TikTok's runaway success in India is a story best understood through the rise of the platform's many stars

  • Even after being briefly banned this April in India, TikTok enjoys a user base of 200 million here.

  • To study the popularity of TikTok in India is to study an emergent Indian class, a group of individuals for whom the platform is a space inclusive of all kinds of sensibilities and contradictions.

  • TikTok is still new territory and its landscape may seem particularly bizarre to outsiders.

  • But its contours are expanding, and heading off in hitherto untapped directions.

Somewhere on the outskirts of Chandigarh, 29-year-old Sushant Khanna sets off for the gym at the crack of dawn. An auto-rickshaw driver who spends his days ferrying passengers, he has an hour to squeeze in a workout before his daily grind begins at 8 am. Afternoons are meant for lunch breaks when he returns home for three hours, only to hit the road again. An ordinary day, an unassuming life — except for Sushant’s digital celebrityhood. For Sushant is a Salman Khan lookalike. Not the ganji-wearing, audition-going type, but one who has never been to Mumbai — home to Bollywood and his superstar doppelganger.

"People call me 'bhaijaan'. They ask for selfies, turn their heads to look at me when I walk past them," he shares.

With over 1.7 million followers on the video sharing app TikTok, Sushant is among a new breed of 'influencers' — those who get a million hits on their videos in a day, but won't be recognised in an unfamiliar city. Even though being an A-list Bollywood celebrity's lookalike sets him apart from the pool of 'lover boys' playing into stereotypes on TikTok, it doesn't pay his bills. It also doesn't stop him from milking it. "I learnt I look like Salman Khan when I was 17. When I started making TikTok videos a year ago, I began wearing his famous blue bracelet too," Sushant says.

Although several media reports profiled "Salman Khan's clone", not much has changed for Sushant, save for the odd selfie request. However, he now has something to look forward to on Sundays, when he sets his hair with water, gets in front of the phone camera, and turns into Salman Khan for 15 seconds, followed by the usual influencer modus operandi (tagging the actor's official handle, fan pages, et al).

"I make these videos for 'time pass' but would love for Salman Khan to watch them. I have seen all his films in the past 15 years. Meeting him would be the biggest gift," Sushant says. Then, as if suddenly aware of the futility of that wish, he says he wouldn't mind even if Khan never noticed him, he’d continue making his videos anyway.

For Sushant — who barely gets six hours of sleep a night — these videos are a leisure pursuit; TikTok, he thinks, could offer a path that frees him from his humdrum life.

Millions in India perhaps think similarly. With 200 million users, India is TikTok’s largest market, followed by the US. The app, however, has had a troubled journey in India, with a brief ban on its download in April 2019. Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, said last month that it had removed 1,35,000 videos from its platform within a year-and-a-half of its operations in India, to deal with objectionable content.

This week, the app was in the news again: firstly, because of a murder spree by 32-year-old Ashwani Kashyap, known as the ‘TikTok villain’ for the videos he uploaded to the site; and secondly, for EduTok — which marks the platform’s entry into the e-learning market in India. Also this week, a Quartz report noted that In India, TikTok is becoming one of the leading social sharing platforms — apart from Instagram — where brands are choosing to partner with influencers. A sign that things may be changing for TikTokers like Sushant Khan?

 TikToks runaway success in India is a story best understood through the rise of the platforms many stars

(L-R) TikTok stars Amaan Shaikh, Geet, Sushant Khanna

To study the popularity of TikTok in India is to study an emergent Indian class, a group of individuals for whom the platform is a space inclusive of all kinds of sensibilities and contradictions.

Take for instance 19-year-old Mumbai resident Amaan Shaikh, who has a ‘verified’ badge on TikTok. His act of a lovelorn simpleton has earned him 2.6 million fans, but there's a story behind it — he found himself on the app after a bad breakup. Perhaps the only thing that feels contrived about his videos are his tears: he uses glycerine, generously, before setting up his phone (an iPhone XR, a major upgrade from using his mother's modest handset). "The glycerine makes my eyes look red and watery. It burns like hell but those are the kind of videos that get maximum views. That and a trendy song, and I am good to go," he tells us.

A college dropout, Amaan went viral for the first time in February 2019. On a good day, when the sun is out, he makes 10-15 videos daily, strictly in front of the window in his room as natural light makes his skin "glow". The sun's no-show this monsoon cast a shadow on Amaan's TikTok account as well, precisely when he took time out for a telephonic conversation with this correspondent. Like most TikTok influencers his age, Amaan just wants to be 'seen'; acting is only a means to that end.

He talks about a career in television being more lucrative than one in film. "If you work in a daily soap, you can be on TV every day. Films have a long waiting period...I have started going to the gym because jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai," he says.

Amaan’s popularity hints that what sells in India on TikTok is a heteronormative wet dream: fair-skinned straight men with bloodshot eyes, heartbroken over rejection. Amaan acknowledges the popularity of certain "sad songs" which have a "romantic feel" on his TikTok channels, so you get what you signed up for. He is even competing with a 'bro' in a game of who-woos-the-girl-first in some of his videos.

While TikTok has earned some like Amaan a steady source of income, it hasn't been welcoming to all: effort doesn’t always translate into likes. Ask 25-year-old Surat-based makeup artist Pradeep Doshi, who says that despite the long hours he puts into their making, his videos don't seem to get enough likes. Pradeep cross-dresses as popular Hindi film and TV actresses on TikTok, and the process alone may take up to an hour. "My Naagin and Mahakali looks were special. The snakeskin pattern took over an hour to finish...Putting makeup on and getting in front of the camera to promote my work doesn't embarrass me," he asserts.

Although countless videos on TikTok further toxic stereotypes, the polarising app has also become a compelling platform for anti-normative dialogue, a space that creators like Pradeep Doshi are exploring.

"Some people would reprimand me for dressing up as a woman in my videos. They said I should not be indulging in such activities being a professional artist," Pradeep says. He adds after a moment’s thought, "Anyway, the audience on TikTok likes to watch useless, vulgar videos. They are not interested in 'real' acting," reminiscing about the time he shaved his beard for a "half man-half woman makeup" video.

Pradeep has now stopped cross-dressing and lip-syncs to popular Hindi film dialogues on his TikTok channel instead. His last 10 videos have not done very well.

Even though good for business, likes and follower counts are inaccurate touchstones for talent or financial stability. But that's hardly affecting the TikTok community. Someone who quit a well-paying job with an information management giant to become a full-time TikToker, Shivani Kapila is a case in point. "I moved to Surat from Delhi to make TikTok videos. I was a team lead at my previous company, but the creative satisfaction I get from making videos is unmatched," says the Surat-based influencer.

With more than 4 million fans on TikTok, Shivani believes in making socially relevant content. Her channel is an edifying handbook for life where she sermonises on our 'duties' as good citizens, and what that entails. Her videos could drown one in a sea of schmaltz but are lapped up like those WhatsApp forwards from your mother — you do not need them, but they serve as efficient reminders of your moral obligations. Your life will change if you treat domestic help with respect, don't abandon your old parents, don't look down upon the poor, this is the crux of her videos.

You may not heed Shivani (who doesn't reveal her age) but you might listen to an older lady — her mother-in-law, who makes an appearance in several of the videos. She's a hit with the fans. "It has really brought us closer. Now my mother-in-law is concerned when I don't shoot with her for days," Shivani says.

Shivani's popularity on TikTok indicates that accessibility might be one of the biggest reasons for TikTok’s widespread presence in India, especially in tier-II and III cities. For those watching, the same accessibility makes them feel closer to being part of a cosmopolitan society. But what does it mean for creators? "We don't have to go to Mumbai anymore to be famous," says Shivani.

A more well-defined, straightforward version of Shivani Kapila’s shtick can be found on Geet’s two TikTok channels, meant specifically for motivational speaking and English lessons. She's "older than most people on TikTok and doesn't look like a conventional influencer" but that doesn't seem to affect business: her followers add up to 6.7 million. Geet tries to put up 6-10 videos each day, and she finds the platform less competitive than other video-sharing portals. "TikTok has an honest sense of community. The users mostly write positive comments, and that is encouraging," she told this writer, when we met in September 2018 at the Great Indian Fandom Conference hosted by the Godrej India Culture Lab, where she was a speaker.

Although she had started making videos with her 87-year-old grandmother for fun, Geet says her outlook towards the app completely changed after a woman told her she walked out of her abusive marriage after watching one her videos. Now, the DMs are where she counsels followers who reach out to her. "The audience on TikTok is raw and open. Seeing them respond to me feels like I'm making a difference," she says.

The validity of the advice Geet offers online may be debatable but her fans need to hear it from her. She is quite like the trusted didi one goes to for advice. (It's also what a lot of her followers call her.)

TikTok is still new territory and its landscape may seem particularly bizarre to outsiders. But its contours are expanding, and heading off in hitherto untapped directions.

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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2019 13:43:47 IST