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‘...And suddenly, I went viral!’ First-hand stories of flash fame

What happens when you’ve become the internet’s darling without evening meaning to? For Aranya Johar, Merenla Imsong, Saima Hussain Mir and Amisha Bhardwaj, life hasn’t quite been the same.

more lifestyle Updated: Jun 27, 2017 16:50 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Amisha Bhardwaj, the bride who danced in shorts in her pre-wedding video; Merenla Imsong, who posted a  video on North-Eastern stereotypes; Saima Hussain Mir, the ‘girl in the SRK selfie’; and Aranya Johar , who wrote ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’  for Women’s Day.
Amisha Bhardwaj, the bride who danced in shorts in her pre-wedding video; Merenla Imsong, who posted a video on North-Eastern stereotypes; Saima Hussain Mir, the ‘girl in the SRK selfie’; and Aranya Johar , who wrote ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’ for Women’s Day.(Imaging: Shrikrishna S Patkar)

What is it like to be famous without warning? To wake up and find hundreds, or thousands, of friend requests clogging your timeline, and read stories about yourself on random websites?

Aranya Johar, 18, never dreamed she would go viral, when she wrote the spoken-word poem ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’ in March. She still can’t get used to being recognised on the street.

“I was excited when the video got its first 100 hits,” says the Mumbai college student, laughing. “I never expected to have to pose for selfies with strangers while eating paani puri on the roadside.”

Watch | A look at what life is after you go viral

Not all the reactions are positive, so that’s something to be dealt with in addition.

When Kashmiri student Saima Mir, 22, was literally caught in the headlights in a Shah Rukh Khan selfie taken on her campus of Symbiosis, Pune, her timeline turned into a battleground for India-Pakistan rivalry. “My family began to worry about my safety,” Mir says.

What makes a video go viral?
  • Keya Madhvani, head of music and lifestyle partnerships at Twitter India, lists the things most viral content has in common
  • Short and to the point, it respects the audience’s time.
  • Offers content that is unique and compelling, saying something new and saying it in a fun way.
  • Reflects a personal experience that lets you view the subject in a way that is authentic and / or raw.
  • Tickles the funny bone with intelligent humour or strikes a chord in a way that makes the subject instantly relatable.Of course some of it (read: Dhinchak Pooja) is the video equivalent of a pile-up on the highway. You can’t look away, but that’s only because what you’re seeing is so horrid.


And when event manager Amisha Bhardwaj danced to Sia’s ‘Cheap thrills’ in shorts on her wedding day, some commenters said her husband should have died rather than marry her.

“My husband, Pranav, praised my confidence in front of the camera. His positive attitude helped me ignore the negative comments,” she says.

For fashion designer Merenla Imsong, fame itself became another box she was being forced into. She became the north-eastern girl who made fun of north Indian prejudice.

“We were initially uneasy with the attention our teenage daughter was getting, but supported her nonetheless,” says homemaker Ratika Johar, Aranya’s mother. “Many people were talking about how she is from a privileged background and doesn’t know what is she talking about; others said she was wearing ‘indecent’ clothes in the video. I wanted to lash out to them saying ‘You don’t know my child and you can’t just say things to her’. It was Aranya who said, ‘Mom, it’s okay’. We sat together and read the other comments and discovered that on the same thread, people were appreciating her poem and correcting the people with negative comments. That calmed us down.”

Beef ban? Garbage? I have to have an opinion ready: Aranya Johar

Aranya Johar’s life hasn’t been the same from the moment her spoken-word poem “A Brown Girl ‘s Guide to Gender” was released online in March. (Aalok Soni/HT PHOTO, Location courtesy: Taj Mahal Tea House)

‘The first boy who held my hand told me boys didn’t want to hear about vaginas bleeding / Younger me could smell the misogyny… /

My mom telling me to wear skirts out less often /

Nirbhaya and more, left forgotten /

We don’t want to be another of India’s daughters /

Do we?’

In-between are lines so powerful and graphic, we could not print them in a family newspaper.

Teenager Aranya Johar wrote the poem in March and called it ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’. It has changed her life in ways she couldn’t have expected.

“People have started recognising me on the street,” says the 18-year-old college student. “Strangers come up to me. Some say they liked my poem; others start questioning my opinions. It is still unnerving.”

Johar started writing poetry five years ago. “I wrote this for Women’s Day because I thought someone needed to talk about the injustice women goes through every day without even realising it,” she says.

When she performed the spoken-word poem at an open mic night in Mumbai, no one expected the video to go viral.

“I grew up in one day,” she says. “When my video hit 100 views, I was so excited that I called my dad! Then it crossed 1 million, and kept going! One of my friends was tracking it online and came to my house with a box of cupcakes. My dad kept congratulating me and reminding me to concentrate on my 12th grade board exams.”

“I’ve had people come up to me asking for a selfie, while I was in my pajamas, eating paani puri on the roadside,” she says, laughing.

The best part about her sudden fame, Johar says, is the messages from men, asking how they can contribute to helping women feel safe.

‘Dealing with it’ includes trying to always have an informed opinion ready.

“I keep myself updated on issues like demonetisation or garbage disposal. I have discovered that, to my followers, my opinions matter,” Johar says. “So if anyone asks me about the beef issue, I discuss how the beef ban has affected southern India where beef is part of the culture and where a lot of the local town economies depends on beef. Also how our export economy is being affected.”

The best part about her sudden fame, she says, is the messages from men, asking how they can contribute to helping women feel safe.

“Their reactions made me feel it wasn’t futile putting myself out there on stage. I like to think it has also broken the misconception that millennials are selfish and indifferent. Yes, we enjoy using filters on Snapchat. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about our country’s issues.”

My fame became another box I was being forced into: Merenla Imsong

Merenla Imsong’s hilarious YouTube video, ‘Presumptuous Chinky assumes the North Indian Way’, uploaded in March, was a take on the absurd questions she faced as a youngster from Nagaland studying in Delhi and later working as a fashion designer in Mumbai.

“You’re from the north-west? I know someone from the north-west. Her name is Pinky Singh. You know her? No?!! Pinky Singh!!!”

Merenla Imsong’s hilarious YouTube video, ‘Presumptuous Chinky assumes the North Indian Way’, was a take on the absurd questions she faced as a youngster from Nagaland studying in Delhi and later working as a fashion designer in Mumbai.

“People didn’t seem to know that Nagaland was a state; they routinely confused it with other north-eastern states. They casually said things like ‘Tell me about your country’,” says Imsong, 29. “My mom is the queen of sarcasm. She will make a hilarious comment with a straight face and leave the room. I got my funny streak from her. Also I did some amateur theatre, so the expressions in the video also came to me naturally.”

“What I had meant as a joke became a political sketch for a lot of people. Some got angry, some said thank you. Someone said it was a nice way ‘to get back’! I had just wanted to have some fun,” says Imsong.

What really surprised Imsong was the comments section.

“It turned into a battlefield of people supporting me and people criticising my way of addressing the issue,” she says. “What I had meant as a joke became a political sketch for a lot of people. Some got angry, some said thank you. Someone said it was a nice way ‘to get back’! I had just wanted to have some fun.”

My fame became another box I was being forced into, she adds. “I worry that it has made me more cautious. But I am glad that it has made me more tolerant. I remember when I was in school, I had a south Indian teacher. I now realise that I also didn’t know exactly which state she came from. The reactions to my video made me remember that. Yes, borders around some places can get blurry. But you should at least know that Nagaland IS a state.”

I use my fame to talk about Kashmir and art: Saima Hussain Mir

“This fame was sheer luck. God was kind to me. I feel like it’s my responsibility to utilise it in the right and meaningful way,” says Saima Hussain Mir, whose picture in Shah Rukh Khan’s selfie made her internet’s darling.

When actor Shah Rukh Khan posted a selfie taken with fans at Symbiosis in January, people seemed to have just one question: Who was the beautiful girl just behind him?

That girl was Saima Mir, 22, a Kashmiri studying communication design at the Pune campus.

“I was taken aback when I saw the picture,” she says.

An introvert not very active on social media until then, Saima didn’t know how to deal with the torrent of messages and posts.

“I had to turn off the internet on my phone because I was being flooded with notifications on all my social media accounts. I was overwhelmed,” she says.

Articles were written about her online, and she got thousands of friend requests from as far away as Argentina, Malaysia and Mexico.

Shah Rukh Khan posted this picture on his social media pages while promoting his film in January. Mir’s (in olive T-shirt) Instagram followers shot up instantly.

“My Instagram followers shot up in few days. So many articles were published saying different things. There was a point when I felt like they were talking about another person,” she says.

In the weeks that followed, Saima got calls from production houses, and offers of movie roles.

Because she is Kashmiri, people on her timeline started to fight over India vs Pakistan.

“Some were talking about how pretty I was; others were criticising me for getting all this attention just for being a pretty face. My family began to worry about my safety,” she says.

Saima responded by posting a picture of one of her black-and-white sketches on Facebook. “That was my answer to the people who judged me by my looks,” she says.

Then she logged out of social media for two weeks. When she returned, she says, she had made up her mind to use the attention constructively.

“This fame was sheer luck. God was kind to me. I feel like it’s my responsibility to utilise it in the right and meaningful way. I keep sharing things about which I’m passionate - Art and Kashmir. I want to show everyone how Kashmir still retains normalcy despite so much political tension, and to remind people about the rich culture we have,” Saima says. “It has so much to offer and doesn’t deserve to suffer.”

Many of the responses have been encouraging. “People are surprised to know that we come from Kashmir but we’re just like any other people. I feel happy when people from different parts of the world enquire me about visiting Kashmir. We’re living in the time where people need more positivity and need to focus on similarities rather than differences — that’s what I’m trying to do through social media.”

I hope my video reminds other brides to just have fun: Amisha Bhardwaj

Amisha Bhardwaj, pre-wedding video that had her singing and dancing to Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ as she dressed and did her make-up went viral in May. (Virendra Singh Gosain/HT PHOTO)

What do you do when you’re in the middle of a dream destination wedding in Thailand and your husband-to-be is late for every event?

“I was getting really upset about the delays, so my friends and videographer decided to distract me,” says Amisha Bhardwaj.

They decided to make an impromptu pre-wedding video of Bhardwaj singing and dancing to Sia’s ‘Cheap thrills’ as she dressed and did her make-up.

In the seven weeks since that video went viral on Facebook and YouTube, it has earned Bhardwaj friends from around the world, admiration from her family, and some haters too.

In the seven weeks since that video went viral on Facebook and YouTube, it has earned Bhardwaj friends from around the world, admiration from her family, and some haters too. (CoolBluez Photography)

“I was in Cambodia when my photographer called to say this particular video was going viral,” says the 26-year-old event manager from Noida. “In three days it crossed 1 lakh views, then 2 lakh, 5 lakh…I was shocked!”

In a month’s time, Amisha video, “Getting ready for wedding” has over 7,596,386 views on YouTube and over 728,000 on Facebook. The numbers are still growing.

Friends and relatives from around the world started calling, including people she had not spoken to in years.

“I got hundreds of friend requests on Facebook, from Dubai, Australia, Canada, Bangladesh – some positive, some negative. Someone from Canada told me her daughter’s favourite pass time was to watch my video. People from Dhaka and Bangladesh said local newspapers there had covered me and that was a pleasant surprise.”

Bhardwaj says her mother-in-law was more excited about the video than she was.

“My husband, Pranav, praised my confidence in front of the camera. His positive attitude helped me ignore comments that said my husband should have died before watching the video, or before marrying me. I started to find those comments funny.”

“A lot of women have messaged me saying they wish they could have done something like that and not cared so much about what people say,” Bhardwaj says. “I hope my video reminds brides to have fun and just be themselves. You can’t make others happy if you’re not happy.”