Twenty-three-year-old TikTok star Faisal Shaikh – AKA @MrFaisu_07 – started out as a perfume salesman, making 14 videos a day on TikTok on the side. Born into a lower-class family in Mumbai, Shaikh posted lip-synced Bollywood covers and slapstick sketches he’d conjured up with friends. Today, nearly 25 million people have given him more than a billion likes on the platform, and he has swapped a meagre weekly paycheque for an apartment of his own. His deodorant brand – 2407 Crush by Mr Faisu – sold out within two hours of launching.
Right now, there are more young people in India than in any other country on the planet. And for people like Shaikh, influencer culture in India is bringing tangible change to marginal communities like those he came from. “It’s funny, people you’d never imagine are influencers now, whether it’s with 2,000 or 20 million followers,” says Vivan Marwaha, an independent policy consultant based in New Delhi, and author of upcoming non-fiction book What Millennials Want.
In cities like Delhi and Mumbai, you’ll notice young people armed with camera phones or basic DIY rigs, hanging around expensive locales like Connaught Place or Marine Drive. “A lot of them are clearly kids of the working class,” says Marwaha. “Almost certainly, they come from that milieu where they don’t have a lot of agency. But what they can control is their bodies. They can certainly spend 80 rupees on a tube of hair gel or eye shadow, even if they don’t have the means to buy an iPhone.”
The latest figures reflect a paradigm shift in India, where young people account for around half the general population. From 2019, the country has been home to the second largest and fastest-growing internet user-base in the world; by 2021, the number of Indians with internet access is projected to grow to 600 million. The way the apps associated with this boom are being used by young people here goes way beyond mere entertainment: they are being used to bear witness, as in the comprehensive phone-shot coverage of the recent violent protests in Delhi.
But they are also being turned inwards, accelerating the personal trajectories of those who possess the latest strain of entrepreneurial spirit. Last year, TikTok took 5.5 billion hours of Indian watchers’ time, prompting its Chinese parent Bytedance to launch Helo, a regional video-sharing app available in 14 Indian languages. Alongside apps such as Likee, ShareChat, and Vigo Video, these are the platforms that small-town and suburban Indians are seeking out, where the stars – self-appointed or otherwise – speak their language, reflect their culture, and talk about things that matter to them.
“Almost certainly, (many influencers) come from that milieu where they don’t have a lot of agency. But what they can control is their bodies” – Vivan Marwaha
“Instagram has helped shape our global community,” says Mriga Kapadiya, who founded clothing label NorBlack NorWhite with Amrit Kumar over a decade ago, after the pair moved to India from their home in Toronto. The label, headquartered in Delhi and with an outpost in Mumbai, was born of a mutual love for the streetwear culture that Kapadiya and Kumar grew up with – “Club Monaco, Triple Five Soul, Fila, Gap, Nike” – mixed with curiosity about tie-dye practices rooted in the western state of Gujarat.
Today, NorBlack NorWhite boasts nearly 67,000 Instagram followers, and the duo have collaborated with brands like Fila. But they insist that their “purpose is not to influence” but to stay “true to themselves”, by engaging with local artisanal communities and staying off the seasonal fashion treadmill. “NBNW started coming alive during our years living in Mumbai,” explains Kapadiya. “(It’s) a space for us by us, mashing up our love of colour, patterns, and textiles with the 90s aesthetic we were raised in, while unapologetically celebrating the multiple cultures and immigrant communities we identify with.”
Others in Delhi emphasise the power of engaged fans who spread the word over their personal follower counts. “Even if you had 200 followers, those 200 are basically spreading your gospel around and making your audience larger,” says Siddhant Roop Rai AKA MC Soopy, a resident DJ at the Delhi-based online radio community Boxout FM, who himself boasts only a few hundred followers. “I guess that’s what’s happening to me right now.” Rai’s weeknight sets for the station are bursting with everything from SoundCloud rap to Jersey Club, Baltimore techno, and grime. Away from the confines of Instagram, his own events label, The Shelter, has introduced artists like Mehmet Aslan and Elena Colombi to an audience that didn’t know them. “Of course you’ve got to be online,” he says, “but I can’t overstate the importance of actually showing up to venues, parties, art or fashion shows, everything. Being visible IRL brings with it an authenticity that makes all the difference… the word ‘influencer’ makes me cringe.”
In another corner of Delhi, the founders of Phoolvari – a gardening-based startup – also reject the influencer tag, despite growing their young business via WhatsApp and word of mouth. The team was mentored by Keshav Bansal, the director of an Indian smartphone manufacturer, Intex Technologies. “We are entrepreneurs – you know us for our work – while influencers are (largely) known for their personalities,” reasons 17-year-old member Vanshaj Chhabra, who set up the initiative with his friends from west Delhi last year.
“It was the only one of the five or so ideas (we had that we were able to realise),” says Eshan Goel, another founding member, adding that the group had also hoped to open a gay bar in a year that saw homosexuality decriminalised in India. “It seemed feasible with a small amount of money.” In the four months that Phoolvari was active last summer, the team took orders over their smartphones, bargained and struck deals with local nurseries, took on doorstep deliveries, and even organised plant drives.
Last summer, a report from Influencer Marketing Hub claimed that traditional influencer engagement had reached an alltime low. But in India, the emergent success of influencers like YouTuber Prajakta Koli tells a different story. Koli, who goes by MostlySane, has five million subscribers on YouTube. As one of the country’s most popular YouTube stars, her off-kilter comedy sketches, in which she recalls a younger Lilly Singh, speak to a global Gen-Z audience. The reason her latest western branded partnership was a success, she says, is because the brand gave her space to speak specifically to young Indians. “(They) respected me as a creator, and understood that we know what will speak to this audience – an audience that they want to tap into.”
For Koli, it feels like the influencer game has only just begun in India. “We’ve finally begun to accept who we are, what our realities are and (how) we talk about them now,” she explains. “We have (our) phones, and with TikTok we have the latest software, and it seems that’s all this Bollywood-crazy country needed. Now, everyone’s a star.”
“These dreamers are the new face of India,” writes journalist Snigdha Poonam in her 2018 book Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World, but she also points towards a certain disconnect in young Indians, between celebrity aspiration and actual circumstance. But, for better or worse, the IRL impact of young Indian lives lived online is undeniable. “I couldn’t get over the gap between their reality and dreams,” Poonam writes. “They, on the other hand, couldn’t care less.”