Since Monday evening, Geet’s inbox has been overflowing with messages from anxious followers from all over India.
Geet, who goes by her first name only, says she was taken aback when India banned TikTok and dozens more Chinese-made apps because it said they were a danger to the country.
After all, the former lawyer is now one of India’s many TikTok stars, teaching “American English”, and giving relationship advice and pep talks to more than 10 million followers on her three channels.
Every day, for the past year, Geet has uploaded 15 videos to her accounts, each usually 20 seconds long. Shooting on her phone and a professional camera, she records up to 120 videos a day to make sure that her larder is never bare. The rest of the week she is busy scripting and editing her videos.
“I was completely taken off guard when the news arrived. I mean, this is my life now. It’s my full-time job,” she told me.
Her followers are distraught. “How can I learn English any more?” one asked. “Who will motivate me now?” another wrote.
Fuelled by cheap data and a young population, TikTok has picked up some 200 million users in three years in India. The popular mobile app features snappy, shareable videos, often catering to teens and other young people. Using filters, sounds, music and hashtags, young Indians upload songs, dances, pranks, comedy skits, career tips, challenges, language and yoga lessons.
These co-exist with some videos which have featured hate speech, misogyny and casual violence. In some instances, users have been killed or injured trying to record risky stunts, and police have even tracked and arrested gangsters flaunting their lifestyles on the app.
The largely 15-second videos – the app allows videos up to one minute – offer a snapshot into the life and times of young Indians, bristling with ambition and frustration.
“It’s endlessly fascinating. A lot of underrepresented people have found a platform here. People with alternative sexualities are expressing themselves freely. Women are asserting themselves. There’s a lot of very creative people on the platform,” says Amit Varma, a writer and podcaster, who teaches a course on TikTok.
Geet, for example, never dreamt of a life on TikTok. Born in India and raised in Seattle, she studied engineering and worked in a law firm before moving to the Indian capital, Delhi, with her parents to do social work. She says she worked with slum children and high-risk youth until opening a TikTok account in February last year. “TikTok is an extension of what I used to do. Now with a single video message I can reach out to many more people and try to help them,” she said.
Most of her clients are very young and aspirational, she says. Many want to learn “American English”: one of her popular channels with more than six million followers tries to do that, using Hindi language instructions.
A viral video on this channel shows Geet telling her followers what assorted footwear in her home are called in English: flip flops, loafers, slippers, flats, high heels.
In another, she corrects her mother’s pronunciation of words like breakfast, dessert, food, vegetables and pears, using her thick American accent. Another video is about “seven ways to say happy birthday”.
“All this is supposed to be snappy, fun and educative,” she says.
Her two other channels offer relationship advice and motivational chats to the young, often based on the questions her followers send to her inbox. “The most common question I get is how to cope with a break-up. The next is what to do if my partner is not giving me time. Married folks talk about marital strife and domestic violence.”
TikTok, Geet says, has changed the lives of a lot of people she knows. Advertisers woo users who have amassed massive followings. “Many of my friends depend on the app as their primary source of income,” she says. “For me, I am just happy if people recognise my work.”
An Uber driver in Delhi recognised her once and asked to record a video on his mobile phone giving some advice to his son “who was not studying hard”. Another time in a shopping complex, she was accosted by an executive who asked her: “Aren’t you the girl who teaches English on TikTok?”
Geet says the app has changed her life. At 10, she suffered a spinal cord injury and has been a wheelchair user since. “It is a very equalising platform. You see a lot of differently abled people on TikTok who have been accepted,” she says.
The lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has been a stressful time for her and her followers. Before the lockdown began in late March, she joined her brother along with her parents in Seattle from where she continues to make videos. To keep her followers engaged, she often streams live and makes videos with games and puzzles. “It’s a difficult time,” she says.
It got a little more difficult on Monday evening. Geet went live on her channels to placate her anxious followers.
“Don’t worry. Don’t lose courage. Let’s wait. We think the issue will be resolved and we will meet again. Don’t lose hope and don’t do anything drastic.”