrutiny reveals a spectrum of the colour—slate, gainsboro, gunmetal, charcoal—shades of grey that adds more to that Nagrani’s vision, where nothing is binary and everyone gathers in a circle for discourse.
Photography by Ronald Leong
Styling by Eugene Lim