Home > News > India > Looking for success in 15 seconds on TikTok street

NEW DELHI : Hrithik Sohankar has just taken a break from directing a TikTok video. Set in a back lane of Connaught Place’s B block, it features a young man saving a blind woman from a thief, with a Punjabi song as background score. It took Sohankar 30 minutes to perfect the 15-second production, which stars his friends. “I make every video with the belief that it will go viral," says Sohankar, 19, as we sit down on the pavement.

For the past two years, every Sunday, Sohankar, a Delhi University student, and his five friends, aged 17-21, meet in the lane at 11am, and spend 9 hours making TikTok videos of each other. They cry; they laugh; they lip sync to songs; they dance; they moonwalk; they act out short skits; they express anger, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise—all in 15 or 60 seconds. They break for lunch at 2pm, when they share food from tiffin boxes brought from home or go to the gurudwara for langar.

Their agenda is more than just fun. They want to become TikTok stars, with a fan following of a million or more and a deluge of brand endorsements. “We have to make 60 videos in a day so we stick to a strict schedule," says Sohankar, a resident of east Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, who has over 2,000 TikTok followers. “Also, it gets very crowded on the street."

B Block’s back lane—with colonial white pillars on one side and crumbling office buildings on the other—is like any other 250m stretch in the Capital city, full of vehicles and pedestrians.

But on Sundays, it turns into TikTok street. Hundreds of young people throng the street, coming from as far as Moradabad, about 175km from the capital, to make videos, which will be uploaded with hashtags and filters over the course of the week. Music and dialogues blast from tiny speakers as the youngsters face their phone cameras. All are working to achieve what most people only secretly dream of—fame.

But why TikTok? “It’s easier to get famous here; some people have become famous for no reason," laughs Sohankar, as he gets up to rehearse. The group’s theme for this chilly December Sunday is “disability awareness" because talking about social issues “gets more views". “Our themes depend on what videos are trending on Saturday. The performance needs to be spontaneous," says Sohankar, while checking his reflection in a window. He sucks in his cheeks, fixes the collar of his navy-blue floral shirt, pulls his skinny jeans up, and admires his gelled hair with tan-brown spikes.

“Action," shouts his director, Deependu Das, 21.

It was Das who introduced Sohankar to TikTok in 2017. “Initially, we watched it for fun. Then I heard someone got endorsement gigs after his videos went viral," says Das, a correspondence student who works as a clerk in the Supreme Court. “If they can do it, what’s stopping us? Imagine the thrill of people knowing your name wherever you go."

For many, TikTok is just another Chinese import, a video-sharing app that provides mindless yet refreshing entertainment without too many ads or news. But for some millennials and post-millennials, the app is a ticket to success.

The desire to be an influencer is so strong that 86% of millennials and post-millennials want to be an influencer, says a report by US research firm Morning Consult, which surveyed 2,000 people in the 13-38 age group.

Ashutosh Harbola, founder of influencer marketing company Buzzoka, says a social media celebrity can earn 20,000 to 1.5 crore for an endorsement video or post, depending on their popularity. “Whether it’s YouTube or TikTok, brands recognize the power of influencers and are ready to spend. Unlike celebrities, an influencer is a regular person who people can relate to and trust," says Harbola.

India is the biggest market for TikTok with over 200 million users across Tier 1, 2 and 3 cities. It works because it is a place for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic levels, says Sachin Sharma, TikTok India’s director of sales and partnerships.

Back-street story

A few metres from Sohankar’s group is a team of five spiky-haired men in T-shirts, denim jackets and skinny jeans, doing acrobatic moves to the tune of Calvin Harris’ My Way. “We are just making goofy videos today," says Pawan Thakur, 25, a bus conductor who lives near Rohini. “I told my family, ‘Weekdays I work to earn money, and weekends I work to become famous’," says Thakur, who learnt about TikTok from his 10-year-old niece a year ago. His group has been a TikTok street regular since 2017.

What’s so special about TikTok street? The light, the white background and the fact that most viral videos were shot here, Thakur says. “It looks like a foreign street."

TikTok street regulars treat their videos like an enjoyable work assignment. They make as many videos as possible till it’s time to go home and edit them. “We all know how to use PhotoShop and Final Cut thanks to YouTube," says Sohnakar. His father, Sanjay, keeps a tab on the videos. “He checks whether I was working or roaming around," smiles the son.

“Like all parents, I want Hrithik to be happy, but not at the cost of his studies," says Sanjay, an office attendant at state-run power company NTPC. “We never got the opportunity to do what we really wanted (singing). At least our children should follow their hearts."

Two years ago, Rishabh Puri, 22, a graduate of Amity University, used to travel two hours from Faridabad to make videos on TikTok street, but no more. Since his videos, showing funny, daily-life shenanigans, started going viral a year ago, brands started reaching out to him for endorsements. So, he started focusing on marketing videos. But, of course, keeping his two million TikTok followers entertained is his “first love".

“I got my fans after years of hard work. They have made me who I am. That’s why I’m conscious of my content," says Puri. He recently turned down an opportunity to promote an alcohol brand. How did he develop the confidence to face the camera? “You need to be a bit of a narcissist," says Puri, who plans to become a producer within the next two years.

Unlike him, Gunjan Joshi, 30, gained fame within a few months. “I shared my weight loss journey," says Joshi, who used to come to TikTok street from her home in Gurugram. After building a steady following, she quit her engineering job at a multinational. She began from uploading exercise videos and health food recipes and today, she shares diet plans with some of her 2.2 million followers. She hopes to launch a wellness website soon.

In a world where the slightest hint of controversy can end a career, these TikTokers are aware that fame has an expiry date. They are practical enough to create, or at least plan, another career. Sohnakar wants to get into event management, Das wants to find a better job within the Supreme Court’s administrative block, and Thakur is saving money to buy a bus on loan.

“We know how to hustle," says Sohnakar.

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