NEW DELHI—On a hot afternoon on the lawns of a lavish country house south of India’s capital, Ronak Bhatia waited patiently for his shot at fame. He had followed an online ad posted by Celebrity Face, a New Delhi event company that holds regular talent hunts and celebrity shoots, and he was surrounded by hundreds of other contestants. Each of them had paid a registration fee of 1,000 rupees, or about $14, and filled out an application. Many had traveled from across the country just for this audition.
They eyed one another warily as Celebrity Face volunteers called out names in batches. Only about a dozen at a time got inside; bouncers were otherwise physically blocking the crowd from entering. Outside, dressed in a denim jacket, white shirt, and blue jeans, a look he had styled with spiked hair, aviator glasses, a handlebar moustache, and a goatee, Bhatia sat in a plastic chair and stared at the posters of teenage celebrities plastered across the walls enclosing the lawn. He knew everything about them. He was there because he believed that if he, a 19-year-old who had just graduated from high school, worked hard enough, his face could be up there next.
When his name was called, Bhatia walked into a waiting room with nine other contestants. There, Rakesh Dwivedi, the founder of Celebrity Face, gave them their instructions: “You have to make two videos in 15 minutes. In one you have to dance, and in the other [film] dialogue mimicry.” Some were then taken to a makeup room to get their hair puffed and their nose powdered, before finally being led to the audition.
In this last room was not a television-studio array of recording equipment, but a small circular flashlight and a smartphone holder attached to a single tripod stand. These people were indeed trying to make it as stars, but not in the movies or on television—they were in search of fame on TikTok.
In theory, TikTok is just an app where users post short videos, but in practice it’s the stage on which teenagers across the world are competing for attention, for celebrity, and, in India, for a completely different life.
TikTok was launched in 2017, and the following year, its parent company, the Chinese media business ByteDance, acquired Musical.ly, a social-media platform for sharing music videos, for $1 billion and merged it with TikTok. The app has since been downloaded by 1 billion people worldwide.
Whereas Facebook and Twitter were built around making friends and adding followers, TikTok is about winning fans. It makes its users believe that they have a chance at global celebrity, irrespective of where they live, as long as they can get online and hold people’s attention for anywhere from 15 seconds to one minute. This promise is built into TikTok’s artificial-intelligence-driven interface: It shows its users content they didn’t ask to see, made by people they probably don’t know, “opening up,” the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz wrote, “new routes to serendipitous discovery.”
Nowhere is the impact of this promise better represented than here in India. TikTok is currently the most downloaded mobile app in the country, with more than 200 million users, and it’s shaping a new youth culture in which millions of young people—in big cities and small villages alike—are trying to be TikTok’s next big star. The results are both magical and nightmarish.
When his turn in front of the selfie camera came, Bhatia lip-synched to a trending tune. His videos did not make the cut. With just 130 followers on the app, Bhatia is still waiting for his viral moment. “Someday my video may be picked up” by TikTok’s algorithm, he told us. “It takes effort.”
When you click on TikTok’s icon, a music note rendered in neon, you are immediately taken to a vertical video spanning the length of your phone screen. It could be a sports highlight, cooking instructions, or an amusing clip of an animal, but in India, it most likely it will be a stranger lip-synching to a popular song. Music is at the core of TikTok’s design: Video creators have the option to choose from a library of sounds, copy a tune from another video, or make a split-screen duet with another user.
Though TikTok fame has regional variations—cheerleading clips are more prevalent in the United States, English lessons in India—its monetization follows a global pattern, from brand endorsements to YouTube channels and movie roles. One of the biggest TikTok stars in the U.S. is Loren Gray, a 17-year-old who amassed 35 million followers by posting videos of herself lip-synching to pop hits. Today she is herself a pop star, with album deals with Virgin Records and Capitol Records. In China, where the app is known as Douyin, Liu Qikun, who isn’t yet 20, has 10 million followers who watch his scripted comedy clips; he makes money by endorsing the country’s leading e-commerce company, Alibaba.
Indians feature high up on every list of the world’s top TikTok stars. This is for many reasons. More than half of India’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of 25, and more than 500 million Indians use the internet today, thanks to the growing penetration of cheap smartphones and mobile data. But not all of them can express themselves through neatly worded tweets or self-deprecating captions on Instagram posts. In fact, a large section of India’s first-time internet users—some of them illiterate, others speaking in local dialects—find navigating video-based platforms easier. From 2012 to 2018, the time spent by an Indian watching online videos grew from an average of 2 minutes a day to 52 minutes a day, according to a report by the media agency Zenith.
For now, YouTube has more users in India than TikTok does, with 265 million, but in some ways, TikTok has more potential. If YouTube lowered the barrier to film and television by making studios and equipment irrelevant, TikTok reduced that threshold further still by removing expectations that the content users create be in any way special. TikTok also supports 15 Indian languages, the app’s India spokesperson told us, enabling each region in the country to have its own corner on the app with its own stars, trends, and market.
For Indians, TikTok is a mix of “timepass” and creative outlet, but for more and more of them, it is also a career choice, a path to financial success. This promise is leading many young Indians to go to extremes, from stealing iPhones to posing with loaded guns. Multiple people in India have reportedly killed themselves after being stopped by relatives from making TikTok videos, or suffering abuse on the platform. And TikTok is becoming embroiled in India’s myriad conflicts, too: Videos of high-caste men threatening to annihilate lower-caste Dalit communities are common; in July, TikTok banned three of its most popular creators (all of them Muslim) for posting videos in which they condemned the lynching of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob; in April, an Indian court banned TikTok from app stores after petitioners said it wasn’t safe for kids. (The ban was lifted a few weeks later.)
“We have zero tolerance for objectionable content on the platform that incites violence or self-harm,” the TikTok spokesperson wrote in an email. “We have a robust set of Community Guidelines and an appropriate action is taken against the user videos that violate the guidelines. Additionally, our strong moderation capabilities backed by state-of-the-art technology along with a robust human moderation team helps in filtering content and terminate accounts of users who violate our Terms of Service and Community Policies. Till April 2019, we had taken down 6 million video content that violates our community guidelines.”
Ratan Chouhan discovered TikTok in 2017 and began posting videos of herself dancing to Haryanvi-language songs, acting out folklore native to the northwestern state of Rajasthan, and rapping verses she wrote in regional dialects. She appeared in these videos with short hair, tattoos, and sometimes a turban. Today the 21-year-old rules over Rajasthani TikTok with 2.5 million followers.
Chouhan’s newfound fame isn’t just about squealing fans and selfie requests wherever she goes in Jaipur, the state capital. It is how she supports her family. Her father has not had a job for eight years, her mother does not work, and her brother is in university. Chouhan earns enough via promotional videos on TikTok and celebrity appearances to support them all.
Even those with a few thousand followers can make money, says Khalfan Shaikh, who runs Hashtag Mumbai News, a YouTube channel covering TikTok. Mid-level TikTokers get paid for lip-synching to songs by small music labels that want to reach a new audience, or can translate their TikTok popularity to other platforms, such as Instagram, where they charge more for individual posts—one photo of a TikTok-to-Instagram influencer wearing knock-off Reeboks can earn her 1,700 rupees, according to Shaikh. This can make for a reasonable income in parts of India—45 percent of full-time workers here earned less than 10,000 rupees a month in 2017 to 2018, and the legal minimum wage is just 18,000 rupees a month.
Of course, earning options expand as you add more followers. Those at the top can make money by performing at public events, where people pay as much as 5,000 rupees to see them up close, or promoting Bollywood films. That’s right: The TikTok star is the one promoting the big-budget movie.
Sameeksha Sud joined Musical.ly as a bored television actor in 2016, making videos in which she dubbed her voice over popular movie and music clips. “It seemed easy and entertaining,” she told us. “But I never thought that social media could be a career.”
Today, Sud has 13 million followers on TikTok and no longer acts in television shows, instead making 15-second videos featuring her singing, dancing, and acting with friends. Clothing and soda brands pay her an average of 150,000 rupees for a short video endorsement, says Manasi Ajwani, her manager at Qyuki Digital Media, an agency that manages 300 TikTok influencers in India.
Jannat Zubair Rahmani, meanwhile, has 20 million TikTok followers, as well as her own smartphone app, where paying subscribers can view exclusive photos and videos. Zubair, 18, lives the life of a movie star, with hordes of fans frequently waiting for a sight of her—Anika Verma, also 18, traveled more than 150 miles from Jaipur to New Delhi and paid 6,000 rupees to shoot a video with Zubair in an effort to boost her own follower count, which currently stands at just more than 1,600. Even the bouncers guarding Zubair from her fans at a New Delhi meet-and-greet told us that they planned to shoot a video with her for their own TikTok accounts.
Among those who have lined up for a video with Zubair is 5-year-old Moosa Karim. He has been on TikTok for the past eight months, and he can’t get enough of it. He creates his own videos and has his parents post them for him. (TikTok said it began this year barring users under the age of 13 from creating accounts, but we found several underage accounts that continue to be active on the platform.) A few months ago, a video in which Moosa appeared with a TikTok star went viral, boosting the boy’s follower count to 15,000. His father, Abdul Karim, argues that Moosa could become far more popular if smartphones weren’t banned at his school.
“How much can he do without any support from the school?” Karim asked us, fuming. He nevertheless believes that his son’s future is bright. He pulled up a photo of Moosa posing with one of Bollywood’s biggest celebrities. “Even Salman Khan recognizes him.”