When he’s doing his dance, Israil Ansari looks like a tornado. Keeping his feet pinned to the ground, he bends his elbows and knees and moves his arms and legs from side to side at such a high speed that his body and immediate surroundings dissolve into a blur.
It’s a dance that divides opinion. His fans describe him as a “unique talent” and “the world’s eighth wonder”. He has more than 2m followers on TikTok, the video-sharing app that made his name. But his detractors don’t hold back: “I can’t bear to watch this”, “someone take this guy to a hospital”, “give us a break, bro”. Ansari says he is happy as long as people are watching. “Fifty percent of it is love, fifty percent of it is hate. I will take both.” Naturally, he prefers the love, although it can get a bit much.
In Mumbai people stop him in the street. They ask for a selfie, then they ask him to do the dance. He always obliges, but when he’s in a hurry he wears a cap to avoid being ambushed. Without it, Ansari can be spotted a mile off because of his hair, which is almost as crazy as his dance. It’s currently green at the front and blond at the back, although it won’t be for long. He likes to dye it to match his clothes. “In one month I have changed my hair colour 27 times. No one else has done that in the world.”
Ansari is 19 and comes from a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, one of the poorest parts of the country. Until recently, he lived with his parents, grandparents and 11 siblings. His family couldn’t afford to keep him in school over the age of ten, so he dropped out and started working at a hardware store, supplementing his income with odd jobs, like painting houses or tiling. In 2017 he was at a wedding when a friend with a smartphone showed him TikTok, whose users post short, lo-fi videos of themselves doing just about anything: lip-syncing to pop music, conducting make-up tutorials, standing on their head. He was sold. “People were just expressing themselves. I thought: I could do that as well.”
He asked his brother, who works in a factory in Gujarat, to send him a smartphone. Then he started experimenting with TikTok. He made a few videos of himself joking around but failed to get much traction. Then one day in May 2018 he was walking through paddy fields listening to Bollywood tunes on his phone when a song featuring the actor Shah Rukh Khan began to play. He describes how, possessed by the music, he started to dance in a way no one had ever danced before: “This dance was just not there. Not in Bollywood films, not in the music videos. I brought it to the market,” he says, sweeping his hair back from his face.
“I asked a ten-year-old boy who was passing by to shoot a video [and] uploaded it to TikTok right away.” Within a few hours, the video of Ansari dancing between lush rows of rice had got 36,000 likes. There were a few sneering comments, sure. “They mocked my yellow pants; they said I dance like a crab.” But he didn’t care whether people were laughing with him or at him: what mattered was that they were hooked. “Hanse toh phanse.” (“You laugh and you get trapped.”)
TikTok was launched in 2016 by a Chinese company, Bytedance. By February 2019 it had been downloaded more than a billion times around the world. Unlike YouTube, its videos are a maximum of a minute long, although many are much shorter. This encourages its users, predominantly teenagers and twenty-somethings, to catch people’s attention as quickly as possible: the sillier or more extreme the stunt, the better. When you open the app, the first thing you see is not what people you follow have posted, but a video that is currently going viral, in an algorithm-powered feed called “For You”. If you enjoy it, you can double-tap to “like” it, like on Instagram, or follow the user – actions which bump it up to the top of other people’s “For You” feed. If you’re bored by it, you swipe up to see the next video. The longer people spend watching videos, the higher up the charts they climb. You could describe TikTok as an unholy marriage between Instagram, YouTube and Tinder. It has taken the most addictive components from each of them and used them to create a platform that is hard to look away from.
TikTok’s influencers are edgier than Instagram influencers, who – irrespective of whether they are in Manhattan or Mumbai – abide by a universal code of coolness, decked out in athleisure and munching on avocado toast. Unlike YouTube influencers, TikTokers don’t need a fancy phone, camera skills, editing software or fast internet. All they have to do is fill up 15 seconds with something people can’t stop watching. These lower barriers to entry mean that TikTok influencers come from a wider variety of backgrounds than influencers on other platforms.
A quarter of TikTok’s global downloads come from India, compared with just 10% of Instagram users. Like Ansari, many of India’s TikTok stars live in small towns or villages, have either never made it to college or dropped out, and speak their vernacular language. The growth of the app goes hand-in-hand with the spread of mobile internet in rural India. In 2015 only 9% of rural Indians had internet access. By 2018 this had grown to 25%, helped by a growing middle-class and cheap mobile data, which costs less than in any other country. Thanks in part to Reliance Jio, a company that offers cheap, high-speed data, the average Indian phone user now consumes more mobile data than most Europeans.
Even though Ansari had owned a smartphone for less than a year, he knew instinctively that if he was going to become famous, he had to give his followers more of what they wanted. So every day before he went to work, he asked friends and neighbours to film him dancing to music on his phone. His new routine raised a few eyebrows. Even though quite a few people in his village had smartphones, and were on WhatsApp and YouTube the whole time, no one had heard of TikTok, says Ansari. “People thought I had gone crazy. They would tell me to focus on my job. They used to call me a loser.”
But as Ansari’s follower count rocketed, people in his village started to take him seriously. Soon he had fans in towns and cities across the region, including Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. He started to receive invitations to open shops and beauty salons and perform at birthday parties and weddings – just in Uttar Pradesh at first but then in other states. They were coming in so thick and fast that Ansari decided to to leave his job and become a full-time influencer. He was making an average of 20,000 rupees for each appearance, which was more than his monthly salary had been. “They paid for everything: my travel, my stay, my food. I only had to satisfy their demands.” That part he found easy: “I exchange salaam-duas [greetings] with the men, dance for the ladies, and I am done.”
By the end of 2018 Ansari had acquired a manager, Tarique Mahmood, and was looking into new ways to monetise his fame. One successful venture has been brand endorsements: Ansari has promoted homeware companies and Chinese food trucks. The latest wheeze is charging fans 400 rupees to meet him. After Ansari advertised this service on TikTok, Mahmood was bombarded with requests. “I got 2,000 calls on my phone in a day,” he says. “People call from Dubai, from Indonesia, from the US. They are desperate to see him – even on a video call.” People travel miles to shoot a video with him, hoping to ride up the TikTok charts on his coat-tails. Mahmood is honest about his client’s abilities. “He does not know how to dance. All he does is throw around his hands and legs. But his fans love it.”
Ansari has taken his lack of conventional talent and turned it into his USP. “No one, whether they are young or old, rural or urban, who watches him can stop themselves from laughing. That’s how he became famous,” said Shaikh Khalfan, who runs a YouTube channel, Hashtag Mumbai News, dedicated to tracking TikTok stars. One of Ansari’s biggest fans is Irfan Ahmed, a 32-year-old from Mumbai who runs a recycling business. He was impressed by Ansari’s rags-to-riches tale and happy-go-lucky attitude. “He didn’t care what people said about him. I was obsessed with the idea of meeting him.” Ahmed flew to Lucknow then took a taxi to Ansari’s village just to be able to dance with him. He couldn’t find Ansari at first so he posted a video on TikTok tagging him and begging him for a meeting. It worked. “I met him in Lucknow and got him to dance with me to the same song that made him viral. He dances at such high speed that I couldn’t keep up with him. I was exhausted at the end of it.”
Most of Ansari’s fans are young men from small towns and villages who dream of a way to change their lives and see him as a hero. They turn up in their hundreds at Ansari’s public appearances, crowding around him and fighting (often literally) for selfies or the chance to appear in the background of one of his videos. Ansari no longer has to pay for anything. Beauty salons of Lucknow colour his hair free. Fans pay for his train tickets and airline fares, his hotel stays and food. They send him clothes, shoes and sunglasses. As his followers have multiplied so has his fee: he says he now makes up to 50,000 rupees a day.
Until he became famous, Ansari had never left his village. Now he has seen “all of India, from Kolkata in the east to Surat in the west.” He spends most of his time in Mumbai, where he says he “networks” with other social-media celebrities, studio executives and events organisers. No matter how busy his schedule, or where he is, he still manages to shoot half a dozen TikTok videos a day, out of which two or three will be good enough to post. As well as dancing, by himself or with other people, he acts out sequences from Bollywood films, lip syncs to popular songs and tells jokes. A recent example: “One day while I was drunk, I confused a courthouse for a restaurant and went in. The judge was saying ‘Order, Order’ so I did order: one plate of chicken and two quarters of whisky.”
Ansari has noticed how big TikTok has become in the past year. “Not just in my village, but in the whole region. Wherever you go, people are making TikTok videos…Everyone knows today what can be achieved through it.” But not everyone can be a star. Some TikTok users have become depressed when faced with online criticism. In 2018 a 24-year-old man in southern India killed himself by jumping in front of a train after being mocked for videos in which he dressed like a woman. Cases like this have led to a moral panic about whether TikTok is promoting bullying, hate-speech and child abuse, and sharing user data with China (a claim the company has denied). Politicians have repeatedly called for a ban.
It’s been a year since Ansari left his village. In August he returned for the first time in a while to celebrate Eid and to apply for a passport (in India the police have to visit your permanent address to verify your application). While he was staying there, more than 100 people crowded outside his family’s house for a glimpse of him. “People come from many villages. They tell me that I have put the village on India’s map and Uttar Pradesh on the world map.”
His family still don’t fully understand where the money is coming from. They have normal jobs: his father runs a small grocery store in the village. His brothers work in factories and a sweet shop. “They are happy,” says Ansari. “My parents still don’t have mobile phones but neighbours show them my TikTok videos. They [make them] laugh.” But they aren’t sure how long their son’s fame will last.
Ansari realises that he might not be a TikTok influencer for ever. “I will be sad if this ends,” he says. But he has unshakable faith in himself: “I may not always be a TikTok star, but I will always be a star.” He is determined to break out of the Indian market and become an international celebrity, and plans to hire a tutor to teach him English. He is hellbent on world domination: “No one can stop me.” But Ansari doesn’t want to forget his roots. In one of the videos he posted on TikTok while he was staying with his family, he’s back to where it all began. He’s wearing an orange shirt and red shoes, his hair is its natural black and the same Bollywood song is playing in the background. With his feet planted firmly on the ground, his knees and elbows bent, he dances like the wind.