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.
It was a cold, foggy morning some time in 2019 as Vipin Kumar Sahu, a businessman from the north Indian city of Lucknow, psyched himself up to jump off a cliff.
Sahu’s friends had managed to convince him to go tandem paragliding despite his agoraphobia (fear of heights). Realising the weight of the challenge that stood before him, and the trolling he would face from his friends if he didn’t come through, Sahu took a deep breath, shut his eyes, and leapt into the air without looking back.
It was one small step for Sahu, and a giant leap for meme makers everywhere.
Today, Sahu is more popularly known as the “Paragliding Man,” a viral sensation with more than 130,000 subscribers on YouTube, who runs three business ventures. He has acted in a web series on streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar, emerged as a key player in MTV Roadies (a challenge-based cult reality show), starred in a local music video in Haryana, and featured alongside actor Chunky Pandey on a television show.
And it all happened because he became a meme.
“I went paragliding and accidentally became a viral meme,” Sahu told VICE over a video call, recollecting the exact moment that made him the butt of jokes. “At first, it felt great [to be paragliding] because I couldn’t see anything, thanks to the fog. But, as soon as the fog cleared up and I glanced down, I almost shat my pants.”
Sahu explained that in that moment, he froze with fear, and almost had a panic attack, prompting him to hurl abuses. He then began to bribe the instructor who was accompanying him to pull out the parachute before he was actually supposed to, even as the pilot repeatedly asked him to lift his legs so they could land safely.
All the while, Sahu was filming his experience on a GoPro camera, and happened to capture his petrified reactions. “Take Rs 100-200 ($1.34-$2.68) more, lekin land kara de bhai (but make me land already brother),” he said in the video, thus coining a phrase that would soon become iconic.
“When we came back to the hotel and watched the video, I realised that it had the ability to [fuck shit up],” he explained. At the time, Sahu decided against posting the video online, worried about how people would react to his unfiltered speech. So, he shoved the video and the experience aside.
A few months later, his phone started buzzing with notifications. Turns out, his brother – who wanted to become a popular YouTuber – had uploaded the video without telling Sahu.
“And that was it. After that, I was at the mercy of the powers of the meme world,” he said.
From business deals gone bad to relationships gone sour to an economy hit by inflation, Sahu’s riotous reaction instantly made him one of India’s most relatable memes.
Millions cracked up at his genuinely terror-stricken reaction, finding an odd sense of amusement in his attempt to bargain his way out of an almost impossible situation. Many also found familiarity in his loud and obnoxious affinity for abuses, calling it a classic example of an Indian tourist when trying something outside their comfort zone.
In 2019, the meme blew up across India, eliciting an instant smile from all those who heard the words “land kara de.” But when Sahu first learned about his newfound fame, he felt the ground slip from beneath his feet (metaphorically this time).
“When the meme first went viral, it was hell,” said Sahu. At the time, the businessman became the subject of merciless trolling, pushing him to isolate himself so he could avoid bumping into anyone who might’ve seen the meme. “I had become a laughing stock among my friends and family, and it deeply affected me at first. It got so bad that I didn’t leave my house for a week.”
Sahu waited for the meme to die down, only to realise that it probably wasn’t going to happen. “After a few days of living like that, I tried to push myself to see the positive side of it. Many people messaged me saying how happy my meme made them,” he explained. “Some even spoke about how they would watch it and smile when they had suicidal thoughts. That’s when I realised that it wasn’t all bad, and was able to accept the reality.”
As Sahu accepted his newfound fame, he realised it could also open many doors for him.
“It made me a celebrity. I went to a friend’s wedding and instead of taking pictures with the bride and groom, the guests made me stand in their spot and clicked selfies with me.”
For Sahu, the far-reaching impact of his overnight fame truly sank in when he got a call from an Indian television channel to feature on a talk show with actor Chunky Pandey. “I was shook,” he said. “The show was fun, but the moment that truly stood out for me was when in the vanity van, Pandey and I spoke about his experience of being so scared in life. It was like a childhood dream come true.”
The meme brought in some cool money for Sahu, too.
“I ran a shop that sold tiles at the time. People would come to the shop and buy things just to get a glimpse of me,” he said sheepishly. The rush of new customers then pushed him to start two more businesses: a gym and a laundromat. “I found it very easy to build relationships with investors because the meme worked as a great icebreaker.”
Having gained a sizable following on social media, Sahu then built an online community of people who feel inspired to face their fears. “I also got offers from brands like Red Bull and Mountain Dew to do more daredevil-style stunts and record my reactions. I think I must have made a total profit of about Rs 2 million ($26,830).
Sahu wasn’t the only one who profited from the meme’s viral fame. When he revisited the paragliding site in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, he noticed that they had put up a special poster dedicated to him. “At first, the people running the site were scared that the police would shut them down. But the meme became so famous that from getting an average of 300 people a day, they started getting more than 2,000, increasing their revenue by 60 percent.”
With everything he’s gained from that one paragliding experience – would he do it again?
This January, Sahu kicked off the new year by collaborating with a paragliding brand to recreate his iconic moment. It was his chance to redeem himself.
“They wanted to record me paragliding, this time without any fear,” he said. “I had to try it five times before I could do it without fear. I think the biggest thing the meme taught me is to face my fears, no matter how tough that can be.”