TikTok: One Person’s Cringe Is Another One’s Cool

Everyone has seen a TikTok video, even if you have never heard about the video-sharing and Karaoke app and don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s a bit like GST – it doesn’t matter whether you understand it, and there is no way to escape it. And it has hit the online world like a tsunami.
Remember that friend from college who posts Instagram videos, lip-syncing to famous Bollywood dialogues and songs? The ones where you watch and go “Why?” That is probably a TikTok video. If you’re wondering “Hang on, isn’t that Musical.ly?”, congratulations, you’re catching up. Musical.ly was acquired by the Chinese company ByteDance in November 2017 and they merged it with their app TikTok in August 2018. TikTok has exploded worldwide and has more users than Reddit, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. I don’t know what’s more surprising, that TikTok has gotten so popular so quickly, or that a Chinese product has lasted more than ten days.
For the vanilla user, TikTok might just be an extension to Snapchat and Instagram. However, while “stories” disappear with time, on TikTok one can ensure that the embarrassment is etched into online history forever. People who dance showcase their dancing skills. People who are into fitness and health put up workout tips and videos. Fashion enthusiasts display new outfits everyday, and those who have nothing, upload pictures of food and their pets.
But to classify TikTok as vanilla would not only be an understatement, it would also be wrong. For TikTok hosts everything from the simple, to the bizarre, to the extremely fucking weird.
I’ve watched these videos with growing fascination and amusement every day, on FB pages with borderline offensive names like Reptiles of Kurla. Teenagers apply glycerine to their eyes and cry to emotional Bollywood songs from the ’90s, showcasing more emotions in 15 seconds than John Abraham has in his entire acting career. The trend even has a special Facebook page dedicated to it, called “Boys who cry passionately on Musically IndiaFor added effect, jam and juice are sometimes applied on the body to show blood and heartbreak.
If you’re not into drama, don’t worry, there’s a place for everyone on TikTok. Comedy skits are the rage. On downloading the app, the third video I saw was a man in a village jumping from the roof of his house to another roof with music from Krrish playing in the background. There were no safety precautions in place, nor was this some kind of prank – it was just 15 seconds of masti content. In another video, a bunch of guys were lip-syncing to a popular scene from Phir Hera Pheri that ends with Babu bhaiya being pushed into a swimming pool. In the TikTok video, the guy is pushed into an actual well in a farm by his friends as they try to recreate the scene. I laughed for a good two minutes.
Then, there are challenges. Remember the ice bucket challenge? TikTok has its own array of challenges that regularly feature in their trending hashtags. In the #SoapChallenge, one had to put as many bubbles as you could in your hand and then blow them out to the app’s slow motion effect. I know you believe you can visualise it, but believe me, it’s like the Trump presidency – you cannot until you’ve seen it. The #FaceChallenge was about mimicking 10 animal faces in 15 seconds. Watch out CGI, we’re coming for those animated roles in Disney movies. In the #RotationChallenge, you had to turn on the selfie camera on your phone and then try rotating the phone 360 degrees in your hand. I tried it five times, and all I had to show for my efforts were a hurt ego and a sprained wrist. Clearly, I’m far away from being a popular TikTok star.
TikTok is not merely an app, it’s an experience. It’s an avenue to a different world, a different India. It’s not populated only by your friends, people like you, or those belonging to the same economic, social and cultural environment as you. It has made inroads into rural and small town India, and they’re creating and sharing content in a massive way. It is what the meeting point of a Jio sim card and a Netflix account would look like.
The medium doesn’t have a limitation of text, grammar, or language that many other social media networks suffer from. No one’s trying to show you how great their life is or how someone spelt their name on a cup at Starbucks, like on Instagram. You don’t need to know an American show reference or what a particular contextual meme means. To a large extent, it has eroded the rural-urban divide and made it a level playing field for everyone with a camera phone and data connection. You have a camera, basic editing features and 15 seconds to earn likes and comments, the medium’s currency. “Make every second count” is TikTok’s tagline (and also the working title for the movie to every guy’s sex life).
There is a tendency to dismiss the content as bordering on the extremes of cringe: Easy for us Netflix-watching, organic-cafe-frequenting, nihilist types who couldn’t see earnestness if it hit them between the eyes. Sure, the videos on TikTok don’t match up to the quality of content we’re used to consuming. But what it has, is the spirit of rebellion against a generation defined by snark, the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of what is “cool” and what is “cringe” on the Interwebz. “This is how Dhinchak Poojas and Taher Shahs are born,” the cool kids at Reddit are already up in arms. One must never forget though, that one man’s earnest creative attempt is another man’s cringe. On TikTok, there’s place for everyone, and that is its beauty.

Why Has #MeToo Scared Every Man

For the first time in life, I got a tiny glimpse of what it might be like to be a woman. I was gripped with fear and uneasiness.
As India’s #MeToo movement gained momentum over the past two weeks, I watched a lot of supposedly woke men get called out – for sending unsolicited texts and dick pics, predatory behaviour, and outright sexual harassment. I followed some of these people on Twitter, I have enjoyed some of their work – their films, their writing. These were not those “other” dastardly men who rape women and brazenly skirt the law. These were not those men who make it to front pages of newspapers, men who’ve made you think, “Who are these monsters?” But as the past few days have taught us, these men belong to a different breed of monsters – they are one among us, or rather we are the monsters.  
We are on the news now. Our behaviour has been unacceptable and downright shameful. We the regular people who have had a decent education and enjoy privilege, who are expected to know where to draw the line. Utsav Chakraborty was a “woke comedian”, Vikas Bahl, a “liberal filmmaker”, MJ Akbar, an “informed journalist”. Many of them claimed to be champions of women’s rights. Each one of them turned out to be hypocrites.
As more and more bros were named and shamed, I did what anyone who feels some level of guilt does – maintain absolute silence. For someone who has an opinion on everything from the petrol price hike to the Rafale deal, I was uncomfortably mum as the most significant social movement in my lifetime unfolded.  
The silence came from a place of fear. Unfortunately, the source of that fear was misplaced. I was worried about being labelled a transgressor and the shame that came with it. I started going through screenshots and chats to figure out if I had indeed misbehaved – sent an unwanted text, made anyone uncomfortable, offended a woman.  It was only a few days later, as I overheard conversations of female friends and colleagues, did I realise that what I should be worried about was whether I had hurt someone and how I can correct my behaviour.
The way we rationalise our fear is by trying to defend it. On “boys only” WhatsApp groups, discussions were rife about how “#MeToo was going too far”: “Yaar ab haath pakadna bhi sexual harassment hai kya?” “Joke bhi nahi maar sakte kya ab?” “This is just a relationship gone bad, yaar.” “Why did she not speak for 20 years?” “Aren’t people innocent until proven guilty?” These were thoughts that crossed my mind and that of a handful of other men I interacted with. But we’d dare not say it out loud. Because wokeness is our brand.
Instead of looking at the positives of the movement, like how the law would never have been able to catch up with offenders such as Nana Patekar, Vikas Bahl, or Sajid Khan, I actively tried to pinpoint the imperfections of #MeToo. By focussing on legal loopholes or that one woman who made a false accusation on Twitter. I started finding reasons to convince myself that there was something wrong with the movement. But why was I making excuses?
A report titled “Why Men Still Defend Sexual Predators and Fight the #MeToo Movement,” quotes Psychologist John D Moore, “…not all men who come to the defense of someone accused of sexual crimes are themselves guilty of anything. These sympathetic men may just be uneasy about having a more tenuous position in society — about being held accountable. For these men, seeing a preferred comedian or politician face charges represents a loss of power by association.”
Truth be told, it is rare to find a man who is not guilty of having said something sexually inappropriate – intentionally or unintentionally. For the first time in centuries, we cannot dismiss our crass behaviour as locker-room talk or by simply saying “boys will be boys”. For the first time ever, women are not expected to forgive men. And hence we are more afraid than ever.
Men have been a problem and there is no better time to review and reflect than now.
If half the population cannot leave the house without being worried about its safety to some degree, it is a matter of shame for all of us. It’s not merely about the Bollywood actress who spoke up or the lone woman partner in a corporate firm who had to deal with sexual harassment, it extends to our mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues as we all know now. It extends to daily life, like travelling in the train, attending business meetings, or partying at a bar – things we men indulge in without giving any thought.  
As men, we have been either explicitly or implicitly responsible for the suffocating atmosphere that exists around us. Every man believes he has never harassed a woman and yet one can’t find a woman who hasn’t been harassed. The two things don’t add up.
A few parallels can be drawn between the #MeToo movement and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Cleanliness looks like a ridiculously complex issue to solve, and yet, all it would take is for everyone to throw trash in the dustbin, resist spitting, and the country would be immediately a lot better. Being a decent human being is a bit like that. We only have to do a series of basic things and suddenly everything would be better.

By Sheltering an Inter-Caste Couple, My Conservative Father Discovered His “Wokeness”

It was not a festival, it wasn’t anyone’s birthday in the family, as far as I could remember. It wasn’t even the weekend. So I was taken by surprise when my house was abuzz with energy in the middle of a workweek. There was a serious amount of pav bhaji and grilled cheese sandwiches that had been ordered. For a Gujarati family living in Kandivali, it felt like Navratri had arrived early.
Before I could figure out what was happening, mum told me we had guests – my dad’s colleagues. Really? When did dad start making friends at work?  
Pratik* from my father’s office had come home to visit us, all the way from Kalyan. Seated next to him was a woman, who I guessed was his girlfriend, but I couldn’t be sure. It was 10 pm on a Tuesday, way past my father’s bedtime. And yet everyone seemed quite content chatting away. “Why aren’t they leaving?” “They can’t be staying over!” “Do I have to sleep in the living room today?” My mind was overflowing with questions.
I smiled at Pratik and before I could start a conversation, mom gestured at me with her eyes, asking me to go inside. Then she followed me. Zero points for subtlety.
She came into the bedroom and started whispering, which is her code for “kuch gadbad hai”. Cutting right to the chase, she told me, “Pratik and Nisha got married but their families won’t accept it. So they will be staying with us for a few days.” Hello? Had I suddenly been transplanted into a ’90s Bollywood film? While it might have taken me a few minutes to process the information, all my claims to social media wokeness were forgotten when I blurted, “But why here? Don’t they have any relatives or friends?”   
My mother then gave me a quick backstory of how both families had opposed the marriage because they belonged to different sub-castes, but dad had helped the couple register the wedding. This indeed was a parallel universe. My father? Playing cupid? My dad, the same man who thinks Muslims are planning to take over the world? The same man who declares anyone who criticises Modi ji as a traitor and anti-national? Nothing made any sense.
With an instruction to move to the living room couch for a few days, my mother dashed out of the room. I heard her sneakily calling one of our relatives who owns a garment shop and requested them to open it for a bit. The newly-weds had no extra pair of clothes. A meeting was fixed for 11.30 pm, as if they were scoring some sort of contraband.
In all this excitement, I was getting acquainted with a new side to my father’s personality.
The couple looked worried, but dad kept trying to cheer them up. “Tension mat lo, ek do din mein sab theek ho jaayega.” Dinner was followed by some ice cream and small talk about cricket and what Nisha likes to do. Dad was cracking jokes, at least attempting to, and mom was being mom – extremely warm. I could see my introvert parents making the extra effort to make the two feel at home.
That day my respect for my father shot up faster than Chris Gayle’s strike rate in a T20 game. My dad was way cooler than I thought he was. This is a man who doesn’t know how to use a gas stove and still believed that women should do the cooking, but he had risen over and above the call of duty in helping out a young couple.
Pratik and Nisha stayed at our house for about a week. They’d head out to work in the morning and return at night. This is when the four of them would huddle up and have discussions about how to convince the couple’s family to accept them. Over a period of a few days, my father spoke to their family members and tried to reason it out with them that castes only divide us further. “The differences are all in our head,” I once overheard him saying. After days of convincing, Pratik’s family agreed and the couple moved back to their house.
I was a silent observer of all that was unfolding at home, watching my dad play peacemaker. The same father, who, like any typical middle-class uncle, still makes politically incorrect statements. He has been sexist and racist on several occasions in the past without even realising it. Often with relatives, I’ve heard him comment on politics and his thoughts have made me cringe. On days that I’ve confronted him or tried to engage with him, we’ve had endless debates, which end up with me storming out of the room.
To my mind, my dad was the conservative, the one with backward views. That’s the reason I’ve never added him as a Facebook friend – afraid that he’ll leave a comment on something I’ve posted and embarrass me. But in the days that Pratik and Nisha were with us, I saw a different side. When the time came to act, he had allowed his liberal side to emerge. He had done the right thing.
We waste no time in passing judgement about our parents, imposing our “liberal” ideas on them. Little do we realise that liberalism also includes the ability to open up to an opposing view, being unbiased and non-judgemental.
Unlike me and most people from our generation, who use social media to signal our virtues, my father had become the IRL definition of woke, without knowing or even caring what it meant. Not through his assertions but by his actions. What’s more, he did not bother tom-toming about it on Facebook. Maybe it is time to add him.    
* Names changed

Why Do Corrupt Politicians Win Elections?

Corruption in India is like oxygen – it is integral to our lives. From the local traffic police to spectrum allocation at the cabinet level, corruption is as rampant as potholes on Indian roads. You can move your file faster in a government office if you accompany it with a bit of “chai paani”, a word we have coined to convince ourselves we are not all that dishonest because it’s not quite “rishwat”.
Corruption is a major election plank for our political parties. One party says, “Mera PM chor hai”, the other says “Tera pura khandan chor hai” and the average person on the street believes, “Saale sab chor hai”. This defeatism pervaded our Supreme Court recently, when it took the hands-off position by allowing politicians with criminal backgrounds to contest elections — so long as they were loud and clear about their criminal antecedents. This, presumably, would help the voter make an informed choice, and possibly avoid the worst among equals.
But is our political system devoid of good and honest people? Many politicians vying for seats in every election at every level are squeaky clean, but not only do they fail to win, they even end up losing their security deposits. “Jab sab corrupt hai, akele koi system change nahi kar sakta,” is a common refrain. Think of an honest politician like a Rajkummar Rao film. No matter how good he is, how lauded in the media, he’ll never be able to make hundreds of crores the way Salman Khan is bound to by singing “Swag Se Swagat” and jumping out of flying helicopters. Take our most famous aam aadmi for instance. When Arvind Kejriwal was elected chief minister of Delhi in 2o13, the entire nation celebrated like we’d won the UNESCO award for the Most Honest Nation Ever. We were filled with renewed hope, even though it was crushed faster than the CM could cure his cough.
Every election result presents a bleak statistic about the percentage of elected MLAs that have criminal charges against them, and the number keeps escalating much like pollution levels in Delhi. If we all want honest and good people to represent us instead of crooks and thugs, how are the results otherwise? Why do honest people keep losing elections? Why do corrupt, criminal politicians keep winning? Why does Lalu Prasad still have clout in Bihar? And who enables someone like murderer Shambhu Lal Regar to join politics?
The lazy way to analyse this phenomenon is to blame the population. It is the people’s fault that Salman Khan movies are a hit. It is the people’s fault that IPL is so popular despite constant accusations of irregularities and match fixing. It is the people who are irresponsible and apathetic, else why would they vote for corrupt and dishonest candidates?
And actually, you’d be right — it is the people who bring such men to power, but not for the reasons we might believe. To borrow a quote from the 23rd Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, “The tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access. This may be why he survives.”
If you’re from the lower-middle-class or poorer sections of society, you struggle with gaining access to public service. You may get your children admitted to a government school, but the teachers don’t show up. You have a medical prescription, but government dispensaries are perpetually out of stock. You may have a ration card, but the shop has no ration. You are entitled to a house as part of a government housing scheme, but the construction is on hold for years. You have a right to all these public services, but because the system is broken, you don’t get access to what is yours. This is where the corrupt make inroads.
In 2006, IIT alumni formed a party in Tamil Nadu and declared “Reality is a continuum. Knowledge system, in shortest, is fragmentation imposed upon the continuum of reality.” Karunanidhi offered voters a free colour TV and won the election. The corrupt politician is aware of the fallacies in our public service delivery system and what makes the voter tick. Before every election he goes into an overdrive, doling out freebies – everything from pressure cookers, to rice, to mangalsutras. The corrupt neta helps the underprivileged navigate a broken system, by helping secure an admission in a private school or work at a government job. He finds a way to get medicines, helps file an FIR at the police station, or use his connections to get a file moving in a government office – in exchange for the voter’s trust.
I remember my house help telling me that she’d vote for a certain MLA in the last election because she promised to get her son admission in college. I told her he is corrupt, she remained unaffected. “Bhaiya, doosra party saree de raha hai. Uska kya kaam,” she told me. Sarees that are obviously funded by business interests that have cosied up to the politician.
The cycle, comprises the voter, the politician, and the businessman, goes on. Our collective failure to break the cycle, is why corrupt politicians keep winning.
But how do we fix this problem? An essay in The Atlantic titled “Honest Politicians Won’t Fix Corruption” points out, “Worldwide, candidates for elected offices are running on highly personalised anti-corruption platforms, offering themselves as the solution. What countries really need, though, are smart laws that reduce the incentives and opportunities for corruption. They also need strong institutions that enforce those laws and deprive corrupt officials, and their private-sector accomplices, of impunity in their efforts to get rich at the public’s expense.”
All of which seems so basic, it’s a wonder that it needs to be said at all. But often, the fundamentals are the hardest to change. Until then, politicians will keep offering colour TVs, maybe even Jio connections to adapt with the changing times. And the public will keep pretending it is chai paani if it gets the work done — whether it is cash under the table or digital cashless money through PayTM.