Mumbai: At the junction or naka in Golibar area of Santacruz East in Mumbai, young men hang around in small groups outside myriad shops, on tiny pavements, and at the tea stall which is a mandatory fixture on the city’s streets. Most of them sport fancy looking mobile phones and scroll up and down their social media accounts to get a sense of the very latest. The preferred app here is TikTok. The short videos served up on the app add to the cacophony but no one wants to use earphones. How else can they share what they are watching with their friends?

The assistants in the meat shop and the pharmacy would like TikTok breaks, not restroom breaks. These men animatedly discuss the best attributes of last night’s top video and also recommend what the videomakers should have done to make it better. Their role models live in the lanes which radiate from the naka (in fact, there’s even an “Amir’s lane", thanks to the TikTok star living there). The older men, often the shop owners or managers, couldn’t care less about this video craze fuelled by TikTok, but they are a minority.

In the past two weeks, however, the discussions have centered on the controversy around Team 07, one of TikTok’s most popular and successful groups. Five young men who are part of this group now face a First Information Report (FIR) for their video released in early July in reaction to Tabrez Ansari’s lynching in Jharkhand in June. Most users in this area have an opinion on the controversy and believe Team 07 is being targeted unfairly. That’s because the five men are stars in this space. They represent the pinnacle of what TikTok allows young people to be.

Across Mumbai’s by-lanes in Dharavi, Kurla, Koliwada, Bandra East and West where TikTok users abound, the video-only app has sparked off intense discussions of the kind seen on national television every night. The older generation did not get involved in these discussions till the FIR against Team 07. Now they have views on the app and the FIR. A few believe that the men did no wrong at all, most want their boys to remain “out of the harm’s way because the climate is not right now".

The TikTok phenomenon

Only those with real talent can do TikTok and become big, it’s hard work, boht (very) hard," says Sharukh S., a resident of Bandra. In the parallel universe of TikTok stars and influencers, Sharukh hopes to someday make the grade that Faisal Shaikh and the four others, who make Team 07, have earned for themselves—a room at the very top with a jaw-dropping 63.9 million followers. Sharukh works in the Hindi film industry as a junior artiste and hopes to make it big someday. Till then, he is happy to lap up the fame that comes his way via his TikTok videos.

“Everyone I know watches them and they are the best place to show one’s talent," he insists, “the videos may be small but it takes some work because one has to be relevant, entertaining, daring, and willing to put oneself out there day after day. I’d say I have two of my five fingers on TikTok," he says. His family manages shops and petty businesses where he must mark time but TikTok is his individual go-to space. Here he has his say, gets “Likes" and “Shares", and earns a bit even if it means sometimes dressing up as a women and walking the street saying wild things.

“I want to be a big influencer," Sharukh says. Influencer is a word casually thrown around in conversations around these gullies and among the young men and women who have taken to the video-only app in a way few could have imagined.

Team 07

Faisal Shaikh, or Faisu as he’s more popularly known, is a rather bashful young man given to speaking softly and calmly. A graduate and a local-level model with a modest home in Bandra East, his TikTok videos fetched him a staggering 24.1 million followers, quick fame, promotional offers, and of course money.

Shaikh and his college friends Adnan Shaikh and Hasnain Khan joined forces with Faiz Baloch and Shadan Faroqui, whom they had met while out performing (illegal) bike stunts, to form the TikTok sensation Team 07 nearly 18 months ago. Their 15-second videos—some funny, others with play acting and songs, a few with comments—took TikTok audiences by storm. They picked up followers faster than A-list film stars had done on other social media platforms. Team 07 commanded a presence and stardom that brought its members into the rarefied orbit of Mumbai’s glitz and glamour.

Their combined follower base of 63.9 million in early July meant they were no less in the TikTok universe than Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan in the world outside. The China-based app has nearly 200 million users across India, of these 88.6 million joined the platform in March quarter this year. The user base is spread across metros especially in plebeian areas, Tier II and III cities including remote corners of the country, according to the company statements.

“We have always posted clean and good content," Adnan Shaikh says over the phone , “Team 07 would not do anything else, like the dirty stuff few others did to get followers. This is our profession; we post something daily or used to till all this happened." The “this" he refers to is the FIR filed against the group earlier this month after the Team 07 video, and the police action which followed after it.

The Shiv Sena’s IT cell member Ramesh Solanki filed a complaint with the Mumbai Police about the video. “The video can create communal disharmony in the country," justifies Solanki, ruing that he’s getting abuses on the platform from Team 07’s supporters. This comes on the back of a continuing spotlight on TikTok. The app was dragged to court in Chennai in April, followed by a ban by the government. Even though the ban was lifted by the Supreme Court, clearly TikTok’s holding company ByteDance Inc. wanted to play safe. The Team 07 video was pulled down, and the accounts of three members of the group were suspended.

Local police stations called them in for questioning, anticipatory bail applications were hastily filed in the Bombay high court, and the men apologized in a new video before going underground. “My son had an offer to be cabin crew in an airline but he wanted to do this as work. I allowed him to continue on the condition that he would never do any wrong thing. He won’t," Mabood Shaikh, Adnan’s father, told a local cable channel.

Stardom on pause

The young men and women influencers of TikTok look off-kilter with coloured and coiffured hair, colourful and over-the-top attire, and glitz of a wannabe kind. But that’s the image they cultivate. The women influencers dress economically, pout a fair amount, lip-sync to popular songs with come-hither moves. In general, the videos on TikTok are less political, and are based more on personal performances and rooted in entertainment.

Off screen, they are like most youngsters in early 20s, desperate to make a mark and earn social acceptance, soaking in the public adulation which brings minor perks like pampering at home. “We may have got stardom but we have to work hard every day to maintain it," says Adnan, “we listen to our parents, we completed graduation and then began doing this with our talent".

Before becoming TikTok celebrities, Team 07 would often do bike stunts on Bandra-Worli Sea Link. It’s something they don’t do now, insists Faroqui because “we have a responsibility to our viewers". This includes going to a World Environment Day programme on 5 June, where they shared the stage at Carter Road Amphitheatre in Bandra West with singer Shaan and music director Anu Malik. “These boys are huge stars for youngsters, I used their reach to talk about air pollution and garbage segregation," says Asif Bhamla, politician and president of the eponymous foundation.

Their stardom put them on the path of a music album which was to be released by Zee Music. It brought them a deal to promote a song for an Akshay Kumar film. Varun Dhawan’s team was apparently talking to them. It took them to a tony seven-star luxury hotel at Salman Khan’s event so they could do promotions.

“This has been their work, they are sought out because they are such big influencers. They’ve become stars in a year and a half," says their lawyer on condition of anonymity.

All this is at a standstill as is an upcoming web series. About 15-20 top influencers were to be a part of a top-billed reality-based web series tentatively titled TikTok House along the lines of popular television show Big Boss. The shooting was to have happened in Dubai or Malaysia before the FIR roiled it up, according to people close to the matter. The series would have monetized their TikTok stardom. “We might move in cars today but what kind of people we are would be fun to watch. There’s competition among us after all," Faisu told a local entertainment channel in early July about the show. Without Team 07 top-lining it, the show cannot take off. The team’s members are not sure if they can return to their pre-FIR lives.

What makes TikTok’s top stars this influential and sought after? TikTok’s primary audience tends to be teenagers and people in early 20s, comfortable in Hindi or other Indian languages. “Everything they seek by way of information and entertainment is right there on their phone screens. This is where film promotions and related events are now done, where the established stars go to reach new audiences," says Rajeev Masand, a film critic. “These influencers are paid for promotions and appear at film events because they speak the language that youngsters understand. TikTok and YouTube are the new channels," Masand adds.

TikTok community

There has been considerable support for Team 07 with videos put out there by other top influencers like Lucky Dancer, Aaz Khan, Amir, Ejaz, and Bollywood actor Ajaz Khan who was arrested for his remarks. Ejaz put out a synopsis of the Team 07’s saga and showed another video in which Faisu and others were affirming their loyalty to the country. Waris Pathan, an AIMIM member of legislative assembly in Mumbai, says the men could have been let off with a warning because “all they had done was protest a lynching, much less than what Sadhavi Pragya Singh Thakur had done for a national martyr like (late police officer) Hemant Karkare".

Clearly, the influencer community has many young Muslim men who, in the current sociopolitical climate, feel the need to demonstrate their allegiance to the nation and the Constitution. The action against TikTok earlier this year by the ministry of electronics and information technology was in response to a complaint by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which it alleged that the platform is being used for anti-national activities. It was perhaps a matter of time before it acquired a political colour.

However, most of its influencers tiptoe around politics. “We know our reach with teenagers. We say that they must complete their college and we speak about peace, love and humanity," says Adnan. What he’s not articulating is that Team 07 is staring at a void. The young men had believed that TikTok would back them, and were disappointed. Clearly, in a world increasingly driven by social media, the personal and the entertaining is becoming political.

Meanwhile, Abdul S., 16, who gangs up with his friends at the corner of a lane in Santacruz every evening at 4 o’clock to catch up on TikTok videos before they head out to their tuition classes, speaks of Faisu and Salman Khan with the same reverence. “I will start doing my videos properly now. My mother scolds me and I have to hide this from my father, but look at the great work Faisu bhai and Adnan bhai and Amir bhai are doing. That’s my future too," says Abdul.

Smruti Koppikar writes on politics, cities, gender and media for national and international publications.