Over the past four years, India has experienced a digital renaissance that has brought millions of new users online. In 2016, Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man, launched Reliance Jio, a more than $36 billion project to bring 4G internet to the poor. Since then, the number of internet subscriptions in India has more than doubled, to over 600 million. Not only do rural and lower-income Indians now have cheap, reliable mobile access for the first time — it has also paved the way for new video apps like TikTok, Likee, and Bigo Live, giving powerful platforms to groups once ignored by the country’s upper classes.
For better or worse, these apps hold up both a mirror and a megaphone to India’s cultural divisions. There are now lower-caste influencers on TikTok whose newfound voices have placed targets on their backs. There’s overnight fame for rural women who are, perhaps unintentionally, redefining societal expectations of them through their online recognition. And there’s clear harassment and hate speech, both online and offline, which have been supercharged by the reach of these apps. There’s also, of course, a lot of money to be made.
In this series, Rest of World follows the rising stars of these video apps as they tell their stories of fame and its consequences and how an overlooked crop of social media platforms are reshaping Indian society.
The TikTok Queen of Trichy
One day last year, Sathana Chinnadurai opened TikTok to see her face in an obituary video. It wasn’t just that the video had pronounced her dead; they had doctored her image to resemble that of an “item girl,” a term for the scantily clad female leads in Indian musical numbers.
The message was devastating: she would end up dead soon.
For Chinnadurai, who is 28 and lives in a remote South Indian village with her husband and extended family, TikTok had been instantly validating. She’d always imagined herself as an actor, but an early marriage, and then motherhood, got in the way. She joined TikTok on a lark in 2018, singing and dancing to tunes from Kollywood films (the Tamil-language version of Bollywood). TikTok fame came quickly, even by the standards of an app that’s only three years old. Within a year, she had 700,000 followers and an online life hidden from her family. TikTok, she believed, “was God’s gift to me to showcase my talent.”
Still, using TikTok also meant facing near-constant harassment. Commenters called her a prostitute and accused her of having multiple sexual partners and corrupting Indian society.
But the obituary video was more than she could take. When it made its way to her family via WhatsApp, they were livid. They said she had disgraced them. Chinnadurai locked herself in her room and attempted suicide by going without food or water for three days. Eventually, a close friend broke in and intervened.
“The agony of seeing my own obituary and incessant bullying wasn’t worth it. No woman should go through what I went through,” Chinnadurai said. It took weeks for Chinnadurai to persuade her husband to let her post again. “My parents married me off to you when I was in eighth grade,” she told her husband. “I too have dreams and ambitions, all of which ended at 15.”
As millions of rural women in India have flocked to TikTok in search of fame or plain amusement, their mere presence on the platform has unleashed waves of harassment and misogynistic threats from men who consider themselves guardians of morality. In some cases, women have been physically abused simply for using it, or divorced over videos supposedly “damaging to family values.” In November, a 27-year-old woman was murdered by her husband for using the app without his permission. Last year, a man stabbed his wife to death after she refused to stop uploading videos to the platform.
The vast majority of incidents of harassment of women on TikTok go unreported, according to Bishakha Datta, cofounder of Point of View, a nonprofit that promotes the voices of marginalized women in India. Datta explains that women who sing and dance on social media, wear Western clothes, and post without their husbands’ knowledge or permission are defying traditional gender roles. “Going on TikTok itself is seen as breaking a gender norm.”
Chinnadurai posted her earliest videos while working as a home nurse and a beautician. Her persona is the epitome of a small-town Indian girl — smiling while wearing no makeup and dressing in traditional colorful cotton saris. “When I uploaded my first video, I got 100 likes,” she said. “I was on cloud nine.”
Chinnadurai is from a family of Tamil-speaking farmers in the small village of Nachelura, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where her family uses a firewood stove to cook. She was married to an uncle in his mid-20s at age 15 and had her first child a year later. She had her second child at 18.
It was mimicking a controversial Kollywood starlet that led to her big break. She danced and sang to singles by “Silk Smitha,” one of the most sought-after actresses of Indian cinema in the 1980s, who became famous for performing bold, seductive dances in Tamil “item numbers” (hit songs from Indian cinema).
“This caught everyone’s attention,” Chinnadurai said.
Her internet fame soon bled into the real world. People began recognizing her in public. Her fans started calling her “Trichy Sathana,” a play on Tiruchirappalli, the name of a city near her home. Being TikTok famous in rural India often means getting invites to appear at live events. Some people will travel hundreds of miles across states to see their favorite TikTokers perform. At one meet and greet in the city of Madurai, which drew a few hundred attendees, “Trichy Sathana” stole the show. A crowd of male TikTokers thronged Chinnadurai, posing for pictures and asking her to record “duets,” a split-screen video-capture feature unique to TikTok. She obliged.
When the videos of Chinnadurai’s live appearances hit TikTok, the harassment escalated. “They called me names and said, ‘Whore! Stop dancing with strangers,’” Chinnadurai recounted. Others chastised her for recording duets with men who weren’t her husband. For every video she shared, Chinnadurai said, there would be at least 50 responses — mostly short clips of people waving slippers or brooms, common symbols of ridicule in India. There were rants from men about her promiscuity, including the suggestion that she had morally corrupted the life of her husband and family.
For many in India, Silk Smitha is more than a sex symbol; she stands, more controversially, for a less-inhibited view of female sexuality. (Smitha’s death in 1996 was ultimately ruled a suicide.) The minute women step out of their traditional roles and embrace public platforms like TikTok, they get punished, Datta said: “On the surface it looks like they are reacting to the use of TikTok, but actually it’s a reaction to the fact that she is asserting her independence.”
Not long after the Madurai event, someone hacked into Chinnadurai’s account and deleted more than 2,000 videos. Months later, TikTok video compilations of Chinnadurai on YouTube are still filled with lewd, classist, sexist, or culturally intolerant comments. “More than TikTok, love your husband and children first,” reads one. Another: “Even if you died, you’d go to hell.”
Chinnadurai wasn’t prepared for online stardom. She still isn’t. Unlike the more-educated, urban TikTokers she follows, Chinnadurai still can’t figure out how to use any of TikTok’s Instagram-like augmented-reality filters. She knows how to shoot and add songs to her videos, but a friend Ramesh Khannan helps her out whenever she gets locked out of her account or forgets the password. Khannan, for his part, has forbidden his wife from using the app.
Since the obituary incident, the abuse from trolls, both online and off, has not stopped; Chinnadurai says that she has subsequently tried to commit suicide on two other occasions. In one video from 2019, she cries as she begs for help against her harassers. She’s now on her third TikTok account; according to Chinnadurai, trolls reported her previous accounts, forcing her to abandon them.
TikTok declined to comment on specific instances of harassment against Chinnadurai but says it has an online safety center available in 10 Indian languages with instructions on how to manage privacy settings and resources for dealing with cyberbullying. The company also purged 6 million videos in India last spring for violating its community guidelines. “The harassment has decreased since then, but it’s still there,” Chinnadurai said.
Today, Trichy Sathana is a different performer, worn out by the incessant trolling. When she dances on TikTok, she uses “light movements,” nothing too sexual. She no longer sings for her fans in person, though she has gotten some work acting in short Tamil films. TikTok doesn’t have the draw it once had. “I’m not as interested anymore,” Chinnadurai said. “I have this account and upload videos to make sure my name doesn’t fade away. You need to shed your honour and any regard you have for yourself to be a celebrity on TikTok.”
Now streaming: Online class-warfare in India
If there’s one thing that bothers Ahmed Meeran, a 25-year-old Instagram celebrity, it’s thirsty TikTokers. The people who complain about not getting enough likes. The viral “chicken leg piece” guy and his Western copycats. The many, many bad singers. “If you are too famous on TikTok, it’s not something you should be proud of,” says Meeran. “It’s a moment for self-cringe.”
Meeran, a management student at the Indian Institute of Management Kashipur, a top Indian business school, has over 456,000 Instagram followers, whom he entertains with a reliable schtick: mocking people on TikTok. From his dorm room in Kashipur, a city in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand, Meeran directs his humor almost entirely at Tamilians, one of southern India’s largest ethnic groups. Meeran speaks five languages and is Tamil himself, but his series “People of TikTok” (200 episodes and counting) is becoming a brand of its own.
His brash, insult-heavy comedy was influenced, in part, by watching TikTok’s user base change. “Back when it was Musical.ly, there were more classy, educated people,” Meeran says of an early TikTok competitor that merged with the platform in 2018.
Welcome to the status-conscious, shit-talking corners of the Indian internet, where the more-educated, urban elites of Instagram toss insults at less-educated TikTokers from rural India. There are several varieties of this kind of comedy, but there’s always a common theme — ridiculing the sudden fame of a certain class of people on the internet.
In smaller towns and cities, lower-caste and poorer Indians live in neighborhoods segregated from the upper classes, and the explosion of mobile internet has replicated some of those physical boundaries online. Wealthy Indians have remained loyal to better-established social-media platforms, like Instagram, while the less affluent and newly online have been drawn to apps like TikTok, Bigo Live, and Likee. With their simple, highly visual interfaces, they are easier to use than Instagram or Twitter for those who don’t speak English or are illiterate.
These less-educated TikTokers are Meeran’s favorite subject. In one video, which has more than 330,000 views, he makes fun of a woman who became popular on TikTok for lip-synching and performing random skits with her family. In “Let’s Learn English,” he makes fun of a viral TikToker who speaks in broken English while responding to an online troll. “It doesn’t feel funny. Stop mocking his English, at least he is trying,” one user commented.
Meeran also jokes about people using TikTok improperly. In another video, he chastises someone for dancing to songs wearing sexy clothes. “She uses TikTok like it’s Pornhub,” Meeran says. At times, Meeran seems to disdain the platform even more than its users. “To be honest, no one watches well-made videos anymore. It’s only cringe that works,” he told Rest of World.
Meeran’s comedic inspiration comes from yet another social-video-sharing platform: YouTube. He models his humor after that of “CarryMinati,” a comedian and gamer who, with 10 million subscribers, is one of India’s biggest YouTube stars. Based in Faridabad, like Meeran, Carry jokes about people’s appearance and social stature. In the video, “Talented People of Vigo,” he roasts users of Vigo Video, another TikTok-like video app that is popular with lower-class Indians. He’s taken on TikTokers as well, in videos that have tens of millions of views.
With a large library of popular Bollywood songs and an interface available in 10 Indian languages and dialects, TikTok can feel even more hyperlocal in India than it does in the West. But it’s also become a place to express regional and cultural identity; there are popular hashtags for the Jatav, Gujjar, Dalit, and Chamar communities. That overt expression of identity has, in some cases, provoked real-world violence from people who consider themselves highborn. Last year, upper-caste men beat a youth from the lower-caste Dalit community for daring to sport a mustasche groomed like those worn by Indian kings and warriors. Caste-based hate speech has been a persistent problem on the platform, where users in India have adapted the duet video format to mock the socially marginalized.
For his part, Meeran doesn’t believe that his comedy crosses a line by targeting others. “I roast them without getting personal,” he said. Meeran says that most of his audience is made up of urban Tamil speakers, many of whom work in tech, his “IT people.” “When I started out, many wrote me off as an online troll. Now they see me as a creator,” he said.
Meeran claims his humor has led to real fame for certain TikTokers. He says he discovered GP Muthu, who runs a wood store in rural Tamil Nadu and became TikTok famous (864,500 followers) for his vulgar retorts to trolls. “Swearing is not a talent,” Meeran says of Muthu. “Not to be classist, but many [TikTokers] are economically, socially, and education-wise very backward. You don’t necessarily have to be talented to be famous on TikTok.”
But TikTokers like Muthu aren’t fazed. “I don’t care for it,” Muthu told Rest of World when asked about Meeran’s videos. For Muthu, the videos reinforce what he already knows: Users on Instagram and YouTube discriminate against those on emerging platforms like TikTok and Vigo Video because they give new people a say in internet discourse.
So You Want to Be a #LikeeStar?
At 11 p.m. on a Friday night last December, 20-year-old Mahjabeen Fatima — “Sofia,” as she’s known to her fans — doesn’t look like she’s been continuously performing for her audience for more than three hours. Dressed in a blue sweater and a pink headband, she looks fresh and wears a wide smile. As Hindi and American pop songs play in the background, she chats away, intermittently lip-synching to the music.
Her eyes quickly scan the barrage of messages from her fans that fills up her phone screen. The gifts they give her are virtual — roses, dream castles, and yachts — but they can be exchanged for real money.Some of those fans, who are mostly men, are also her patrons: They will spend thousands of dollars a year to hear her call out their name or just to watch her smile.
Fatima rests her chin in her hand, tilts her head, and breaks into a cheeky grin. “Thank you for the cute roses and the lovely stars. So sweet of you,” she says, switching from Hindi to English to thank them.
All of this is happening on Likee, India’s latest trending video app. Owned by China’s JOYY, Inc., and launched in India in 2017, Likee is a highly gamified hybrid of short videos and live streaming, and it’s creating a new kind of online celebrity in India. In India, Likee downloads grew by 165 percent between 2018 to 2019, and with more than 100 million monthly active users, it now ranks as one of the world’s most popular apps. Many of these users are racing to become the next #LikeeStar.
Anyone on Likee can upload short videos of 15 seconds, but users who hit certain popularity targets can “level up,” unlocking the ability to record for up to a minute or livestream for hours at a time. These influencers can communicate with their fans and monetize those interactions directly through the app’s online-gifting platform.
In the bizarre new world of India’s video-app boom, Fatima is a full-fledged celebrity. In just two years on the platform, Fatima has amassed 15.3 million Likee fans and counting. A full-time engineering student from Kolkata, she cultivates a sweet, innocent appearance, borrowing from the stock tropes of the wholesome Indian girl. She has made over $35,000 on the platform in in-app gifts from her fans — all from streaming from her bedroom at around 8 p.m. on weeknights.
Likee also makes monthly payments to its top streamers. While the company declined to disclose the details of these payments, various hosts told Rest of World the amounts fluctuated by month. According to documents shared with Rest of World, in March 2019, top streamers like Fatima doubled what they made from their fans through payouts from Likee.
Much has changed for Fatima since joining Likee. Until a year ago, her conservative Muslim family forbade her from interacting with boys or using a profile picture on WhatsApp. “Likee has given me both fame and money,” Fatima says. “At such a young age, I am able to earn a lot to buy my own iPhone and help my father out financially.”
Likee is a subculture with its own stars, awards, celebrations, creator camps, memes, and meetups. Many of its creators eschew more-mainstream platforms. While some have Instagram and YouTube accounts, they rarely have as many followers and predominantly use them to repost Likee videos.
Indeed, Fatima’s new celebrity has brought her much attention, some of it unexpected. “A family of four travelled over an hour to come meet me and take a selfie,”she recalled.
So what’s on Likee? Its user base comprises everything from a mix of funny and cringey dancers to singers, mimers, makeup artists, and blooper-video bloggers. The app also has a leaderboard that lists the creators who receive the most likes and views.
Unlike apps designed by Western tech companies, which tend to favor a minimalist aesthetic for its appearance of convenience and efficiency, Likee resembles China’s popular apps: jam-packed with thumbnail photos, icons, multicolored badges, rewards, VIP passes, etc. They also regularly feature competitions between livestreamers, who lip-synch and dance to see who can earn the most gifts.
Likee’s focus on hyperlocalization has been crucial to its growth; the app allows users to choose from among 14 different Indian languages and draws a large number of users from northern and western India, whose inhabitants, thanks to the low cost of internet data, have become among the most prolific consumers of it in the world.
The platform’s emphasis on patrons, also known as gifters, changes the mechanics of online fame and fortune. It’s a dynamic that can be fraught. Fatima’s biggest gifter goes by the Likee name “Rahul,” and he is both loyal and possessive. “He says he’s my biggest fan and doesn’t want anyone else’s name to appear in the top sender. So he keeps creating different accounts to gift me,” said Fatima. “In fact, he joined Likee after watching one of my videos.”
Fatima doesn’t interact much with her gifters. Other performers are more provocative and sexually suggestive, or go even further at the encouragement of their fans. Comments like “kapde utaar” — which literally translates as “remove your clothes” – appear alongside “I love you” and “Give me your number.”
According to some female Likee stars, male users often seem starved for companionship. Likee’s community guidelines forbid “sexual behavior” and “pornographic content,” but many users ignore the rules. “If a woman wearing a sari or revealing clothes makes a bold video, it usually receives a large number of likes,” says Meera Chattopadhyay, a 26-year-old user known for her provocative dance moves. In a year on Likee, she has acquired 16.5 million followers, but she speaks disparagingly of the new crop of rising stars on the platform: “They don’t need to have any talent.”
Bored while her husband was away on a business trip, Chattopadhyay signed up for Likee after watching a YouTube ad. It was her first social-media app, and it gave her an outlet for her love of dance. “My husband owns 20 flats in the city,” she says. “I don’t do it for the money.”
Likee is only one of India’s many thriving video apps. Bigo Live — owned by the same Chinese parent company, JOYY — is a broader, all-purpose platform; users offer tarot-card and astrology readings, stream Hollywood movies, and play mobile games. (JOYY even provides English lessons and other instructional webinars on the platform.) Some migrant workers use Bigo Live to connect with speakers of their native language while away from home. Together, the two apps have more than 100 million monthly active users globally. More than 70 percent of their user base is outside of China.
At times, though, Bigo Live can seem even raunchier than Likee. Both depend on a growing number of scouts who are scouring India for host talent. A typical advertisement: “pretty girls for chit chat needed.” There are now more than 300 talent-scouting agencies for Bigo Live alone in India, up from just 20 in 2018.
Tofijul Khadim, 25, started out on Bigo Live as a host who mimicked Bollywood actors. He now works as a scout for the platform in his hometown of Shantiniketan, in West Bengal, where he earns $540 a month, twice the salary of an entry-level engineer. Bigo expects its hosts to hit monthly view targets, and Khadim says he receives around 10 percent of his hosts’ monthly income.
Managing the 50 hosts in his network has its own responsibilities. Every morning, Khadim sifts through the schedule of his top performers for the next few days, to check if they have any special events like one-on-one competitions against other streamers. “You have to be number one,” Khadim reminds them, “because that’s how we get the money.”
Then Khadim starts pounding the pavement. Bigo recruiters normally trawl the Web looking for new influencers. But Khadim has expanded his search to local dance academies in hopes of plucking the next streaming star. “My entire day goes this way — especially because people from dance academies don’t usually understand what Bigo is and how it works unless I go and meet them in person.”
Lately, he’s started monetizing even the most everyday tasks. “I recently asked a few women in my neighborhood to live-stream when they are cooking in the kitchen,” Khadim said. They make over $200 a month – the equivalent of some government workers’ salaries. “They treat me like a God now,” he said.