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The newest means to go viral, TikTok, has also emerged as a democratising desi alternative to homogeneous and exclusionary Western social media. Influencer and first ‘regular’ Indian woman to be ‘crowned’ on the app, Nagma Mirajkar, opens up to Akhil Sood about the exhilaration and fragility of being an online superstar

PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHWETA DESAI
STYLING BY SHWETA NAVANDAR
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: JEAN-CLAUDE BIGUINE, INDIA.


Turtleneck sweater, by Nikita Mhaisalkar; earrings, from Valliyan.

A group of some seven or eight patient young TikTokers surround Nagma Mirajkar. She smiles for a selfie, then does a fun pose. Tosses her hair for the next. She patiently gets through all the photos. We’re at the resurrected Razzberry Rhinoceros — or simply Razz — in Mumbai, a club located inside Juhu Hotel. The gentle murmurs of the late-afternoon sea vie for attention on one side; on the other, an excitable congregation of TikTok creators in bright clothes and stylishly coiffed manes. Dreams in their eyes, a touch of nervous excitement on their faces. Young women are walking around in breezy summer dresses as the city is in the throes of its pre-rain humid excess. The men have risibly spiked hair (the kind where the barber sets your head on fire — literally) and there’s a bunch of them in half-sleeved shirts with floral patterns. One guy is roaming around in a full-on suit. Everyone’s clutching on to metallic blue mocktails that are being handed around by a serving staff. The floor is soaked with sweat.

Bulky men in black T-shirts, blaring out instructions and updates on walkie-talkies, try to maintain order. An ambulance rests outside in case of any unfortunate mishaps. Mirajkar, a bona fide TikTok celebrity, is dressed in a fitting multicoloured striped pantsuit, with a matching shirt and big hoop earrings. This is the TikTok Creator’s Lab 2019, an event featuring short talks, workshops and interactive events, targeting the app’s flourishing community. Around 500 creators have shown up to meet influencers, network and generally immerse themselves in the scene.

Really, TikTok is a revolution. The mobile app allows users to create short-format videos of 15 seconds, and it seems to have captured the imagination of the youth — the 18-25 age bracket specifically — in an unprecedented manner. From goofy little lip-sync videos reminiscent of Dubsmash to dance and fashion content, choreographed sketches and duets (where you create an accompanying video of your own on a split screen alongside a trending video) to comedy bits, and a whole lot more, it’s all there. The interface allows for endless scrolling; one video follows the next, based on an algorithm, with their brief lengths making for an easy and dynamic viewing experience. TikTok has become one of the most popular apps in India — the company claims to have over 200 million users here — and has consistently remained at the top of the most downloaded list on the Google Play Store. Over email, Sachin Sharma, director of sales and partnerships at TikTok India, explains how TikTok allows not only users across tier-1, -2, and -3 cities but also those in the more hidden pockets of the country to express themselves creatively. It’s a space, he feels, where everyone belongs, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background.

Then there is the bucketload of controversies too — which I’ll get to — including a recent order by the Madras High Court, directing that the app be taken down from digital stores, which was eventually withdrawn.

In a nutshell: TikTok is outrageous, fascinating, bizarre, comical, ridiculous, controversial, electrifying, sensational. It’s a truly modern mode of entertainment; a new world order.

At the time of writing, Mirajkar, 27, had 8.7 million followers. “I’m here to entertain,” her bio says. She was an early bird on the platform, back when it was still called Musical.ly — TikTok’s parent company, the China-based ByteDance, merged it with Musical.ly and rebranded the new app as TikTok in August 2018 — and has built her career on the platform. Instead of limiting herself to one specific style, she creates videos across a range of categories: fashion, dance, lip-syncs, human interest sketches, comedy skits. Some videos fetch millions and on an average, each TikTok video of hers gets between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 ‘hearts’, or likes.

But on Musical.ly, at first, she’d barely get any. “Indians were really not on it at the time,” she tells me, as we sit down. She’s taking a break from meeting young creators who’re either seeking advice and guidance or simply basking in the glow of being around someone they admire deeply. A foreigner hovering around our table asks if he can take a photo of her hands, covered as they are in intricate mehndi patterns following recent Eid celebrations. She gladly obliges. “I checked out a few American ‘musers’ [as Musical.ly users were called] who were quite famous,” she says. “They used to have these meet-ups across the country, where thousands of people would come. It was so fancy and exciting. I was like, ‘Why can’t this happen in India too?’”

“Basically,” she explains, “I was always this filmi child. I grew up watching all of Shah Rukh Khan’s movies. And I always wanted to be different. Like, if everybody was wearing one thing, I’d wear something else. I wanted to be known, to be seen.” She talks of Ranveer Singh — how he’s loud and in your face. “I love that. The way he carries himself…he doesn’t need any validation. I have always been that sort of girl. And my parents were always cribbing about it. ‘Ye kaun si ladki aa gayi hai humaare ghar mein?!’” (‘Who is this girl who has shown up in our home?’)

Her warm and approachable online persona closely mirrors who she is in real life. “When I started out, I chose to engage with the community, and I’d go live day and night. They kind of became my family; they’d know what I was doing. I would come online and personally talk to them using their names. They felt connected with me. I think the main thing is that my followers can relate to me; they even try to imitate me!”

It was in January 2017, when she’d been on the app for a year or so, that a video of hers got listed on Musical.ly’s featured section. “It was my first featured video, and it was a huge thing for me. I assume that their team saw a few people from India who were regularly active and thought, ‘Let’s give them a push because they’re talented’,” she recalls. At the time, she used to put up dance videos as well as lip-syncs of popular Bollywood dialogues and songs.

Soon after, Mirajkar, along with the other popular creators on the platform at the time, organised an unofficial meet-and-greet. Around 30 people from all parts of the country flew in for the event. A couple of months later in May, Musical.ly contacted her about hosting an official meet-and-greet, where some 400 people showed up. Today, TikTok personalities — influencers — are mobbed in public, and thousands of rabid fans turn up to meet them at official events. But back then, they weren’t expecting a crowd of 400, and the venue didn’t have enough space to accommodate everyone. “We were so happy to see the response. I couldn’t even walk around because people were holding on to me and asking for selfies. That was, I think, the first time I felt like a celebrity!” she says. “I remember the date clearly: May 13. That is the day I got ‘crowned’, which means getting verified on the app [the process of getting crowned carried over from Musical.ly to TikTok]. It has a very emotional value for us. I almost cried! I’ll tell you what: it’s that close to us. It’s very different from a blue tick on Instagram, or being a verified YouTuber. I know it’s very difficult for other people to understand. But when you’re active on this app, you are emotionally attached to everything about it.” In fact, she tells me that aside from already-established celebrities, she was the first Indian woman (in India) to get crowned.

Turtleneck sweater, by Nikita Mhaisalkar; earrings, from Valliyan.

Thanks to a post-MBA stint as a marketing manager at an ad agency, she already had an understanding of how to leverage existing trends and challenges for views, but the rebranding changed the game, she feels. Once Musical.ly morphed into TikTok, the app shed its reputation as a Dubsmash facsimile, attracting an influx of new users, and Mirajkar realised early on that she needs to constantly evolve and fine-tune her work to remain relevant. TikTok, given its accessibility and ease of use, has become the voice of — at the risk of using a cliche — Middle India. The masses, creators and viewers both, gravitate towards it perhaps because of its aspirational value, while the availability of fast mobile internet and inexpensive smartphones has certainly played a role too. The video format provokes an immediate reaction. And, unlike other platforms such as YouTube, TikTok requires only a smartphone to create content. (To emphasise the complex impact of TikTok: a young man was recently arrested in Delhi for snatching a fancy phone purely so he could make good-quality videos.)

“The platform itself went viral,” she elaborates. “And we had to change our flavour, somewhat, to cater to the new audiences. If it’s sassy content, a person from a remote village in India won’t get it. They’ll skip it. We have to make content for everyone, and we work on that on a daily basis. We look at what’s trending and how to get more hits.” A focus on creating fun, accessible and “snackable” content has helped to develop her fan base further. As Mirajkar, who was raised in a conservative family in Andheri, Mumbai, explains: “People saw me, and they were like, ‘Okay, if an ordinary girl can come so far, then why not us?’ That’s the beauty of this app, because anyone can get famous overnight. Okay, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you’re talented and consistent in terms of frequency of posting, people start to notice,” she says.

Mirajkar quit her job in the ad agency along the way, choosing to focus entirely on TikTok. Today, she works with a team of creators, including her regular collaborator Awez Darbar, their respective siblings and a bunch of young up-and-comers whom they try to mentor. The days are spent shooting videos, for as long as the sun allows them to. If required, they shoot after 5 p.m. in artificial light. The evenings and nights, she tells me, are used to brainstorm and come up with new ideas so that they can be active on the app each day.

She has had stars like Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt make cameos in her videos (Bollywood celebrities often appear with influential TikTok personalities to promote their films) and done endorsements and campaigns for several high-profile FMCG brands. She has also worked with American Tourister, Pepsi and Colgate. Sharma points out that TikTok often ends up being the very first content creation platform for a lot of new internet users in India, and this makes it a natural hunting ground for advertisers.

This, essentially, is what sustains Mirajkar financially. She has built a successful career on the back of her TikTok popularity and attracts a variety of clients and brands. A recent video she put up, cheering on the Indian cricket team as part of the #WayOChallenge and imploring her followers to take it on as well while tagging Uber India, garnered nearly 75,000 likes, as well as over 550 shares and a similar number of comments. A short comedy sketch from the past month saw over half a million likes. “A video of mine will easily cross 1 million views. For brands, that’s important: to create content seen by a large audience. The brands certainly get a lot of engagement through us. They’re placing their trust in us. Things are changing — the traditional ways are not working anymore. People now want short content. You watch a video and then swipe to the next one.”

Sharma also tells me about an increase in local topical trends and hashtag challenges that “invite creators to showcase their talent, knowledge, and expertise”. #EduTok, which features educative content, has over 7.9 billion views in total, while around Mother’s Day this year, #MeriMaa led to thousands of creators making videos around it. A particularly active hashtag challenge is #desifood, a space they’re actively trying to push to capitalise on the vibrant food culture of India, with close to 9 billion views.

Of course, with that kind of reach comes a different kind of burden altogether. Influencers like Mirajkar are in the public eye now, and each move of theirs is scrutinised. It’s something she is grateful for, but it’s a double-edged sword. “For example,” she says, weighing her words, “If I’m shooting in a public but somewhat secluded location, I expect to go about my work peacefully. But then suddenly someone spots me. They’ll call their family and friends. “Arré, Nagma is here!” And those people will call 15 more. They all barge in and are like, ‘Selfie, selfie!’ I’m always nice to them. Being rude can lead to someone recording you and starting an unfollow campaign too, which I’ve seen happen to some. But I’m not that sort of person anyway. I’m always calm, I’ll take the selfies quickly instead of making them wait. But it’s difficult, especially when there’s a brand waiting for their video and we are losing out on light!”


Dress, by Kanika Goyal; earrings, from Accessorize.

Dress, by Kanika Goyal; earrings, from Accessorize.

On April 3 this year, the Madras High Court ordered that TikTok be removed from app stores over concerns regarding, among others, pornography in India. (The ban was lifted that same month by the Supreme Court.) TikTok had to pay a massive fine in the US for violating the privacy of children and was also banned last year in Indonesia — though the ban was lifted within a week — due to the app’s negative influence on young people.

Sharma expresses gratitude at the lifting of the order and emphasises the company’s commitment to enhancing their safety features. In addition to the existing moderation technology, they’ve also introduced a team of human content moderators to track and delete any inappropriate content, and terminate culpable users. Through campaigns, they’ve been encouraging users to flag any offensive content, and Mirajkar claims that inappropriate videos often get removed within 10 minutes. TikTok has made their guidelines available in regional languages and also have a ‘comment filter’ feature to help users implement keyword blocks for ‘predatory, hateful, and obscene comments’. Other initiatives include a localised safety centre and an anti-bullying page. In February this year, they executed a campaign called #SafeHumSafeInternet, in partnership with Cyber Peace Foundation, as a way to increase awareness about safety on the internet.

Over the past few months, however, the Indian media has been reporting on fatal incidents related to TikTok, including one where a gun accidentally went off and killed someone during a staged video. A recent case from Kota, Rajasthan, saw a young boy put on a mangalsutra and hang himself, allegedly thanks to a TikTok challenge. Mohit Mor, a gym trainer and popular TikTok personality from New Delhi, was murdered a couple of months ago over a personal dispute, and some of the media coverage also focused on whether there are any links with TikTok. Further, a woman in Tamil Nadu committed suicide after reportedly being scolded by her husband for her TikTok addiction. It’s a concern, no doubt, though it raises a complicated dilemma: is the app to blame? And if so, is it the only app that needs to be targeted? What about the others?

There’s something about TikTok, and it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that provokes such extreme reactions. It’s a moral panic of sorts; a lingering attitude of: ‘This is corrupting our kids, who don’t know any better’. For instance, there are often accusations of inappropriate content on TikTok. But then, pretty much 90 per cent of the internet is porn, and platforms such as Reddit and Twitter are swarming with it. After the High Court order, social media was rife with schadenfreude at the removal of the app. Mirajkar was caught by surprise at the time despite persistent rumours of a forthcoming ban and says: “People — the ones who didn’t like the app — were laughing at us. I was like, ‘Don’t watch it!’ You can just not download the app. But if a 60-year-old couple likes watching these videos and it brings a smile to their faces, why not?

“The best part about TikTok is [that] if you create something, someone else will reinvent it. Every notion, every limitation is broken within a week or two.”

While there is both mockery and bemused appreciation for TikTok videos, it has honestly become difficult to discern whether the creators themselves are being ironic in their intent. Mirajkar, for instance, speaks with confident self-awareness about the filmi aspect of TikTok and how cringey material is something that is often done for laughs. Often, a video will go viral, sparking a ‘trending challenge’ and hundreds of imitations, with each one morphing into something new. She tells me of a running plot in scripted videos, where a man jumps in to save the day when a woman is being harassed on the street. Soon, the trend shifted, as did the underlying social message, and in subsequent videos the man was replaced with a woman. “The best part about TikTok,” she says, “is if you create something, someone else will reinvent it. Every notion, every limitation is broken within a week or two.”

I discussed this bubbling phenomenon with a number of people, many of whom view TikTok with either condescension or a distant fascination. Even the well-meaning opinions drip with patronising wonder. A fellow journalist I spoke with mentioned the bias against TikTok, which sometimes manifests as reverse ageism among the press and those users of other social media platforms who generally tend to belong to a slightly older age group. There is a perceivable disconnect, as ‘outsiders’ seem to be dismissive of TikTok, often finding the content to be flippant. Given TikTok’s young user demographic, millennials (previously treated as the young ’uns) may be gripped by a strange existential conflict when confronted with the newest kids on the block, Generation Z, born between the mid ’90s and the mid 2000s. In my own experience, spread over two months of scrolling through TikTok, I slowly moved from initial condescension and reluctance to treat this as any kind of art, to an almost morbid fascination with it. I came across plenty of cringeworthy content. From melodramatic Bollywoodesque sequences, mimicry and imitation to saccharine performative set pieces revolving around, say, Hindu-Muslim unity, feminism and respect for women or generally just a positive view of humanity. It’s all there, and it’s mocked mercilessly. There’s even a Facebook page with close to 71,000 likes, called Reptiles of Kurla, which exists purely to find eccentric TikTok videos to make fun of with a nauseating, but equally amusing, sense of superiority. The longer I remained on the app, though, the more I developed a sense of appreciation for the work being put out through TikTok. It’s an insight into a young India — and a realisation that the app has liberated people from parts of the country that remain detached from all major urban centres. As a recent news article tracking its rise states, ‘TikTok provides oxygen to aspirations and desires [of fame and creative expression], which often get mowed down by the traditionalism of small towns and villages’.

So is it a kind of cultural snobbery? Platforms such as Instagram allow for so-called influencers to rise through the ranks thanks to a carefully curated Western aesthetic. TikTok, on the other hand, has what can lazily be described as a desi vibe. It’s local; it’s a nod to the grass roots, and there’s a refreshing lack of elitism. Mirajkar likens it to a celebrity like Salman Khan, who will invariably insert those fight sequences loved by the Indian masses into his films. Like Khan, it caters to the public. TikTok allows creators to emulate their idols and live out their fantasies. “And not just teenagers or young people, even housewives are downloading the app to watch the videos. Now they don’t need to wait for a particular time for the soaps to start; they can just open the app for their daily dose of entertainment. I’m telling you, you get addicted. It becomes a pattern in your life. In my personal experience, my mom, a housewife, uses the platform every day, and she’s like, ‘Nagma, why are you not making this video, why are you not following this trend?!’”

Whichever way you look at it, it’s safe to claim that TikTok is propelling, or at least riding on, a cultural revolution that we’re still coming to terms with. But Mirajkar isn’t putting all her eggs in one basket. She’s taking a 360-degree approach, by using her Instagram following carefully (she has over a million followers on it now) and is on the verge of launching a YouTube channel as well. However, TikTok remains close to her heart. “I’m going to stick with it until I can. It’s my priority, my first love.”