Talking about the TikTok revolution in India isn’t an anti-national act. It is also not a show of support for Chinese companies. It really is a story about how the poor, teeming millions of India can re-imagine their lives and possibilities when there is a user-friendly technology available in their hands. What Indians managed to do with TikTok was shift the Overton window of their aspirations.
Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Kaalia (1981) has a famous dialogue: ‘Hum… jahaan khade ho jaate hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai (the queue begins from where I stand)’. In a way, real life stars from rural areas all over the country were finally drawing a path on a number of Chinese apps — besides TikTok, Helo, Vigo Video, Likee, and others — that the urban, mainstream India was slowly beginning to follow.
Armed with these new apps, they became the Eklavyas of New India. Their underrated performances earlier confined within the four walls of their homes burst open. And there was no Dronacharya demanding their thumbs. India’s vast bottom of the pyramid—consumers were finally content-creators and controlling how the elites now perceived them.
For the audience on these apps, the caste, colour, religion, background, or any other identity that might usually be a reason for discrimination, didn’t matter. All notions of privilege and social capital were upended. On TikTok, for instance, Arman Rathod from Gujarat can have a fan in Australian cricketer David Warner, who would not only copy his dance steps but also do a duet with him. Here, they both are ‘equal’ stars.
For more than seven decades, Independent India has witnessed many welfare schemes and efforts to bring a semblance of equality for citizens discriminated against at many levels. Yet, all the government grants and schemes could barely alter the social positioning of a poor person. A large number of privileged upper castes have little hesitation in calling members of the oppressed castes as ‘beggars’ and ‘freeloaders’. Many Indians still look down upon the underprivileged, quick to take a jibe at them for things like reservation.
But technology has the power to make an unequal society seem and act on equal terms. It can give a ‘free’ stage where thousands of people of the same ‘unequal’ groups throng to support and boost the confidence of those taking the first step into the world occupied by the privileged lot.
Think about it. What are those spaces in the media and entertainment world that can help a labourer at a brick kiln acquire a fan following and become a star? Very few people from the underprivileged background could break into limelight in the many performance-based reality shows on TV. But platforms like TikTok made it possible for millions to make a star out of them in their own right, to have people travel miles to meet them and take a selfie.
A true revolution
Even within the society they inhabit, the Do It Yourself Eklavyas of today have broken many barriers. So it is not just boys and girls with the confidence of youth who built a base for themselves. Young married women, middle-aged home managers too discarded the societal restrictions, and found a way to beat the monotonous life limited to doing household chores. They too became stars on these apps, often by simply showing their homely skills but with a touch of glamour. Apps like TikTok added a different kind of stardom and thrill to the small town life of people. One might call it the true IT revolution.
Over the course of my conversation with many TikTok stars, I could sense a deep change in people’s lives brought upon by the freedom and a sudden stardom. A girl with a protruding tooth is bullied in real life, but on TikTok she could dance freely and have her own followers. A dark-skinned boy bullied and called names in real life is cheered on by his thousands of followers on TikTok.
Twenty-six-year-old Mamta Verma’s life completely changed after she joined TikTok last year. Her only identity until then was that of a wife of a security guard who worked part time in weddings and parties to support her family. By the time TikTok was banned last week, Mamta was recognised as a TikTok star with more than 16 lakh followers. Her ardent fans even drew her sketches.
“It’s thrilling. I got five likes on my first video. But as numbers of likes and positive comments increased, I became more confident. I see appreciation for my robot dance in people around me. I was a shy person with no aspirations. I saw women from rural India dancing like Madhuri Dixit. That changed my perception about the world. They were no more concerned about their looks or poor backgrounds,” Mamta told me.
Lakhani, 22, an Adivasi woman, says her dark complexion was never a matter of discussion among her followers. “The comments on my videos made me feel like I am no less than Aishwarya (Rai). My husband pleaded with me for months to shoot a video. I was so hesitant to come in front of the camera. But now I enjoy it. There’s no shame. I want to be featured in albums.”
One of the major changes brought by the content creators on these social apps was the subversion of society’s discomfort with effeminacy. They celebrated the queerness, with some even coming. People who might usually frown at men dressed as women cheered for creators by posting positive comments on TikTok. The mantra: Ignore the trolls for a while.
A break, and not the end
But the many Indian lives that Chinese apps changed for good have once again been disrupted, with the Modi government banning TikTok and 58 other apps in response to the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). TikTok India may say in response that it has democratised the internet by giving access to first-time users but it would amount to little. So what happens next?
Technology abhors a vacuum. The minute one platform exits, plenty others take its place. A day after the ban on Chinese apps, a little-known Chingari app’s user base shot up from 1 lakh to 1 crore. We might see some Indian versions of TikTok in the near future too.
But the question is, will they be as user-friendly and simple for anyone with a smartphone to have a space for themselves? Or will such apps be another place for India’s urban mainstream to occupy and exclude the ‘cringe’ creators? The TikTok vs YouTube fight had once again exposed the deep-rooted casteism in Indian society, with many social media users labelling TikTok users as ‘Shudras of the internet’.
जातिवाद को फ़ोटोशॉप से भी नहीं छिपाया जा सकता। pic.twitter.com/6sElTvOndj
— Puneet Sharma (@PuneetVuneet) March 6, 2020
In the 1990s, Kaun Banega Crorepati brought a lot of small town Indians into big cities’ limelight with their brains; in the 2000s, it was India’s Got Talent that put people and their skills on the national map. Now it was TikTok, Vigo, Helo and others. As a large section of India’s populace deals with the sudden disruption brought into their lives, few would choose to sit around or give up the freedom, the newfound power of being expressive without a care. There is no stopping now. All that India’s DIY Eklavyas need is a platform, and we will find out about it soon.
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