Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

The Influencer Story: Big Dreams From Small Towns

Influencer Story

The Influencer Story: Big Dreams From Small Towns

Social media has become more than just a networking space, allowing everyone and anyone to showcase their passions and talents.

Jheelam Gupta with her fans.
Jheelam Gupta with her fans. Instagram

With his spine erect and shoulders rolled back, he carefully positions one foot behind the other and begins to strut like he owns the ramp. Lifting his hands, he lets his fingers delicately frame his dolled-up face. He moves his hands swiftly down to his waist, popping it first to the left and then to the right before looking straight into the camera, and saying, “Hello Friends, I am Neel Ranaut”.

In the backdrop, however, is not the glitzy shebang of a fashion show. Instead, there’s an unkempt pond, a cowshed, and sometimes vast stretches of open land. His ramp is not a sleek, shiny manicured surface, but dirt roads, and he wears not designer outfits, but leaves, fruits and flowers. @neelranaut is the social media handle of 23-year-old Sarbajit Sarkar who has come under the spotlight for his unique sense of style. With over 61,000 followers on Instagram, Sarbajit has emerged as a fashion influencer, joining the herd of influencers that now constitute an entire industry. 



A post shared by neel ranaut (@ranautneel)

Soon after the social media revolution began about two decades ago, the internet started being perceived as a democratic medium seemingly accessible by one and all. In the last few years, especially after the pandemic pushed people back into their houses, social media became the only escape into the outside world. From a networking space, it transformed into an avenue to generate income. People from different walks of life started exploring their erstwhile hobbies in-depth and showcasing hidden talents on their social media accounts. They received unprecedented adulation and how. Many have since taken the plunge to quit their day jobs altogether and take up the profession of an influencer for good. 

Sarkar, who hails from a small village in the Teliamura district, Tripura, is an example of how social media can help anyone achieve their dreams. He gave up on a career in law to pursue fashion, an arena about which he had no clue until very recently. Sarkar’s journey began with his “funny videos” of recreating outfits worn by Bollywood and Hollywood actresses, by using elements from his rural milieu. His days are spent ideating how he can fashion a sari from a banana leaf or a skirt from betel palm leaves. He looks into his backyard for inspiration, even for accessories.

To recreate Lady Gaga sporting chunky black high heels, Sarkar places two black ducks near his feet, calling them his “exclusive duck heels”. An orange sling bag carried by Disha Patani was replicated using a plastic orange mug. He has fashioned blouses made from paper and placed dishevelled saris on his head to replicate wigs worn by actors at international fashion events like the MET gala or the Cannes film festival. He reinvented the white-collared red check dress that Kangna Ranaut wore by using a white shirt layered with a red gamcha. For the floral embroidery, he used real flowers. 

His seemingly infinite trove of unique design ideas caught the attention of renowned designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, who reached out to Sarkar with a word of praise sometime in early 2019, and later that year also invited him to walk the ramp for them. 

That was all the validation that he needed. “I think I always had a knack for fashion, but I didn’t realise it till they (Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla) praised me. When such big designers appreciated my work, I decided to pursue this seriously. That is when I started designing my own outfits. Not just recreating celebrity looks. In time, I have realised this is something am I good at,” says Sarkar. His original design repertoire boasts of uncanny compositions, including an off-shoulder mini dress made entirely out of tamarind pods, a strappy trailing fish gown of lavender flowers, and a blouse and skirt co-ord set fashioned out of kans grass, popularly known as kash phool in eastern India. 

In the suburbs of Bengal another digital creator, Jhilam Gupta has emerged. Gupta, at first glance, comes across as a misfit, going by the trends that the influencer industry has been set with their blow-dried hair and dewy makeup. Sporting an unapologetic curly bob with zero products on her face, she sits in front of the camera and simply starts talking in Bangla. She presents the mundane from everyday life in an entertaining format. Her weapon of choice is comedy and her unique delivery style – opinionated, spontaneous, real –has over 3,42,000 followers on Facebook (Meta).

One of her early posts was about one’s fear of mathematics that generated over two lakh views in less than a day. “After that, I got the ‘chaska’ for social media,” she says. Within four months of putting up her first post, Gupta cracked the eligibility criteria on Meta to monetise her content. Soon, she left her 9 to 5 job and devoted all her time and energy towards creating content. Uploading 15 videos and hosting two live sessions is her personal target per month.

Early on in her influencer journey, she realised that it was content that people could relate to that received high traction, and the trick has worked for her so far. “Take my math video for instance. It is not difficult to find people who have at some point of time felt scared of math. Everyone cherishes their childhood, so when I present these memories with a little bit of humour, people like it. They feel that this is what used to happen with me as well,” she says.

In her videos, she talks about a range of topics from films, new song releases, cricket, an uneventful dentist visit, to Durga Puja celebrations, and everything in between, almost all of which have thousands if not more views and likes. 

According to a Meta spokesperson, the social media ecosystem has evolved over the years to make content creation “more accessible and aspiring”, allowing users to either “create a community or monetise themselves, or both”, thereby attracting people from tier II and III cities, small towns or even villages. “The entry barriers to the internet have come down, creative tools have been democratised, the agency ecosystem has evolved to discover and manage talent, and role models have emerged for people who believe they have talent and can make it too,” says Saket Jha Saurabh, Director, Entertainment and Music Partnerships, for Meta-owned Instagram & Facebook in India.

Explaining the rise of creators from small towns and regions, Saurabh says, “Brands are increasingly developing regional market strategies, not a ‘one size fits all India view’. In this world, engagement matters a lot more than just follower size, and here local emerging creators may have far more resonance than one major public figure. These trends essentially reveal that what works is what is relatable, relevant, and intensely indigenous.” Satya Raghavan, Director, YouTube Partnerships, India, agrees, saying, “What makes the journey of these creators who come from far corners of our country truly inspiring is their ability to showcase their heritage to global audiences with authenticity. They capture moments of idyllic rural life in their most natural and relatable form, including festivals and local traditions. This particularly holds great appeal for the growing pool of migrants in urban cities and overseas, who watch this content to reconnect with the people, culture and simplicity of their native lands,” he says. 

The remarkable achievements of individuals like Sarkar and Gupta, and the rewards that the virtual world appears to offer have since created an impression that anyone can become a social media influencer if they work towards it. However, the path to becoming an influencer requires a lot more than just unique ideas and sheer grit. The paraphernalia that goes into making an influencer often goes unaccounted for. Also, conveniently left out of the social media-influencer discourse are the societal biases of a small town, economic challenges, and something as basic as internet connectivity. Even as smartphone usage increases in semi-urban and rural areas and internet connectivity is reaching remote areas, the digital divide that continues to persist cannot be ignored. 

A report by (an influencer management agency) published in July 2020 revealed that despite all the inroads that social media might have made in smaller cities, towns and villages, the influencer market continues to be dominated by people in the metros. Most of the digital creators hail from top metro cities – the largest percentage coming from Delhi and Mumbai, with 24.9 per cent and 21.2 per cent respectively, while Bengaluru and Kolkata contribute to 7.9 per cent and 6.3 per cent respectively, the survey showed.

Internet connectivity in two-tier cities like Guwahati, which is among the most developed cities in northeast India, is subpar, claims Kangkna Talukdar, a gaming influencer. The MBA student moonlights as a gamer, streaming games like Battlegrounds Mobile India and Grand Theft Auto 5 that she daily plays online by herself or in a group for a minimum of three hours. In the last few years, she has managed to become part of a gaming community where other enthusiasts watch her play. “Without consistent internet, streaming would not be smooth,” observes Talukdar. According to her, a minimum of 30 Mbps is required for “decent streaming”, but she prefers 100 Mbps, and only very recently managed to arrange for it through “sources”. Having been raised by a single mother, it took her time to become financially stable to buy gadgets to stream. “That is a huge part of it. When I started streaming, I would go to a friend’s house and play there. Only after I started earning, I manage to buy my current PC,” says Talukdar. Gupta faced similar obstacles. For a long time, she did not own a tripod, an essential accessory for influencers who mostly work alone. “I would keep my phone on my window sill and record videos,” she says.



A post shared by Kangkana (@mysticignite)

Age-old societal biases, especially around gender and sexuality are often left out of the discourse around the influencer industry, despite the fact that discrimination in smaller towns and villages is considerably worse than it is in cities.

Manisha Rani from Munger, Bihar, had to overcome several societal biases before she could realise her dream of becoming an entertainer. With over 20 million followers on MX Takatak, Manisha has come a long way from the time she used to juggle household chores and create videos to generate content. She would record videos on her terrace, by covering the brick wall with a black cloth for a neat background. “I did not have a ring light, so I had to ensure proper natural light. I come from a middle-class family, so I had to chip in for household chores like cooking and everything else. At times, I had to pause behind making a video to serve food to my father. I did this as I did not want to give anyone an opportunity to say that I was neglecting my responsibilities to make videos,” she says. 

A large part of her content involves lip-syncing to Bollywood songs, acting out bits from films, and doing comedy around her culture back home. Her parents dismissed her passion, and relatives made hurtful remarks. “From the beginning, there was no one to support me. My parents used to say that I was wasting my time on something that would offer no name, fame or money. One of my uncles used to get very mad at me, and once said this was the job of nachaniya (nautch girl) and would advise his daughter against becoming like me,” she says. Only a handful of Sarkar’s friends are aware of his sexual orientation, and he continues to be trolled for being “effeminate”, and taunted for the way he talks and carries himself. “People call me a woman, a eunuch. I feel insulted and afraid. Whenever I meet someone new, I try to be ‘normal’, and try hard to hide my characteristics which could be termed feminine,” he says.

Social media has clearly opened up opportunities, albeit slowly, for people who were otherwise left out of the mainstream. Manisha moved to Mumbai in June this year, and couldn’t have been more proud of her journey. “In Mumbai, there are a lot of influencers, but from where I come, I am the only one who has managed to do something like this. This is sort of a record. I am a star in my city,” she says. Had it not been for Instagram, celebrity designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla wouldn’t have discovered a talented man in a small village of Tripura or a young girl in Munger wouldn’t have dared to dream. “People harass and insult me even today, but I have realised that there is also a huge number of people praising what I do, and I have learnt that the latter holds a lot more value,” says Sarkar.