Fame and Misfortune
“Given a choice between suicide and listening (to) her, I would prefer suicide” reads the top review of Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj on Amazon Music, where the two-year-old song is available for $0.99. Thirteen people found this unnecessarily severe equivalence “helpful”; a few chimed in with additional insults — one person called it “cancer”, and the other claimed that it made his “ears bleed”. The song in question is by Pooja Jain, an Indian cringe-pop sensation whose alter ego on the internet is “Dhinchak Pooja” — her unchecked popularity counts as one of the pressing mysteries of the decade. After all, in the four years since she burst into the public consciousness, one thing has been clear: you don’t listen to a Dhinchak Pooja song; you are subjected to it. Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj boasts of the usual Dhinchak-isms: lyrics willed out of repetitive non-sequiturs and an out-of-tune nasal screech, and the accompanying music video’s parody-style production quality is characterised by mismatched lip-syncing, exaggerated hand gestures, a touch of gaudiness and an unabashed mockery of logic.
The degree of hyperbole in those unfavourable reactions might be an accurate indicator of the song’s ascendancy. While Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj can best be described as a daylight robbery of mental sanity, headache-inducing in a way that resembles the merciless clatter of construction, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn’t acquainted with Dhinchak Pooja. Much in the same way that it’s unlikely to chance upon someone who’d miss an opportunity to tell the world why they are personally offended by the song’s very existence. As it stands, these unanimously condescending slants on the quality and value of songs such as Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj are also the prime reason behind their inescapable virality. The tenets of cringe-pop, after all, thrive on this brand of reluctant-yet-obsessive participation through which a song that has no business existing, ends up acquiring cultural currency solely because of the endless chatter around its abject awfulness.
Since May 2017, Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj has been shared, re-shared, derided, meme-tised, roasted and trended across thousands of timelines and has ratcheted up over 40 million views on YouTube alone. The 25-year-old singer soon cashed in on the traction by releasing three other songs that year — Dilon Ka Shooter, Baapu Dede Thoda Cash, and Aafreen Fathima Bewafa Hai — each simultaneously inviting a similar volley of angry comments and lakhs of views. More importantly, these cumulative attention spans even converted into a chance at greater cultural relevance, and she earned herself a spot on primetime television. A few months after Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj came out, Jain was announced as a wild card entrant to Bigg Boss, one of the most-watched Indian reality shows and the closest TV has come to a postmodern social experiment. In it, over a dozen contestants — boasting varying fluency in profanity — are made to live under the same roof in an isolated house lacking any semblance of privacy. The quarrels, catfights and ensuing catchphrases are then broadcast to the world as pop-culture artefacts.
If the musical brand of Dhinchak Pooja capitalises on our collective craving to relish someone’s public humiliation as entertainment, then Bigg Boss mercilessly feeds the schadenfreude with an added layer of voyeurism. And this obsession didn’t spare Jain’s two-week stint inside the house, replete with tears and breakdowns, starkly illustrating the consequences of a reputation cultivated entirely on agreeing to be the laughing stock for the world.
In that season of Bigg Boss, Jain became a sort of a sacrificial lamb, reduced to a punchline, and the producers frequently mined her unintentional comical antics to service TRPs. The extent of the ignominy that she had to endure on national television kept escalating. At first, it was by Salman Khan, the show’s host who mocked her nonsensical songs, followed by other contestants gossiping behind her back. Then, it was the rest of the country: An entire episode was devoted to the housemates confronting Jain about her lice-infested hair. A minor private annoyance suddenly acquired the status of a public blooper — contestants took turns to confirm the presence of lice on her scalp, a confession was drilled out of her and medication was ordered.
This episode drove home the sharpness of the double-edged sword that is Dhinchak Pooja’s fame. To mock Jain, some of the contestants took to singing lice-related songs at her expense, using the easy-to-mimic tune of Selfie Maine Le Li Aaj, her own song. This moment is a testament to the fact that it doesn’t matter whether the destination is the chat rooms of the internet or the living rooms on television, the joke is always going to be on both, Dhinchak Pooja and Pooja Jain.
Rarely has someone’s pursuit of fame — with the possible exception of Rakhi Sawant, whose routes of provocation were comparatively scatterbrained — been so entwined with public mortification. The thing about exploiting your own cringe-factor is that it is merely a means to an end. Worse, you stand the risk of having the world lose interest if you go back on your promise of being the laughing stock. On Bigg Boss, and in the last four years, Dhinchak Pooja did become famous, but she also became the symbol for second-hand embarrassment. Perhaps, that is the biggest irony in Jain’s unrelenting quest for cultural capital: her celebrityhood is non-existent without someone taking offence to it. For Dhinchak Pooja to survive, there also have to exist those people who compare her to a terminal disease. The reins of her fame are no longer in her control alone.
Take, for instance, the comedic implications of her Youtube videos being taken down in response to a copyright infringement complaint from a user called Katappa (the name of the anti-hero in the Baahubali franchise, whose motivations transmuted into a catchphrase). Or even the thriving cottage industry of internet reaction videos — devoted entirely to unpacking the ridiculousness of her songs — that themselves profit off Dhinchak Pooja’s self-monetisation. A slew of YouTubers, like 20-year-old Ajay Nager (who goes by the moniker “CarryMinati”) have invented a vocabulary of roast videos that exists to ridicule her. The content that Dhinchak Pooja releases is in its own way, fodder for their fame. And the unrelenting virality of these videos seemed to have been the last straw for Jain’s infamy.
While her songs are still disseminated on iTunes (for Rs 15), Saavn, and even Spotify, and the memes that use her as a launchpad have never stopped, in the two years since her Bigg Boss appearance, Dhinchak Pooja has all but disappeared from the ambit of the internet — her existence has been relegated to the back of our minds. Jain finally resurfaced a couple of months ago with a new offering, titled Naach Ke Pagal. Just when it started stacking up views, the video was mysteriously deleted. In comparison, CarryMinati’s roast of the song is still a Google search away. It’s a peculiar predicament to be in: to boast the kind of fame that benefits everyone but you.
Dhinchak Pooja’s YouTube channel is now littered with videos of her endorsing questionable apps. The last video is from one month ago and has a paltry 46,000 views; the comments are turned off. Her fame has been on the wane for a while. She is more active on Instagram and a new post arrives every alternate day. Her account is packed with the kind of selfies Dhinchak Pooja used to once — against all judgement — sing about. Today, Pooja Jain has become a prisoner of her own brand.