What TikTok Accomplished Before Its Ban
Personal lessons from young and small-town India.
On camera, the smiling woman lip-syncs to a song:
I never really knew that she could dance like this
The song is ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ by the Colombian star Shakira.
She makes a man want to speak Spanish
The woman has her pallu draped over her head. Over it, she is balancing a container carrying firewood. She has a huge smile on her face:
Como se llama, bonita, mi casa, su casa
She appears to be a construction worker. Lip-syncing to a Spanish-English song.
Oh baby when you talk like that
To my knowledge, construction workers don’t sing in English and Spanish.
You make a woman go mad…
What is going on?
When I saw the video in July 2020, I was at the end of a year-long TikTok infatuation. A year earlier, I had signed up and created an account under the name of ‘uncle40’. I’d just entered my forties, an age when you automatically become an ‘uncle’ in India, so I figured what the heck, let me own it.
I had started creating short videos in Hindi.
Did I know Hindi? I was a Bangalorean who grew up without it, and in my adulthood had learnt to speak it after my own fashion. Doing videos in Hindi was not part of the deal, or so I had thought.
What was going on?
The answer was TikTok.
I felt free on the app. Free from the pressure of looking good or sounding intelligent. This was probably because I found a very few of my friends that I had on other apps. Also, why worry when a million others are happy to be their embarrassing selves as well?
For small-town India and young India, TikTok offered an international stage. 200 million users in India led to the most amazing things on the app. Outrageous stunts. People who took up all sorts of challenges. Lip-synced dialogues. Practical jokes.
There was the Tamil-speaking couple who enacted dreadful puns in basic English. Like this one:
The camera shows a man and a woman inside a house. It appears that the woman’s face needs washing but she is unaware of it. The man tells her to use the washbasin. She heads over to it, but instead of washing her face, she begins to clean the sink . The man asks her what she’s doing. She grins and says, “wash…basin”. They both grin at the lens.
There was the unhip Kannada family: two kids, mother and father.
They stare balefully into the camera. Next second they’re singing manically. Next second they’re back with the murder stare.
When I joined Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, I felt like I was among the first wave of adopters. With TikTok, I was being schooled by the heart of young India: small-town girls and boys. It was joyous, and I was hooked.
Several others were intrigued too, like the podcaster and writer Amit Varma. It appeared that he had spent hours and hours on it for weeks and weeks. When he announced that he would hold an online course called TikTok and Indian Society, I jumped at the chance.
Over the next few weeks, we steeped ourselves in hundreds of videos, curated for us by Amit. I won’t reproduce them here because it is his work. But here’s a selection of learnings about young India. (The videos are from him.)
The youth are crashing through language and cultural barriers.
The Indian youth are mixing, remixing and importing stuff from other languages and cultures both within India and from outside it. Sample this video on TikTok from Junaid Malik and his unnamed friend. He appears to be from the north (Punjab) but is using this Tamil song in his video.
Like Junaid, there were thousands of videos with people crossing linguistic barriers like never before.
‘Love at first sight’ is still a strong trope.
Perhaps because dating is still not encouraged in many parts of India, the youth still believe in hyper-romantic notions such as love at first sight.
But there’s nuance. Amit Varma believes that “TikTok love is not as toxic as Bollywood love.” During the course (which he conducted entirely on WhatsApp), he wrote,
“I haven’t come across any creepy, stalker-like behaviour, as is the standard Bollywood trope, nor the obnoxious entitled Indian male like Kabir Singh. That doesn’t mean there are no videos like that, but that I haven’t come across them, using my fast-and-frugal heuristic of popularity.”
But, slapping is still a thing.
This is disturbing. TikTok videos that I saw were full of enactments of people slapping each other. Boy slaps girl. Girl slaps boy. Boys slap each other. Girls slap each other. Slapping as love. Slapping to teach a lesson. Slapping to resolve complicated situations. Slapping as comedy.
What to make of this casual violence? I think it’s more evidence that violence is still such a part of our lives that it has been normalised. Here’s a TikTok video depicting female friendship and slapping.
TikTok gave marginalised groups space.
Here’s Amit Varma on the phenomenon:
…there was one category of people that was still not in the mainstream as recently as a couple of years ago: people of alternate sexualities. Gay people have always been treated in strereotypical ways by our cinema, and the few recent exceptions to that -- Made in Heaven, Kapoor and Sons -- have been made by Bollywood elites, and not every common Indian can relate to those. TikTok changed that.
For me, to be able to view the lives of those I’m not likely to encounter was an uplifting experience. These were people who were completely unlike me, but in their aspirations and DIY ethic, I recognised hints of the boy I once was in ‘80s and ‘90s Bangalore.
TikTok has long been gone, and Indian developers are currently racing to introduce similar features into homegrown clones that can still be buggy. Among the leaders are Moj, MX TakaTak and Josh. They have all accounted for tens of millions of downloads. They will soon be as seamless as TikTok. What these homegrown apps don’t have though is access to a global audience and the international creator network that is part of the TikTok experience.
As for me, I no longer have access to people like ‘LaxmiRoyal777’, the woman who was lip-syncing so merrily to the Spanish hit single.
When I looked for other videos by Laxmi, it became clear to me that she is not a construction worker. I had only thought so because that’s what I wanted to see and believe: that India is somehow a country where even the poorest have the leisure time to make videos. I’d wanted to believe that people who had missed out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had leapfrogged to apps like TikTok (much like how most Indians leapfrogged to mobile and skipped the desktop/laptop phase).
I had fallen prey to my own confirmation bias.
This does not belittle the achievements of LaxmiRoyal777, because her surviving TikTok videos—available on other websites for now—point some clues to her achievements. Till it was banned, Laxmi was a TikTok influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers. She often used the hashtag #marwarichori, which is an indication that she is a Marwari. Her videos show a city or town somewhere in northern India. She is married and often brings her husband and other family members into her videos.
Once the ban set it, TikTok stars like Laxmi began to film farewell messages with instructions to their followers to find them on other networks. Laxmi is now on Instagram, but you can see that the app hasn’t brought her the following she had on TikTok. Instagram has a different vibe, despite its new feature Reels, which Facebook cloned from TikTok.
In the last couple of videos of Laxmi’s that are still available, she writes “TikTok toh mujhe itni achchi family di love all fam … miss u” (TikTok gave me such a good family). A sentiment shared by millions of others.
Disclaimer: Who do the videos cited above belong to? Obviously, they ought to belong to the creators themselves, i.e. the TikTok influencers. They are the moral owners of these videos and ought to be the legal owners as well. I got them via Amit Varma and had downloaded them onto my devices. In order to illustrate my piece with examples, I had to upload them onto YouTube.
Another question is the privacy of these TikTok users. Do I treat them as being in the public domain, just like we routinely use tweets by people in articles? Or is this an invasion of privacy?
In the end, I uploaded them in the blogging spirit. If there is a good reason to take them down, let me know.