In Harda, a small town around 150 km from Indore, 22-year-old Mahendra Dogney has become a sensation. A college dropout who once ran away from home for a year as he hated studies, Dogney is a motivational speaker now.

Over 2,000 km from Dogney’s Indore, in Kerala’s Kottarakkara, 60 km from capital Thiruvananthapuram, the 20-something Krishna Jeev alias Fukru is chased by event managers and fans. He reportedly gets 30-40 calls an hour — invitations for events, messages from fans, etc. And in Mumbai, Faisal Shaikh is mobbed by fans wherever he goes and just last week the 23-year-old singer got an offer to croon a number in a Bollywood film.

Meet India’s TikTok stars, a home-grown new crop of celebrities, thanks to a China-made software. For the uninitiated, TikTok, formerly called Musically, is an app developed by China’s Bytedance, which is one of the most valued start-ups (over $75 billion at last count) in the world today.

TikTok allows users to create short-form videos and act-out memes backed by music and other sound clips that the app offers in its in-built features. TikTok is a raging sensation in India and it is providing millions of youngsters such as Faisal and Fukru a platform to showcase their talent.


Just recently, TikTok hogged the headlines when the Centre imposed a ban on the app in India in April, following which Google and Apple pulled it out of their stores. Since its launch in India in 2016, TikTok has added over 12 crore users in this market, giving the likes of YouTube and Instagram a run for their money.

Many TikTok users became so popular, thanks to their unique skills and the medium’s simple yet powerful algorithm, that they caught the eye of talent hunters in next to no time.

For one, Bollywood stars Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan chose to promote their latest movie Kalank with TikTok stars Faisal, Jannat and Aashika, to reach out to maximum youngsters — together they command over four crore followers on TikTok. Obviously, the promotion worked well and was a win-win for both sides. While for the Kalank team, it was an affordable way to reach out to the smaller towns and cities, for the TikTok celebrities, it opened the door to several bigger opportunities. Likewise in Harda. Dogney’s popularity grew in less than two months when he realised the potential of TikTok and started creating 15-30 second videos to talk about basic life-coaching tips that most youngsters look for. In just 55 days on setting up his profile on TikTok, Dogney has gained over 6 lakh followers.

“TikTok gave me such a big platform,” says the son of a car mechanic. “People who did not want to talk to me in the past now post my videos as their status messages.” Dogney was appalled when the Madras High Court banned TikTok from app stores for hosting pornography (which was lifted later). “This platform has provided me reach I couldn’t even think of. A ban can kill the dreams of many creators like me,” says Dogney.

Many agree. A sustained ban on any such platform could be fatal to the livelihood of people like Dogney. “A ban on a platform for pornography is not a long-term solution. You can easily find porn on any large platform if you so desire,” says Faisal Kawoosa, founder at research and analytics firm techArc. “Even the Centre’s ban last year on porn websites was proven useless as people now have enough other ways to access all the banned sites. The Government must take a more thoughtful approach towards controlling the misuse of social media, otherwise it can impact budding artists and creators.”

Since being pulled up by the High Court, TikTok has taken several measures to ensure that it bans profiles showing any form of pornography or inappropriate content.

“We, in fact, are more conservative in India and take care of local sensibilities. For example, our algorithms ensure that we allow showing even less skin in India,” says Helena Lersch, Director, Global Public Policy at TikTok. “We are investing heavily in India and by the end of this year we’ll have more than 1,000 people here. About 25 per cent of them will be in content moderation. We will spend over a billion dollars in India in the next three years.”

Even though BusinessLine tried to test the platform for pornography, after the ban was lifted, it was unable to find adult content, whereas 18-plus content is easily available even now on platforms such as YouTube, Telegram, Instagram, Facebook and even on Netflix.

But a TikTok influencer who did not want to be named says that even though TikTok’s official policy clearly stated that porn was not allowed on the platform, a lot of such content prevailed on the platform for a long time and it relied only on user complaints to restrict such content.

Content moderators at work

TikTok is now deploying artificial intelligence (AI) and an army of content moderators to rid its platform of any inappropriate content. In India, the team is also using AI to understand Indian languages and ban abuses in local languages as well.

“TikTok has made it easy to restrict vulgar comments from my videos. I just have to put down some keywords and comments with those keywords are automatically restricted from my comments section,” says Surat-based Shivani Kapila, 24. With close to a million followers, Kapila has quit a full-time HR job at Convergys to be an independent content creator on the platform.

Even those who do not use TikTok as their primary content platform feel a ban impacts freedom of expression. “TikTok is just another platform to voice your opinion. If you don’t like the content, you have the choice to avoid it,” says Bhuvan Bam, a YouTube star known for his comedy shows and music albums.

Facebook and Instagram are working to cut down on abuse and ensure they are not on the government radar. “Given how fast the community is growing, we look at two basic philosophical approaches,” says Saket Saurabh Jha, Head of Entertainment Partnerships at Facebook India. “One is, the community is the biggest safeguard for itself. We put in tools to report inappropriate content or behaviour. The platform allows you to block people, switch off content or block certain keywords. We also have machine-learning algorithms to detect inappropriate behaviour.”

Talent pool

Several media buying agencies and experts feel that TikTok has been able to democratise talent and bring a flood of opportunities for thousands of youngsters to pursue their dreams. “TikTok has served as a fantastic platform for people from smaller towns, villages and even cities,” says Ahmed Aftab Naqvi, founder and CEO, Gozoop, a digital marketing agency. “Gone are the days when you needed to be kin to a celebrity or hail from urban areas to get your big break.”

According to Naqvi of Gozoop, TikTok users have established their position as social media ‘influencers’ and receive brand promotions and have been discovered by media. “It has ushered in an era where you can become a superstar in your niche audience on your own merit. It has truly democratised talent,” he says.

Ashutosh Harbola, Co-Founder and CEO of Buzzoka, an integrated influencer marketing platform, feels that what Instagram did to the fashion industry, TikTok will do to content. TikTok provides a platform where a person can perform without inhibition and without spending much, he says. All one needs is an app that has camera, music, dialogues, everything. One can choose not to use those features and record their own voice as well.

Naqvi of Gozoop says there is a dearth of opportunities in small towns and people from these places can now showcase their talent to pan-India audiences without spending lakhs travelling to cities to be judged for their skills.

“The next Shah Rukh Khan or Varun Dhawan can come from a really small town. We have seen YouTuber Harsh Beniwal landing a movie role. Or they may just get an opportunity to create their own content and get famous. It is that one platform that has the power to create a star,” says Harbola, who cites the example of YouTube sensation Bhuvan Bam aka BB Ki Vines winning Filmfare’s ‘Entertainer Of The Year’ award for his short film with Divya Dutta, Plus Minus .

Bam’s content has grabbed the attention of Bollywood biggies such as Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan. He has about 6.3 million followers on Instagram, 13 million on YouTube. The 25-year-old, who started with short videos on YouTube as a college kid, now earns a few lakhs per month. According to advertising industry watchers, a top Indian YouTuber earns ₹30 lakh to ₹ 1 crore a month. TikTok users can earn as much or more.

A revolution is going to happen with TikTok users, says Harbola, adding that corporates have started doing campaigns. SBI Life did a campaign for its app YONO to woo youngsters in small towns and garnered 7-8 million views in a week. HDFC Life also did a campaign recently.

Interestingly, the recent ban only helped TikTok grow its user base further. “People who earlier didn’t bother have taken notice of the app due to the ban. You can’t stop talent. All this is user-generated content and you can’t stop it,” asserts Harbola. The likes of Fukru and Faizal will agree, happily.

With inputs from Jinoy Jose P