India may have banned TikTok but the app's users have democratised stardom forever

TikTok introduced India to everyday stars from small towns and villages, and across genders, classes, and castes.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Image: TikTok

As you may know, TikTok -- an app that allows users to create 15-second videos, soundtracked by music clips -- is no more in India. Its premature demise was orchestrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wanted to teach the Chinese a lesson for killing twenty Indian soldiers in a barbaric border clash that involved nail-studded clubs and other handmade weapons instead of guns. 

While not afflicted with the same zeal that he and his fellow Hindu nationalists harboured when they launched airstrikes against Pakistan right before his re-election, Modi did still banish the absurdly popular app along with fifty-eight of its Chinese brethren -- take that China, that'll teach you.

TikTok, the surrogate of Chinese company Bytedance, worth close to $100 billion, may well be wringing their hands over being booted from their hottest market. After all, one out of every four smartphones in India had TikTok installed prior to its ban, says Pavel Naiya, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, in the Economic Times. Indians were responsible for 611 million downloads of the app, which was the most for any country and constituted 30% of the app's global downloads.

However, the real heartbreak is being suffered by those 611 million Indians who had downloaded TikTok. The app transformed entertainment in India like never before, shifting it from your usual lineup of vacuous and terribly uninteresting film stars -- whose gossip we Indians used to binge on -- to something on a whole different level.

The new lineup consisted of people you would never imagine as stars who did things that you simply ended up nodding your head at in silent awe. Like, for example, Sangeeta Gaikwad, a charming housewife from rural Ambad, a village 200 miles from Mumbai, otherwise known as the 'mutton lady', according to the LA Times, for her video showing her dancing with glee while cradling a large platter of admittedly delicious chunks of mutton. There are hundreds of other videos that show Sangeeta doing all kinds of mundane things, but each one of them is endlessly watchable.

Of course, what Gaikwad showed on the platform is what millions of people worldwide are also doing at this very minute with a lip-synced song, a dance, and a license to do whatever they'd like over fifteen glorious seconds. Yet, what made her an overnight sensation was the fact that she had great comic timing, was a natural actress, and she pranced around in her housecoat at her home and village in rural Maharashtra to songs you may have known since your childhood -- if you're Indian -- showing you the sights and sounds of a part of India that you had never seen before. In fifteen seconds, she transformed the mundane into the memorable. Compared to her antics, watching an Indian film star's media soundbites seemed very much like observing dung dry on a wall.

Then there's Ulhas Kamathe, a Mumbai gym owner and potential character in a Werner Herzog movie whose ferocious eating, especially of chicken leg pieces, as well as a whole range of regional Indian cuisine had garnered him close to 7 million global followers in just a few months. So momentous and inspirational was his channel that hundreds of fans began showing up to his house. American viewers gushed over him, the hashtag #ChickenLegPiece dialed in close to 4 billion views and a local video game developer actually put Kamathe into a game.

Not everyone is on TikTok for fun and games though. A 21-year old rickshaw driver, Akash Yadav, who is the son of a farmer and from the rural town of Beed, has 284,000 followers who track his posts on social justice, including issues related to acid attacks, depression, and domestic violence. A nobody before, people soon began shelling out cash to have him come and inaugurate the opening of shops and offices in the area, and today he regularly hobnobs with the likes of lawyers and cops whom he would not have been able to come anywhere near prior to his TikTok induced celebritydom.

Hordes of TikTokers come from marginalised sections of society -- small town shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers, rural housewives, people of alternative sexuality, Dalits (members of a serially ostracised, lower-caste), and others. Underrepresented forever, this pool of energised individuals were finally able to pick up a device and connect and discover themselves and others.

With fame comes fortune is the adage, and it certainly rang true for 16-year-old Riyaz Aly, a young man with impressive hair who comes from a 42,000-strong small town of Jaigaon, located near India's border with Bhutan. Aly was amassing around $800,000 a year thanks to his 43 million followers before the ban. Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Jannat Zubair was nipping at his heels with a reported $700,000 paycheque. So amazingly popular was TikTok in India that 5 out of the top 15 TikTokers globally were Indian -- the others being American.

Those are eye-popping numbers and especially so for any small-town teenager, but in the larger scheme of things -- TikTok's annual revenues amount to $176.9 million -- it may not seem a whole lot. However, in an era where cash burns of a billion dollars a year are de rigueur for many internet-related companies, this is outstanding; although one has to try and figure out what "revenues" actually means since accounting at e-commerce companies tend to use strange math. A TechCrunch report suggests a $62 million figure for "net revenue" during the app's last quarter, which could refer to gross profits and be a very robust number.

Yes, social media influencers will find that YouTube channels bring in almost twice as much cash into their pockets, but these are involved operations that require more technical equipment than a simple ol' smartphone with a record button. And having to watch ten minutes of male testosterone-in-overdrive via a "diss track" video, which seems to be regular fare on YouTube these days, can be akin to munching on cardboard compared to what was the short and sweet TikTok experience.

Alas, the word "was" seemingly goes hand in hand with any reference to TikTok in India today. The app may not be cutting headline-grabbing cheques to the bulk of its stars, but every dollar earned goes a long way here and the deprivation of any sort of TikTok-fuelled income, especially for those who toil in difficult jobs like farming, or driving a rickshaw, must be painful. Yet, the attack on Indian soldiers was so horrific and the outrage against China so visceral that most TikTok stars  readily bid a tearful adieu to the app, sometimes literally, in a TikTok video.

Meanwhile, aspirants to the throne of short video king have flooded app stores as late. Facebook's Instagram, which many TikTokers have fled to, is trying out its own short video feature called Reels. Gaana, India's largest music app with a humongous audience base of 150 million, has launched HotShots.

Other apps coming out of the woodwork and clawing for a slice of the ex-TikToker pie are InMobi's Roposo, Chingari, Trell, and Mitron, all of which claim to have attracted millions in the last few weeks.

These apps may gain some ground following TikTok's departure, but they will most likely never ever capture the same glory. Youtube and Instagram are different beasts and already, very few of the shattered former TikTok stars who migrated to these platforms have noticed anything close to the viewership numbers they had once enjoyed.

Somehow, the 15 seconds, a smartphone, and the name TikTok conjured up a kind of authentic entertainment magic that, as it turns out, is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. This is why you can bet that, at this very moment, hundreds of millions of people all over India are secretly wishing that Modi and Xi Jinping would kiss and make up, and for the ban to be revoked so they can get back to being entertained by their favourite everyday stars on their favourite media of all time.

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