Rising star falls

ByPrateek Goyal

Jul 10, 2020

Suraj Chavan, 18, became one of Maharashtra’s most popular TikTok stars, with 15 lakh followers. His dream was to rebuild his one-room house

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Heavy clouds gathered over a vast expanse of farmland in the tiny village of Modhve in Maharashtra’s Baramati. In the shade of a tin roof near the village temple, four local journalists and a dozen young men clustered around a teenage boy. He wore an orange shirt, grey checked pants, red shoes, and had a head of golden hair.

As the reporters prompted him, he looked into the cameras and said, “Goligat and Bukkit tengul.” These words hold no meaning for some people, but this 18-year-old gets nearly 100 phone calls a day, just to hear him say it.

This is Suraj Chavan, a labourer, daily-wage earner, and one of Maharashtra’s most popular TikTok stars. His profile had 15 lakh followers and around 4.5 crore likes — until the app was banned in India earlier this week.

TikTok’s ban was followed by a slew of pieces on how the app’s “influencers” in India would cope. A “mentor” to some of “India’s most leading TikTokers” said users could earn Rs 6 crore a year.

But this hasn’t been Suraj’s story. He’s been on the app since 2019, and only began to monetise his content 20 days ago, when a group of youth workers convinced him to do so. Until then, he was offered the odd pair of pants or shoes to attend a function or endorse a product.

A day before the app was banned, Suraj was booked to earn Rs 20,000 — the highest he would have earned so far. He’s earned Rs 50,000-60,000 through TikTok, and all the money was earmarked to construct his one-room home, measuring 200 sq ft, which still has no electricity or water supply.

As a daily labourer, Suraj would earn Rs 300 a day for 12-15 hours of work. He estimated that the construction work would cost him Rs 1.5 lakh. He studied uptil Class 8 and can’t read or write.

Now that TikTok has been banned, and his daily wage work has dried up due to the lockdown, he doesn’t know how he’ll manage.

Suraj’s one-room house

No influencer life, this

Suraj hails from a family of landless labourers. His parents died a few years ago, and he has five older sisters. In 2019, when he worked as a daily wage earner at a compost farm in Bhor, he was introduced to TikTok by his oldest sister’s son, who lives in Pune.

“My nephew was here in Modhve last year and told me about TikTok,” Suraj explained. “He shot a video of mine at the Veeroba temple, where I sang part of a popular Marathi song, La laa lee laa laa laa. That was my first video and it went viral.”

At the time, Suraj didn’t own a phone. He started making videos on his friend’s phone for the next eight days, until he bought his first mobile phone for Rs 5,000 with his savings. “After that, I started posting about 30 videos daily.”

In just a year, Suraj gained 25 lakh followers. His TikTok account was hacked five months ago and he set up a new one, which got 15 lakh followers in five months.

“People started calling me to inaugurate shops and endorse products. They would give me a shirt, a pair of pants, or goggles,” he said. “But I also continued to work as a labourer in Bhor because it was my only source of income. Otherwise, I would have had to sleep on an empty stomach — which also happened a few times.”

As he showed this reporter his TikTok handle — Surajchavan1151— his phone began to ring. It was a fan from Karad tehsil in Satara district, who wanted Suraj to repeat his now-famous dialogue, “Goligat and Bukkit tengul.” Bukkit tengul means a punch on the head, and goligat means “with the speed of a bullet”. Much to the fan’s delight, Suraj complied.

Why did he make videos on TikTok? “It was good time-pass,” he said. “I would make comedy videos to make people laugh. My dialogues don’t have any particular meaning; people just like them and the way I say it.” He revealed that his other catchphrase is “Dj sq rq zq”.

Suraj’s sister and brother-in-law

Suraj got — and still gets —- phone calls from fans across Maharashtra, from Pune, Satara, Kolhapur, Beed and Mumbai. The volume of calls sometimes caused his phone to hang and, despite his TikTok fame, he admitted that he did not fully know how to operate a phone. He coloured his hair golden six months ago, wanting to be recognisable by his hair, if not his face.

Dreams of renovating his house

Nana Madane, 34, is a social worker at the nearby village of Wadgaon Nimbalkar. Nana met Suraj three weeks ago and helped Suraj earn money for endorsing products.

“I was approached by locals who said there’s a boy who is quite popular on TikTok but very poor. I met him for the first time at Veeroba temple, where he would spend his day during the lockdown,” Nana said. “He told me nobody paid him for endorsing their products.”

Like lakhs of other daily wagers across the country, Suraj was unable to find work during the lockdown. The volume of his TikTok videos increased instead. “He just knows how to make videos and post them,” Nana explained. “He can’t even read or write. He can’t send messages. In fact, he saves numbers in his phone using emojis.”

TikTok users would visit Modhve from Pune, Nashik and Aurangabad to take videos with Suraj, Nana said, driving down in their BMWs and Audis.

“They would take him along to shoot at scenic locations and then just leave him there. They didn’t even have the courtesy to drop him back home,” Nana said. “Basically, they wanted to increase their own follower count on TikTok by using him. He never asked anybody for anything. Forget money, he is so innocent that he wouldn’t even ask for a lift back home or for a vada pav.”

Nana began asking people to pay if they wanted to make videos with Suraj. He would take Suraj for functions and ask organisers to pay him for endorsements. “Some would pay Rs 1,000, some Rs 3,000, and so on,” he said.

With Nana’s help, Suraj earned between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000. His hope was to renovate his dilapidated one-room house, which is now a mess of ratholes thanks to its lack of flooring. With TikTok being banned and his dreams shattered, he spent the lockdown sitting outside the village temple, just to escape from the rats at home.

“Suraj was supposed to get Rs 20,000 from three endorsements on July 1: a birthday celebration, the inauguration of a mobile store, and the promotion of a marriage hall,” Nana explained. “But TikTok was banned just two days before the events.”

Local journalists who came to meet Suraj after TikTok was banned

‘He is a humble, innocent boy’

Hemant Gadkari, a journalist in Baramati, heard of Suraj’s TikTok fame about seven months ago. “His dialogue, Goligat, became famous across Maharashtra,” Hemant said. “In the initial days, people would call him ugly in the comments section. But whenever his friends read out such comments to him, he would say, ‘I don’t know how to read so it doesn’t matter what they are writing.’”

For a long time, Hemant said, Suraj owned just one pair of pants and a shirt. He now has two pairs of pants, one of which he received in exchange for attending a function. “He is a very humble, innocent young boy…He has become famous and everybody knows him, but his feet are firmly on the ground.”

Vikas Kokre, a local, pointed out that with the kind of fanbase Suraj has, TikTok stars in cities earn Rs 50,000-1 lakh for attending events. Like Hemant and Nana, Vikas reiterated Suraj’s innocence.

“If you ask him basic questions, he will not be able to respond. He repeats the same dialogues, but people like the way he says them,” he said. “Nobody can deny his popularity across Maharashtra as a TikTok star. Unfortunately, because of his innocence, he couldn’t use it to make his life better.”

When asked what he will do now that TikTok is banned, Suraj said, “The country is more important than TikTok. I will try to post my videos on YouTube. If Indian apps equivalent to TikTok do not come to the market, then I will go back to working as a labourer.”

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