This is Between You and Meme, a series where we talk to people whose most awkward, embarrassing or weird moments made them go viral, and try to understand the impact of internet fame.
With the meteoric rise in Omicron cases and all the chaotic misinformation it has fuelled, 2022 is already turning into quite the dumpster fire. So, of course, a meme of a man posing calmly as a massive fire rages in the background has emerged as a hard relate for all our 2022 feels so far.
Earlier this week, Pakistani actor Adnan Siddiqui posted a photo of himself posing at a contraband burning ceremony held by customs authorities in Karachi, Pakistan. In an Instagram post that has gotten more than 18,000 likes, Siddiqui took his followers behind the scenes of the destruction ceremony of confiscated goods, a controversial event where authorities destroy or burn seized contraband, including liquor bottles, tobacco products, and marijuana – which are prohibited substances in Pakistan – with hyper-nationalistic fervour.
While his post also included jaw-dropping footage of a road roller crushing several bottles of alcohol, it was his selfie that spread like wildfire.
“I posed against a fire of illegal goods like gutka, crystal meth, heroin and hashish worth $2.5 million dollars to send a message to the youth of the world,” Siddiqui told VICE over a phone call. “I did not have a funny expression, had written something serious, and wanted to send a message. Instead, people around the world found it funny and began sharing it as a meme.”
Siddiqui’s selfie is now going viral all over the world, with people in Pakistan, India, Dubai, the U.K. and the U.S. sharing it as the most relatable meme of 2022 yet, from people calling him the new Disaster Girl meme to comparing the fire to what the year currently feels like.
Siddiqui realised he had gone viral as a meme when, just a day after he posted the selfie, his phone began buzzing with notifications from Instagram and Twitter. “I was out at the market when, all of a sudden, people started staring at me,” he said. “My sabziwala (vegetable seller) and ghoshwala (butcher) even asked me to take an ‘aag wali selfie’ (fire selfie) with them. Then the other day, an Uber driver who dropped a friend to my house leapt out of his car when he saw me and asked for a selfie. The reactions are insane.”
Once his meme started blowing up, Siddiqui gained more than 100,000 followers in less than a week, even as many called him out for participating in the contraband burning ceremony.
He also received mixed reactions from his friends and family. “My daughter found the photo very funny and asked me why I was taking a picture when there was so much pollution going up in the air,” he said. “Some of my friends who consume alcohol were upset that bottles of Grey Goose (a brand of vodka) and Blue Label (whisky) were being broken.”
Siddiqui insisted that though he has been made to pose with liquor bottles or pretend to drink for an acting job, he abstains from alcohol. “One of my friends reminded me of how I used to pour his wine and vodka down the drain back in the day and he messaged me saying, ‘old habits die hard,’” he said.
Though he had come across the concept of memes before, Siddiqui didn’t quite understand the power of the meme world – until he actually became one.
“After this picture went viral, I was approached by anti-narcotics authorities to attend another ceremony and take the same picture,” he said. “Some people I don’t even know approached me to come to their wedding. They wanted to pay me to take part in a dance for one of their functions, where I would take a selfie with them against a bonfire to a song with lyrics that go ‘aag lagi di’ (set on fire). Of course, I refused.”
When asked whether he would cash in on the meme hype by turning his photo into an NFT, Siddiqui said he was “waiting for the right moment.”
For Siddiqui, who has been acting in various film industries including Lollywood, Hollywood and Bollywood since the ‘90s, the viral meme comes as he is experiencing a lull in his career. “I haven’t been acting recently because I haven’t liked any of the scripts I’ve gotten. People are now also sharing memes saying that the fire is like my career burning. But I take it as a joke and don’t think this meme will affect my career.”