Indian viral video star Israil Ansari on TikTok success: 'In a land of 1.3 billion people, grabbing popularity is not easy'

Ansari earns up to Dh2,570 a month for brand collaborations

Israil Ansari has become a viral phenomenon, with 2.2 million followers on TikTok. Instagram / Israil Ansari 
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He's no Bollywood star, but school dropout Israil Ansari has found fast fame on TikTok with two million followers glued to his oddball dancing and rainbow hairstyles in India, the app's biggest international market.

Thanks to the addictive and controversial Chinese-made platform, the gangly 20-year-old can now barely walk down the street without teenagers flocking to him for autographs.

"I get extremely excited watching people react to my videos on TikTok," Ansari told AFP in Mumbai, saying he tries to produce clips that make people happy, "be it with a peppy song or comedy videos".

"In a land of 1.3 billion people, grabbing popularity is not easy."

Launched by Chinese company ByteDance in September 2017, TikTok's playfulness and off-the-cuff humour – users post short clips of themselves performing skits, lip-syncing and dancing – has turned out to be its trump card.

Last week the app hit 1.5 billion downloads worldwide, outperforming Instagram, which is better known for polished selfies than goofy memes.

Anyone armed with a smartphone – whether a suburban US teen or an Indian slum-dweller – can use TikTok to tell their own story in under 60 seconds, experts say, winning viewers, likes, shares and eventually, the elusive goal of stardom.

"TikTok videos work because they are raw, making them more relatable for youngsters, who love receiving feedback and sometimes earn money from the app, depending on their popularity," Meenakshi Tiwari, an analyst at the US firm Forrester Research, told AFP.

A sophisticated AI system enables the app to detect its users' tastes and point them to videos that keep them hooked for hours on end.

In this photo taken on November 10, 2019, youngsters record a video for the video-sharing app TikTok in Mumbai. He's no Bollywood superstar, but Israil Ansari can barely walk down a street in India without teenagers flocking to him for autographs -- thanks to TikTok, the addictive and controversial app on which he has two million followers. / AFP / Indranil MUKHERJEE / TO GO WITH AFP STORY India-TikTok-video-science-internet,FOCUS by Vishal MANVE

"India is the main market for TikTok followed by China, the United States, Indonesia, and Vietnam," Craig Chapple from San Francisco-based research agency Sensor Tower told AFP.

The South Asian nation accounts for 40 percent of TikTok's 800 million users worldwide and 11 of the top 25 stars on the app are based in India.

That includes Ansari, who earns commissions for partnering with brands to promote their products, earning anywhere between 20,000 rupees ($280 / Dh1,030) to 50,000 rupees ($700 / Dh2570) in a month.

In China, where the app is called Douyin, viewers can purchase everything from face cream to clothing by tapping on videos created by influencers.

And the appetite for TikTok shows no sign of easing.

In this photo taken on November 10, 2019, youngsters watch videos on video-sharing app TikTok on their mobile phones in Mumbai. He's no Bollywood superstar, but Israil Ansari can barely walk down a street in India without teenagers flocking to him for autographs -- thanks to TikTok, the addictive and controversial app on which he has two million followers. / AFP / Indranil MUKHERJEE / TO GO WITH AFP STORY India-TikTok-video-science-internet,FOCUS by Vishal MANVE

"From morning to late in the night, I only watch TikTok videos," 22-year-old Azeez Ahmed Siddiqui told AFP.

"My family thrashes me for not having a job and wasting my time on TikTok. But I really want to become a star," he said.

With 3,500 followers, the road to TikTok superstardom seems a difficult one but the Mumbai-based Siddique is unfazed.

"I know a lot of people who had no careers and now are famous because of TikTok.

"If they can achieve this, then why can't I?"