This article originally appeared on VICE India.
We’ve cringed at them lip-syncing auto-tuned versions of cheesy Bollywood songs, giggled at their over-the-top heartbreak reactions, and been left in splits when we’ve seen them encourage cats to jump to the tune of “Tunak Tunak Tun” on a split-screen. With more than 120 million people regularly creating, shitposting or watching videos on the app, there’s no denying that TikTok influencers, armed with millions of followers often earned overnight, are taking over.
But even with the strength in social media numbers, TikTok continues to be a classic example of cringe-culture, with many people using content created on the platform, along with those who make these short videos, as meme-making material.
Still, TikTok is a force to be reckoned with, especially since it's also worked as a great leveller, with many of its stars hailing from small towns that didn’t have internet access until recently. But while we know exactly what an Instagram influencer’s job profile is like, there’s still a lack of understanding when it comes to content creators on TikTok who have meteorically risen to fame. So, we spoke to 23-year-old Bhargav Chippada, who goes by the name @funbucketbhargav—one of the hottest new TikTok influencers on the scene from the South Indian city of Visakhapatnam and with so much dedication to his craft that he has the word 'Creator' tattooed across his arm—about how he amassed over four million followers in just ten months, how far the fame translates in reality, what it's like to be a TikTok star and what truly makes TikTok tick.
VICE: How come you chose a platform that the internet loves to hate?
Bhargav Chippada: My goal was always to become an actor, but I knew I had good writing and content development abilities too. But after I completed tenth grade, my family could no longer financially support my studies, so I had to leave school. I took up small jobs on movie sets in the Telugu-speaking Tollywood film industry some time around 2015. Before long, I was an extra in a bunch of films and TV shows, which helped me develop my acting skills. In this film industry, TikTok became a very big deal and everyone around me was constantly on it. It reached a point where people were watching more TikTok videos than television. I got into this craze as well and initially only downloaded it because all my friends did. But when I realised the potential this app could have to develop an audience, I started using my content skills to become a creator.
How do you create content for your audience?
I’ve realised that people respond well to comedy, so that is my main focus since I’m a naturally funny guy. I draw inspiration from real-life occurrences and rewrite them into 15 seconds to minute-long videos that are relatable, but funny. These are silly things like pranks my friends and I have pulled or current happenings like the fines increasing after the Motor Vehicles Act 2019 (MVA) or a sketch of people who click pictures of girls without their consent.
What’s the one video you made that changed everything for you?
When I started out, I used to make videos only in Telugu. I had a decent following of 3,50,000 people, but then one day, I did a video which had very basic English in it. This was an April Fools’ Day prank video, about a police officer fining me for not having my license and registration documents and for not wearing a helmet, but after I paid him, I revealed that I had all the required things. It got over 40 million views within two days and more than two million likes, although the app took it down because it showed someone wearing a police uniform, which went against their policies.
I then tried making another video using basic English words called ‘batata fries’. The video is simple: it’s about a girl not wanting to eat homemade French fries, so I fish out an old McDonald’s packet from the dustbin and fill it with the same fries and suddenly, the girl can’t resist it. But purely because I used some English in it, it got more than 100 million views and six million likes. Even though I’d been on the platform for only three months, I suddenly hit almost three million followers. That made me realise that using English could improve my reach and engagement, and now I try not to keep my videos too language-oriented and make them more about the actions.
How do you stand out from other creators on TikTok?
I put in a lot of thought into my content and my aim is to make people laugh. My content is original and that itself makes it stand out, because many popular creators on TikTok do the same, repetitive things and make lip-syncing videos. I develop original content on my own, so even if I only post one original video a day and the others post five to six, people prefer to watch mine because they appreciate the amount of effort that has gone into it and find my jokes funny. I also often collaborate and makes videos with Nithya, known as the ‘oh my god girl’, on relationship problems; people like these because they can relate to it.
Is dealing with trolls part of the job description?
Out of 4.3 million followers, at least 10,000 are trolls, who laugh at my appearance and look down on me in public. Recently, I was invited as the special guest for a prestigious premiere of a Telugu film, and I made a video of my performance there. Even though I was happy with my performance, the trolls picked out this video and made fun of it, even said some very hurtful things. It used to bother me earlier, but now I’ve realised that these aren’t personal attacks and more to do with people’s inability to understand me, so I’ve learnt to brush it off. The way I look at it, whether these people are saying good things or bad, it’s only making me more famous and getting me more followers.
What makes TikTok different from other social media?
That everyone in India is on it! This is because it’s easy to use, very accessible and even making videos on it is quite simple. But I think the main reason it is so popular with almost every generation here is that even illiterate people can use the app and don’t necessarily need to know how to speak English since it accommodates many regional languages as well. Other platforms like Instagram and Twitter are also important, but we don’t get the same reach like we would on TikTok because the audience at the other places is more literate, sophisticated and can’t really understand us.
So how does an influencer earn money on TikTok and what’s the average pay?
Just like other social media platforms, brands approach influencers on TikTok and pay us to make a video featuring their product. These are usually 15 second long and we try not to directly mention the brand, but instead work it into our script or story.
I’ve worked with brands like McDonalds, Swiggy, and gaming apps like Race Game. On an average, I make about Rs 30,000 per video, and the most I have gotten paid is Rs two lakh.
Has this made it easier for you to get dates and get recognised by strangers?
Ever since I’ve become a TikTok influencer, everything has changed. I have a lot of fans even off TikTok and whenever any of them spots me in a public place, they shout “Anna” (elder brother), and rush to take selfies with me. People have not only started inviting me for dinners and parties on weekends, but they also want me to come for their family events because they all like being around me. Even people from nearby towns invite me to inaugurate theatres and restaurants. All the attention is touching and I’m not used to it. I used to be just a regular guy, but now I get comments and messages from people even in Pakistan, UK and Canada telling me they love my videos. They call me the “biggest star” and even the “King of TikTok”.
Almost 80 percent of my fans happen to be girls, who send me messages declaring their love for me. Some say they want to marry me, while others beg to meet me. But I’m a very private person, so even if I reply to their messages, I probably won’t ever meet them.
What’s the biggest perk of being a TikTok influencer?
There are many perks, but what makes me happiest is to see how far I’ve come from being a school dropout and how proud my parents are of me. I come from a low-income family and growing up, we couldn’t afford any luxuries. But now that I am earning enough, I've been able to buy a bike for my father, some gold jewellery for my mother and even an office space for one of my relatives. I like to gift my friends things they really want but can’t afford, like fancy phones.
What do you want to do up ahead?
I’ve come quite far and achieved the target I set out for when I decided to become a TikTok influencer. But now, I want to go even further, make more content, maybe go to college to learn English properly, and even make it big as a film star.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.