How a Million Karnas Rose to Fame: TikTok Through the Lens of the Mahabharata

Social Commentary

How a Million Karnas Rose to Fame: TikTok Through the Lens of the Mahabharata

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

A few months ago, long before the events of the recent past – a border stand-off, a pandemic, and the ban on TikTok – when air travel was still a reality, I found myself stranded at the Delhi airport for over six hours. Thanks to the blinding fog, over a hundred flights had been rescheduled. Having missed my morning run, I decided to take a long walk across one end of the terminal to another. While purposefully striding alongside the travelator, I found a small crowd gathered near a familiar-looking figure, clicking selfies with him.

Hari Krishnan with TikTok star Hyder Maqbool

HariKrishnan with Hyder Maqbool, a TikTok star from J&K, and a spitting image of superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

Hari Krishnan

The young man in the terminal spotlight was Hyder Maqbool, a TikTok star from J&K, and a spitting image of superstar Shah Rukh Khan. A recent self-appointed researcher of the wildly popular Chinese app, I had come across many short videos of Hyder, thrown at me by an algorithm, perhaps through machine-learnt awareness of my fanboy status of the original stammering star.

I walked up to Hyder for a selfie, coming to terms with my own “downgraded” status in life – just a few years back, thanks to my advertising career I’d had close encounters (and selfies) with the original SRK. In a brief conversation, I learnt Hyder had not met his star yet. I showed him my cherished selfie, in an attempt to brag. He didn’t seem particularly excited, but still returned me an acknowledging smile, out of sheer politeness.

The unspoken equation suddenly struck me. While I was merely a fan, I was dealing with a star in his own right, one with over 5 million fans and counting. He was, however going through a temporary phase of disenchantment – as the Internet was switched off back home in Srinagar, following the revocation of Article 370, arresting the growth of his fan base.

Like millions of Indians, Hyder was a rising Karna, the proverbial disowned brother in the epic Mahabharata – capable, talented, yet not embraced, the glorious warrior who nursed his victimhood forever. Burdened by the feeling of illegitimacy and shame that constantly kept him in a “proving” mode, hungry for the validation he doesn’t receive at home, in the larger social arena.

The rise and rise of TikTok

In 2019 alone, almost 200 million TikTok-ers emerged in India. Half of them were uploading short videos of self-expression; putting themselves out there, indulging in multifarious emotions. Prior to their access to TikTok, these emotions were something they only lived vicariously, through other people, mostly celebrated stars. As TikTok-ers, they were able to do it themselves.

Learning, knowledge, and sharing was democratised in the gifted land of TikTok.

All that was previously unthinkable, undoable, and unavailable was now offered on a platter. The platform, dialogues, lyrics, songs, co-stars, ideas, and themes enabled them to achieve recognition and fame in exchange for a bit of effort. If people like Hyder were Karna, TikTok was the proverbial Duryodhan gifting the latter a readymade kingdom, so that he could be legitimised and counted among nobles. Not because he was born to privilege, but because he was capable and deserving.

This sudden emergence of a hitherto unknown entity was the subject of ridicule and hate by the ruling elite. Much like what Karna is subject to, when he makes his first appearance in the great Indian epic. And the platform his best friend Duryodhan, who embraced him and took him to be part of his team.

What was the kingdom that Duryodhan gifted Karna all about? What is it about TikTok that captured the imagination of 200 million Indians in fewer than three years?

The kingdom had fertile soil for cultivation. While the entitled and privileged were sleeping in their palaces, a new world had opened up for TikTok-ers. It wasn’t all about song, dance, and gyration, as some of us chose to see it in a biased, unidimensional context. The platform hosted millions of narratives on varied themes every day – a different kind of personal storytelling about ambition, achievement, belief, and transformation.

The kingdom celebrated everyone’s achievement. Personal chronicles trended on TikTok as #myjourneys with edited collage videos of Indians who have moved up in life, showcasing their possessions over the years – from a bus to a bicycle and then to a scooter or a motorbike. In some cases, even a coconut breaking ritual in front of a brand new car.

To the millions of Indian strivers who lift themselves out of their economic and social status each day, regardless of the Government in power or policies that affect them, this unabashed display of acquisitiveness was given a license they earned with their sweat and toil, something they are not ashamed of, for it is a long cherished dream they have realised.

Learning, knowledge, and sharing was democratised in the gifted land. Fifteen-second tutorials, especially spoken English, trended in a big way, helping everyday people learn the aspirational language of upward social mobility and business success. What Rapidex English Course books did in the ’80s, #Edutok did with popular creators like Awal Creations (6 million followers) and English with Geet, who teaches others innovatively while riding around in a wheelchair.  She is a Karna no less, who rose out of nowhere, found her promised land and place of importance, thanks to the app. Duryodhan gave Karna the right tools and weapons.

On a day earmarked (June 30) to globally commemorate Social Media, the Indian government switched off TikTok.

The end of an epic journey

Within a short span of just two years, TikTok had grown leaps and bounds… what had taken taken other “refined” social networks almost a decade to achieve. With almost half of its user base being uploaders, unlike other networks which have a greater proportion of passive users, it was a creator’s platform in the true sense of the word.

It is an irony of epic proportions: On a day earmarked (June 30) to globally commemorate Social Media, the Indian government switched off TikTok. It cut off 200 million young Indians who shaped their new individual identities, who were busy expressing themselves to their own audience. They were defining themselves and what they stood for, in their own respective worlds they so painstakingly constructed.

National security reasons cited as being paramount, the decisive action has met with both jingoistic applause and criticism. Some of us find ourselves in a classic double-bind, perched on the fence, the age-old “dharam sankat” of having to embrace this authoritative decision, yet feeling the pain of a large part of underdog India for whom this app is – was – an escape tunnel leading to hope and possibility. A space that allowed for creativity and uninhibited expression, a truly democratic platform that legitimised their existence.

It is now up to this Duryodhan of apps to come clean and prove that he is not on the wrong side of Dharma, so that Karna can emerge once again.