Decoding the TikTok phenomenon in Telugu cinema: How the industry is embracing the platform to boost its reach

Hemanth Kumar

Feb 22, 2020 09:05:15 IST

Ever since TikTok - owned by Beijing-based startup ByteDance - launched in India in 2017, it has been somewhat of a blindspot for the Telugu film industry, so to speak.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, the video-sharing platform is yet to become the most preferred social media network for celebrities. In recent times, however, a handful of actors like Lakshmi Manchu, Allu Sirish, Raashi Khanna, Rashmika Mandanna and a few others have begun testing waters on TikTok, and all of them have the same thing to say - they are gobsmacked with the reach and popularity of TikTok, which is a universe of its own.

And the numbers speak for themselves - in less than three years since its launch, TikTok has amassed more than 200 million followers in India and its year-on-year growth has surpassed that of its rivals like Facebook and Instagram. And it has turned scores of people into TikTok stars, some of whom now have more followers than even celebrities in showbiz.

TikTok In Mainstream Telugu Cinema

One of the first mainstream films in recent times to dabble with the TikTok phenomenon was Sai Dharam Tej, and the Raashi Khanna starrer Prati Roju Pandage. Raashi played Angel Aarna, a TikTok celebrity, who believes that one of her fans was so impressed with her TikTok videos that he came all the way from the US to marry her. Besides, there’s a tinge of sarcasm throughout the film where another character says that, off late, a lot of youngsters have been making videos which are kitschy, to say the least.

 Decoding the TikTok phenomenon in Telugu cinema: How the industry is embracing the platform to boost its reach

Sai Dharam Tej and Raashi Khanna promoting Prati Roju Pandage on TikTok. Image from YouTube

In another film, Entha Manchivadavura, a key character expresses his frustration that an elderly couple has been making TikTok videos which are too corny for their age and appearance. Then, in Ravi Teja starrer Disco Raja, there’s a passing reference to TikTok when a young girl is always obsessed with TikTok. This portrayal of the TikTok phenomenon as an intrinsic part of people’s lives today might be too condescending, but the fact is that it has truly captured the attention of people even in the remote regions of the two Telugu speaking states.

Putting it in perspective, Raashi Khanna confesses that, as part of the preparation for the role in Prati Roju Pandage, her attitude towards TikTok changed drastically. “For the longest time, I didn’t understand why people were so obsessed with Tik Tok, and I thought it was really bizarre. It’s only after I began exploring TikTok myself that I understood that it gives people a lot of happiness because they get to express themselves,” she says.

An Unprecedented Opportunity

For an industry that is obsessed with numbers and statistics, TikTok offers an unprecedented opportunity for long term fan engagement. The latest trend on TikTok is launching teasers of songs a day before their official launch, and by the time the videos are out on Youtube, they would have already gone viral.

Interestingly, Rashmika made her debut on TikTok with a video where she grooved to ‘He’s so cute’ song from Sarileru Neekevvaru and encouraged fans to shoot their own videos of the song. Another song, 'Butt Bomma', from Ala Vaikuntapuramulo, became so popular that even the likes of Shilpa Shetty have uploaded their own TikTok videos based on the song.

Rashmika Mandana dancing to 'He's So Cute' on TikTok. Image from YouTube

Rashmika Mandanna dancing to 'He's So Cute' on TikTok. Image from YouTube

Talking about the ease of using the medium, the head of a leading digital marketing agency in Hyderabad says, “The average age of people on TikTok is between 18-30 and the medium has penetrated into the Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns as well, which makes it perfect for promoting films. Considering that the platform recreates content from existing audio rather than users creating original content, the usability has led to its advent. When it comes to movie promotions recreating the trailer or teaser or song is not only convenient for users, but it is a direct tactic to make sure the content is promoted without any extra effort.”

The Tectonic Shift

TikTok’s rise in the past couple of years has coincided with another seismic shift that has occurred in how people have been consuming content, thanks to cheaper smartphones and mobile data. Although TikTok doesn’t have a revenue-generating model yet, it’s turning out to be a win-win situation for everyone since the content itself is going viral every day. Vensy, the founder of GrowthCat Digital Marketing, says, “Social media is changing every week now, not every year, and speed is the name of the game. TikTok entered into the game at the right time when there was a huge surge of a lot of first-time internet users. And it’s able to implement a series of changes in real time to keep the users hooked on to the platform. Whether it’s the daily challenges or hashtags created by popular celebrities, TikTok tracks everything and boosts them. Besides, it’s really easy to shoot and edit videos on TikTok which has made it all the more appealing to people on a wider scale. Also, we might be seeing a lot of videos going viral on Facebook and in many cases, they are originally shot for TikTok.”

The Number Game Is The Real Addiction

According to a survey done by App Annie, a data analytics firm, Indian users clocked a jaw-dropping 5.5 billion hours on TikTok in 2019, a nearly a fivefold jump in the usage compared to 900 million hours spent on the platform in 2018.

Back in 2017, a media agency Zenith published a report forecasting that Indians are likely to spend nearly 84 minutes every day watching videos online. One of the key factors which differentiate TikTok from its peers is the absence of human intervention to watch content.

The artificial-intelligence driven interface plays videos in a loop and in real-time, TikTok tracks what sort of content you prefer watching and pushes them even more into your feed.

Recently, before Allu Arjun’s Ala Vaikuntapuramulo and Mahesh Babu’s Sarileru Neekevvaru even hit the theatres, the two films were a rage among Telugu movie buffs on TikTok.

For instance, thousands of user-generated videos related to Ala Vaikuntapuramulo have surpassed 210 million views and for Sarileru Neekevvaru, it was over 260 million views. A significant chunk of these views came from TikTok users who uploaded their own imitations of either the dialogues or dance moves, rather than the original video songs or teasers itself.

Allu Sirish, the actor, admits that he was surprised by the reach that TikTok has and it was one of the key factors behind why he chose to explore the medium. “As an actor, I would like to entertain people outside my films too. I didn’t see it as a promotional tool, but another medium to reach out to the audience. What makes TikTok really interesting for me is the nature of the medium which is heavy on short-form video content and its reach. I’m still quite new to this sort of stuff which is more of a creator’s platform. Unlike Twitter or Instagram where I can just post something 10 times a week, TikTok requires you to perform in front of the camera. And sometimes, you need a partner to perform a gag or a skit. It kind of restricts the amount of stuff one can post, but having said that, only quality content works best here. I had a lot of fun collaborating with some popular TikTok creators who helped me to get a hang of it,” he says.

Allu Sirish @ TikTok - https://www.tiktok.com/@allusirish

Another actress, Lakshmi Manchu, who made her debut on TikTok recently, confesses that she was under quite a lot of pressure from her friends and well-wishers to get onto TikTok. “I was told that it’s the future. And so, I had a bunch of influencers in Bombay about how to use it. After joining TikTok, every time I go out, a lot of people walk up to to me saying that they really like the stuff that I’m doing there. I feel that it’s getting actors like me closer to people, not just in cities, but also in smaller towns. Maybe, it really excites them to be next to their favourite artist or performer, and create their own videos.”

Lakshmi Manchu @ TikTok - https://www.tiktok.com/@lakshmimanchu

Life Beyond TikTok

For several popular creators, their fame on TikTok has opened up plenty of doors for them beyond the digital space, thanks to influencer marketing which has led brands and sometimes even movie production houses to collaborate with content creators on TikTok whether to groove alongside actors or even interviewing them.

One such celebrity on TikTok is Swetha Naidu, a trained dancer, who occasionally collaborates with another popular creator, Mehaboob to create videos. “I was focusing a lot on Instagram at one point in time, and I began exploring TikTok when my friend Mehaboob recommended it. The reach which this platform gave me was unbelievable, but at the same time, one has to realise that not everything will go viral. No matter what we want to post, a lot of thought goes into what might work and what’s trending. Dance is my strength and a number of videos I’ve posted online have me dancing to popular tunes. The most important thing is to be consistent with your work and I’m glad I’m getting noticed for my work. Someday, I would want to start a dance workshop of my own with all the fandom that I’ve been able to build through TikTok, Instagram, and Youtube,” Swetha says.

Swetha Naidu @ TikTok - https://www.tiktok.com/@swethaa_naidu

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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2020 09:05:15 IST