Tuesday morning did not begin well for Aamir Shaikh. Opening his sleepy eyes to his TikTok profile page (@skaamir_70), the video creator did not feel the familiar rush that a phenomenal overnight increase in followers brings. These were not numbers worth getting out of bed for and Aamir wondered whether going to the studio made sense anymore.
The studio is City Park in BKC, which with its shrubbery, privacy, plentiful benches, a set of amphitheatre steps, a fountain and a track that accommodates walkers, joggers, skateboarders and BMX bikers, is also the backdrop for countless TikTok videos.
City Park is a quiet lunch break for a section of BKC’s working population and where youths from Bharat Nagar, Kurla and Dharavi spend their dates.
When the first of the park’s regular TikTokers strode in by 3 pm on Tuesday, it wasn’t with the same carefree swagger of the day before. Teenagers continued to lip-sync to the day’s trending hashtags and shoot more videos of girls rejecting boys, but the apps on their phone would not cooperate.
After TikTok disappeared from Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store on Monday night, soon after the Centre’s announcement to ban it, City Park was filled with complaints about the app refusing to open and young men with blonde hair streaks peddling no-good hacks.
Aamir and his frequent collaborators, Sabira Khan (@skqueen_70) and Jishan Ansari (@jishanansari26), did not bother to join the rest. “At first, I thought it was fake news. Then I called Aamir and Jishan to confirm. I didn’t sleep very well last night,” said Sabira. Soon after the phone calls, Sabira went live on TikTok and spent a few teary minutes with her 1.1 million followers.
A true City Park celebrity, Sabira’s social media career was poised to enter the big leagues after she clocked 1 million followers on the eve of the lockdown. “I had received acting offers from Hindi shows. I had worked hard for a year to reach that point. Every day, I would go to City Park after cooking at home and shoot at least 15 videos, go back and edit them, post them and then hope for the best,” she said.
Over the last two years, a large group of men and women — between 16 to their early 30s — have formed a strong kinship at City Park. “Many people shooting here come from poor homes and they only started creating videos as a means to support their families,” said Jishan.
The 31-year-old himself works as a delivery boy for Zomato. Impersonating India’s cricket team captain Virat Kohli is a side-gig that doesn’t pay his bills. However, acing the cricketer’s signature glower on TikTok has gained Jishan, a Dharavi resident, 44.8 K followers. “All TikTok does is help get me in front of the line and bypass an audition. It is a great platform that helps you secure ads, photo shoots and promotions,” he said.
Aside from standing in for the cricketer at appearances in small towns, Jishan also worked with his lookalike at a recent Blue Star AC advertisement campaign. The likeness, however, does not extend to their pay cheques. Jishan described his fees at events where he passes off for Virat as between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.
The upside is feeling like a celebrity. “When I have to travel for a shoot, my flight is paid for and I get to stay in a suite at the Taj Hotel. I am a normal guy who gets to feel like royalty.”
Kalina resident Aamir’s celebrity moment comes when travelling to smaller towns for public appearances. “Fans in places like Indore and Surat go wild when they see TikTok influencers. We need security to stop the fans from mobbing us,” he said. His latest big assignment was modelling kurtas for Dawood Khan Tailors and Clothiers.
Aamir isn’t too enthused at his options. “The followers you can gain on TikTok within a year takes thrice as long on YouTube. And you need a professional camera, indoor lightning and sound recording equipment. That isn’t something kids here can afford,” he said.
Compared with India’s biggest TikTok influencers who have upwards of 20 million followers and have been instructed by their managers to stay quiet, City Park’s TikTokers appeared positively outspoken in an interview they gave to a local news channel, questioning just what banning Chinese apps would achieve.
A measure of just how much the ban has upset Sabira is evident in her analogy. “This is like being pregnant, caring for your unborn child for nine months and when you give birth, the child kicks you and tells you to get lost. We have invested time and money to get to where we are today. We completely support the government. But will the government compensate for our loss of livelihood?” she asked. The trio is one of the few in the park who have managed to successfully monetise their TikTok popularity.
By 5.30 pm, when City Park’s faithful decide to return home, Aamir checked his phone once more. A carefully worded message from TikTok flashes on the screen. All it means is that he can longer login to his account. “I don’t know what we will do,” he said.
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