The millionaires club: 10 young Instagrammers discuss living with 1 mn followers
What’s it like to start at zero , no fame, no brand, no public identity, and climb, bit by bit, to internet stardom?
It can be overwhelming, says comedian Dolly Singh. “After going all my life with so few friends, the thought that a million people were watching my content overwhelmed me.”
“We’re grateful for the community that has built up around our effort,” says Abhiraj Rajadhyaksha, one half of @abhiandniyu. Their most viral series was hashtagged #100ReasonsToLoveIndia, and their videos tell positive stories of hidden heroes and the good that people are doing.
The money, meanwhile, is rolling in, from product placement, paid offline gigs, contracts with major networks. It helps that the platform that these social media stars hit 1 million on is Instagram — the simple, positive, relatively happy place that will have cornered an estimated 94% of influencer marketing revenue by the end of financial year 2021-22, according to a recent Influencer Marketing Outlook report by Buzzoka.
The power of the app has helped transform the lives of people such as Ashish Chanchlani, who has 10.2 million followers but started out as an anonymous engineering student, and Meghna Kamdar, whose 1 million followers tune in to watch her demonstrate innovative yet simple recipes with a twist (that sometimes don’t go all right).
“The unique part about India is its diversity and young demographic. This is reflected in the creator ecosystem too, where young people are pursuing their passions and driving trends,” says Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships at Facebook India, which owns Instagram.
Every creator’s journey to a million followers is different. The introduction of Reels — which are easier to produce than videos — has helped; in many ways. So has the pandemic, which gave influencers the kind of captive audience they couldn’t have dreamed of. Whether it was new recipes or comedy on a loop, the follower counts of those at or near 1 million shot up faster through the Covid months than before them.
“Each phase of the creator journey is unique, and we work to support them across all,” Chopra says. “At the start, our focus is on training, product education and support, which we run via programs like Born on Instagram. As the creator grows, we work with them on their specific goals, like community building, monetisation, building genre expertise, identifying the right tools and approach.”
Read on for the stories of 10 non-celebrity Indian Instagrammers with over 1 million followers (two have more than 10 million), and see how their fame has shaped their lives, dreams and creativity.
The true challenge is to be timeless: Bhuvan Bam, 27
@bhuvan.bam22; 11.5 mn followers
A Maharashtrian born in Baroda and living in Delhi, Bhuvan Bam creates videos where he plays up to seven different characters in hilarious skits that tackle everything from reminding people to stay hydrated to discussing selfie pouts with the extended family to acting out comments to his posts. The character his audiences like best is Titu Mama. “He is funny, kind and pretty whacky,” Bam says.
Bam’s ascent to stardom is a rather filmi tale — he was the class clown in school, loved music and was indifferent to academics. After getting his BA in history, his first job involved singing ghazals at the Moti Mahal in Saket, New Delhi; he did this for two years in his early 20s.
In 2015, a friend suggested he start a YouTube channel. “I decided on comedy because it’s in my genes. My father and elder brother have a boisterous sense of humour,” he says. “I used to crack jokes between songs at the restaurant too.”
BB Ki Vines on YouTube now has 20.3 million subscribers. He hit 1 million followers on Instagram in February 2016, a month after he joined the platform. He’s always aiming for the next million, he says.
“The space I work in requires a lot of creativity. I keep penning ideas down and then I have to make time to sit back and analyse what’s working and what isn’t. There are days when I have to travel a lot. I don’t get to spend time with my family that often. So that’s something I have had to give up,” he says.
He realises, he adds, that happiness will not come from numbers. But the content he creates makes him happy. “I feel like I mature every day. I won’t even watch the content I made a year ago, and I embrace that change.” His challenge to himself is to make content that is as timeless as possible.
Bam conceptualises, writes, shoots, edits his own material and revels in the attention each post gets — over 5,000 comments, on average.
And he loves his fans—especially ones like the elderly gentleman who approached to ask about Titu Mama. Bam thought he was appreciating the character but then realised the man thought Titu was a real person. “I played along, didn’t burst his bubble,” Bam says.
From the money he’s earned, mainly from brand collaborations, Bam has bought his parents a house in Delhi — “one of my biggest achievements”. “I’m a sneakerhead and so my most expensive buys for myself have been shoes,” he says.
I would make ten videos, upload only the best one: Ashish Chanchlani, 27
@ashishchanchlani; 10.2 mn followers
A Sindhi boy from Ulhasnagar on the outskirts of Mumbai, Chanchlani became an Instagram celebrity while he was still studying for a civil engineering degree. This wasn’t the dream, he says laughing. The dream was to make it as a Bollywood star.
He initially began posting content on Vine in 2014 — six-second, looping videos about silly things such as the heartbreak of opening a packet of Maggi noodles and finding there’s no masala sachet; or the perils of translating Hindi to English.
He would repost the videos to Instagram, where he had 200 followers. In a year that number went to 2,000. He believes his videos stood out in a landscape of memes, and helped his follower count hit 10,000 in 2015.
He hit 1 million on Instagram in 2017. His classroom eating video was a gamechanger, getting more than 3 million views in one day — students in a classroom start out sneakily eating chips, then a panipuriwala saunters in, then there’s a round of fine-dining followed by a wine-tasting. “That 3 million was a very emotional moment for me. I felt I had made it,” Chanchlani says.
The following year, he began earning money from branded content. “I actually became a celebrity after the media started covering me. It felt surreal. Facebook and Instagram called me to their offices to meet me before they verified me. The blue tick made me cry.”
Chanchlani initially had his cousins shoot his videos, on cellphones. As the numbers grew, his manager, co-director and co-writer Kunal Chhabra insisted on professional equipment. After that, his follower count jumped. In one year, it went from 1 million to 10 million. “A simple upgrade to a high quality DSLR camera makes a huge difference,” Chanchlani says.
Content-wise he had made a pact with himself to never touch upon religion or politics, to stick to being relatably funny about everyday things.
“The problem is that people in this field think one viral video makes you a superstar. The truth is you need to work for hours, weeks, years and sometimes even that is not enough,” Chanchlani says. “It took me three unsuccessful years to hit 1 million, and another three to get here. I was like a factory that was producing content regularly, I would make 10 videos a week and upload only the best one.”
Effort, talent and patience are the key ingredients, Chanchlani says. “Don’t post until you are happy with your own work. Be your own harshest critic. Never disrespect your fans, and don’t be repetitive.”
I still don’t think I’m funny, but I think I’m relatable: Prajakta Koli, 27
@mostlysane; 3.5 mn followers
Since she was about 12, Prajakta Koli wanted to be a radio jockey. She practised in front of the mirror, spent hours listening to talk shows. She graduated in mass media studies in 2014, and a day after her last exam, her parents took her around Mumbai’s radio stations so she could drop off copies of her resume.
She started as an intern, then got her own late night show. “I hated it,” she says.
“In two months, I realised I didn’t have the right voice or manner. My show bombed. At 22, I decided to quit what had been my lifelong dream.”
She had also spent years doing Marathi theatre in college. “I just never thought I would be making funny videos for a living and be an actor!” she says.
Her funny videos have earned the 27-year-old has 3.5 million followers on Instagram, and a lead role on a Netflix show called Mismatched, a young-adult romance released in November.
Koli started posting on YouTube and Instagram in 2015. It was Sudeep Lahiri, vice-president of One Digital Entertainment, the company that represents her now, who suggested it while she was still an RJ. Her first hit was a video called Hilarious Words Delhiites Use, posted in July 2015. “When it hit 1 million views I didn’t even know how many zeroes that was,” she says.
She hit 1 million followers in December 2018, and with that came a heightened sense of responsibility “and a very, very busy schedule”. “I’m grateful to have a fantastic team of mentors and editors, graphic designers and shooting directors.” Her comments section is her scoreboard, she says. “Critical comments are worth thinking about, but I ignore baseless hate.”
The biggest perk, as an influencer in the ‘million’ category, is that no one day on her job is like another. “One day I’m writing, the next day I’m shooting, the next I’m talking to the media, meeting interesting people.”
I still don’t think I’m funny, but I think I’m relatable, she adds. “I will never be the one in the room who comes up with a smart line, but I always come up with relatable situations. It helps that I always love acting or overacting.”
Scouring India for positive stories, hidden heroes: Abhiraj Rajadhyaksha and Niyati Mavinkurve
@abhiandniyu; 1.7 mn followers
Are offline exams better or online ones? Is love at first sight a lie? And what should you do with all those plastic bags you’ve somehow collected? Abhi and Niyu do short video explainers that are relatable and fun to watch.
From 2,000 followers on Instagram in May 2019, they’ve shot up to 1.7 million today. But it’s taken total commitment.
In 2019, Rajadhyaksha and Mavinkurve took breaks from their respective careers — he was an advertising executive, she a chartered accountant — and set off on a journey to explore Indian history, culture and food.
“There’s so much negativity on social media, and yet we all know how many heroes there are out there, how many positive things are happening,” Rajadhyaksha says. “We wanted people to get a chance to appreciate that.”
They decided to do a series of short videos on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube hashtagged #100ReasonsToLoveIndia. They started travelling the country in May 2019 and stayed on the road until the lockdown forced them home to Mumbai in March 2020.
“We started our journey in the north-east and our first video was on Meghalaya,” Mavinkurve says. From travel to culture and then to address everyday problems, the themes of the videos evolved. There were clips on difficulties people faced commuting, on pollution, on rising fuel prices.
“We want to start conversations about issues that really matter,” Rajadhyaksha says. “We first form our opinions about an issue and then, depending on the subject, reach out to specialists.”
Life hasn’t changed that much since hitting one million, the duo says. “It seems like a milestone, but once you hit it, it feels like there are bigger targets to achieve,” says Rajadhyaksha. “But we’re so happy to have a growing family of people who want to do something good for the world, who share positive work with us, who take steps to make a difference in the world out there. And, that is the true win for us.”
I hated engineering so much, I started this to stay sane: Niharika NM, 23
niharika_nm, 1.6 mn followers
Niharika posts videos about surviving in Los Angeles (where she is studying for an MBA in entertainment and finance), about the rich kids around her trying to “stand on their own feet”, and she posts as her own strict mother.
“I was studying for a degree in software engineering and I hated it so much, to keep myself sane, I started a YouTube channel in 2017,” she says. “It took off and some of my YouTube audience followed me to Instagram, where I had a basic personal account.”
The numbers inched up gradually, as she posted about hilarious takes on her quarantine life, her 3 am shenanigans alone at home. Then, in the lockdown, she found the time and opportunity to create. Her weekly post rate went up. “Instagram also started Reels, which has felt easier,” she says.
On October 17, @niharika_nm crossed 100,000 followers. “I was joking with my manager Viraj about what fun it would be to hit 1 million. By December 17, we had,” she says. “We were shocked.”
Niharika feels like she hasn’t processed that number yet. “I try to remember to have fun but now I’m feeling the pressure a bit,” she says.
Her mother loves the exaggerated version of her that Niharika plays on screen. “Sometimes I sneakily quote some lines that she said in real life and that annoys her a little,” Niharika laughs. “But my family supports me a lot. My dad sometimes picks the nice comments and reminds me to respond to them.”
She’s now begun collaborating with brands such as Amazon Prime and Lionsgate Play. For the former, she did a social media post in March where she’s busy as Batman and her mother pops up with a mosquito bat to help her kill the insects buzzing around. For Lionsgate Play she created a post last week that had the characters John Wick and Katniss Everdeen (from the Hunger Games) trying to have a conversation. “That one got over 980,000 views in five days,” she says.
The pressure to always be accurate is huge: Sanjyot Keer, 28
@yourfoodlab; 1.6 mn followers
Keer started cooking at 12, because a chef was the only thing he’d ever wanted to be. At 22, he graduated in international hospitality management and got a job as a food producer on the crew of Masterchef India Season 4.
After that came a low phase when he worked at his father’s machinery business. That’s when he decided to do food videos on the side. “Working on my videos on the weekends, I built up a bank of about 100 videos in three months.”
His first upload was on April 25, 2016, on Facebook — a one-minute video recipe for a pizza dosa. “I thought that if it got 500 views, it’d be good enough. The video got 10,000 views in 24 hours.” The second video, how to make pav bhaji bruschetta, had 1 lakh views on its first day. The third, a no-bake mango cheesecake, had 1.7 million views in its first five days.
“Doing fusion food was always my passion and I wanted to post recipes that were not easily available on the internet. I shot them in my own kitchen,” Keer says.
By end-2018, Keer had begun posting @yourfoodlab on Instagram. “Each video took so much time because initially I didn’t have any money and had to do everything myself. For more than three years, I shot at my own dining table,” he says. “When I got a little famous, I started doing collaborations, then bought professional equipment that made my videos better.” The account crossed 1 million followers in mid-2020.
“A million followers gives you credibility but it’s also a huge responsibility. The pressure to be accurate is huge because that many people are going to try the recipe at home,” Keer says.
He learnt that accuracy is key — he once used the word dhokla for khaman and the flak he got for it taught him that he couldn’t ever be careless.
He began to travel more for food research. “People expect you to know everything about the food you’re making, and for me it’s a constant learning process,” he says. “For example, I recently posted a recipe for a tarri poha, which is a Nagpuri dish. I travelled to Nagpur, had it, learnt about it and then posted. I’m going a step further to upgrade my content.”
He travelled a lot pre-pandemic, going to Delhi to learn about khasta kochori with alu ki sabzi, even taking a trip to New York and tasting the famous street food there. “I love to travel and I consider these trips my pay-offs to myself. The videos I make after coming back also turn out to be worth every penny I spend on my travels.”
Last year, Keer gave himself the gift of a studio space. “My fans love it,” he says, “especially the retro red fridge that adds up to the identity of my videos.”
Having this many followers is starting to cramp his style a little, however. When he feels his creativity becoming stifled, he says, he just takes a break from the comments and cooks what he feels like.
“A few years ago, I posted my version of sarson da saag, which my grandmother used to make with tomato. Some versions don’t have tomatoes, so it displeased some people. I ignore the comments sometimes and just try to do my job.”
Posting in Hindi was a bit of a turning point: Ranveer Allahbadia, 27
@beerbiceps; 1.4 mn followers
A business plan for a fitness start-up led Ranveer Allahbadia, an engineering graduate, to social media platforms in August 2015. His YouTube channel now has 2.4 million subscribers — it started with fitness and gradually shifted towards wellness, fashion, grooming and mental health.
It worked so well that Allahbadia let go of the start-up plan. “I joined Instagram around the same time as YouTube, sharing fitness goals, what challenges I go through, why mental health should be everyone’s priority,” he says.
The self-help content that he posts isn’t the kind of thing that goes viral, but it grew, steadily. “I think starting content in Hindi in 2018 was a bit of a turning point,” Allahbadia says.
He now has a team of 25 working with him. “We have four YouTube channels, we do podcasts and we do a lot of written content on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. The whole team works on that.”
The main challenge, after hitting 1 million on Instagram, is to keep up the pace so as stay in tune with the algorithm, says Allahbadia. “The algorithm keeps changing periodically supporting various different formats of content. It was stories first, then long-form IGTV, then Reels and so on... so one needs to adapt to the changing algorithm,” he says. “We put up around 25 videos per week. I shoot three or four times a week and the days when I’m shooting it’s for seven to eight hours.”
Then there’s the challenge of engaging with fans, which he tries to do personally. “We make self-help content and for that we get a lot of love. I never give any clinical advice and speak only from my own experience. We make it very clear that people must get professional help for mental-health issues. But when people write in saying that something we posted helped them, it’s amazingly gratifying,” Allahbadia says.
I am still constantly afraid everything will fall apart: Dolly Singh, 28
@dollysingh; 1.2 mn followers
Dolly Singh would have you know that she is an introvert. Growing up amid the mountains of Nainital, the political science graduate had “few to no” friends.
It was hard work dragging herself out of her shell, she says. After graduating, she studied fashion technology and started a blog. But even then, there was little of herself on the page.
When she hit 1 million followers, in February 2020, she says she spent the day intermittently in tears. It was like a breakdown, she adds. It didn’t feel real. She felt like a bit of an imposter. “After going all my life with so few friends, the thought that a million people were watching my content and looked forward to my work every day overwhelmed me,” she says.
Singh joined Instagram in 2014, as a fashion blogger @spillthesass. Then, in 2017, she worked for a while as a stylist and writer. That’s when she first faced the camera, with her stint at iDiva.com making her a known face online. In late 2017, Singh started posting comedic videos on @spillthesass and then switched to @dollysingh.
“I never thought I would seriously do comedy ever in my life,” Singh says. “It was a big shock for my family to see me so out there. I didn’t tell them for the longest time.”
Singh posts at least one 30-second reel or 1-minute video every day — spoofs about Bollywood romances or how Aunties talk about sex. She writes, directs and shoots her own content. “It’s a toxic cycle creating content every day,” she admits. “Sometimes it feels like we are only serving the algorithm. But I do this because this is also my only source of living and thankfully I love this job.”
Singh took a break three months ago and is working towards better work-life balance, including time to paint, read, make short films, go on acting auditions and write more.
“I still have the constant fear the audience will suddenly realise that this is not actually me and everything will fall apart. But I have started therapy and I am starting to be proud of my achievements,” she says.
Shaaz Jung’s unique niche: Big cats in the forests of Kabini
@shaazjung; 1.1 mn followers
There’s a reason photographer Shaaz Jung is called The Leopard Man of India online. He has spent over a decade documenting the big cat, it was a black panther that brought him international fame. And the cats are what got him over 1 million followers on Instagram. Yes, it appears all kinds of cat videos work.
“I was supposed to go into a corporate career after I finished studying Economics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. I had three months before I had to start a job. I came back to Bengaluru, where I grew up, and went to visit a resort my parents were building in the Kabini forest. They are in wildlife hospitality,” Jung says. “Their passion for wildlife also hooked its claws into me. I realised that the corporate world was not my cup of tea. I took up wildlife photography in 2010 and started tracking the big cats, especially leopards.”
Jung joined Instagram in 2016. “I realised very quickly that wildlife photography is saturated. Everyone has a camera and large lenses. If I wanted good reach, I would have to choose a niche.”
So he decided to focus on Kabini and showcase it as it had never been showcased before. It helped that he had easy access, through his family’s resort.
Jung started to tell the story of the region’s leopards — their lives, hardships, his emotional bond with them. The way he edits his photos is unique too.
“Since 2017, I have been using what I call Environmental Surrealism, where I portray wildlife as art through my style of editing that gives a surreal feel to my images, like adding a moonlit effect or highlighting the animal or darkening everything around it and highlighting just the green eyes. That worked. People started talking about the pictures and also buying them.”
His life really changed when a melanistic leopard — a black panther — came to Kabini. Jung pitched a film on it to National Geographic channel and was director of photography on The Real Black Panther, which was released in February 2020.
“In the beginning of that year, I had roughly 450,000 followers on Instagram. By June, stills from that film started going viral and in a week my follower count went from half a million to one million.”
The perk was that it opened doors for him to connect with different people, collaborate with brands such as Nikon. “But the growth was so much so soon that it completely drained me, Jung says. “I have no manager, no team. I still answer my own DMs, which sometimes takes half a day.”
Jung says he refuses to be held to ransom by the algorithms, so he now switches off his phone three times a week, “just go to the jungle and be with my cats”.
If your jalebi doesn’t turn out perfect, just be honest: Meghna Kamdar, 43
@meghnasfoodmagic; 1 mn followers
“I decided to teach myself to cook when I had my child and went into a depression for two years,” says Meghna Kamdar. “I got a diploma in baking, attending classes with my breast-feeding daughter.”
When her friends suggested she start a YouTube channel, she launched Meghna’s Kitchen in 2009. It failed spectacularly. She hadn’t done any planning or homework. I don’t think it helped that I was so unhappy with how I looked, she says.
Seven years later, Kamdar decided to try again. She was feeling better about herself, she had lost 25 kg and done extensive research — not just on how to make the glossiest videos but also on how to manage a social media account and handle trolls.
Meghna’s Food Magic started out as a one-woman operation. At a studio in Andheri, she shot recipes for quesadillas, stuffed tomatoes, white chocolate fudge, toffee Keer — dishes that would appeal to, but still be a departure for, the average Indian home cook.
She now has a dozen people helping her make her videos. She’s created a studio in her Mumbai home and has people to help with production, editing, hair and makeup, even assisting around the kitchen. “The number of dishes that need to be washed while you’re shooting is insane. I’m very grateful for my team,” she says.
The videos are focused on cooking and baking made easy. What makes Kamdar stand out is the camaraderie she manages to convey, and her obvious enjoyment in the kitchen.
She hit 1 million followers in January. Life changes quite a lot, she says.
Kamdar shoots three or four days a week, but “a lot of my life goes interacting with viewers, because I am what I am because of them. I’m the cakewali aunty,” she says. “On Instagram there are a lot of very young people asking me specific, basic but important questions such as the difference between baking powder and baking soda. I love answering their questions and their interest inspires me.”
The really challenging part of being an influencer, Kamdar says, is the trolls, “who comment on everything except the food!” “It’s always my outfits, how I tie my hair, why I have a Gujarati accent. Initially it affected my mental health. Now I just ignore it.”
Kamdar has come a long way, but holds fast, she says, to her guiding principle: the audience is not made up of fools. “So if your jalebi doesn’t turn out perfect, keep it in the video and be honest.”
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN INSTA STAR
* The two keys to becoming an influencer, influencers say, is finding a niche and posting fresh content regularly. Comedy is an effective tool—regardless of whether your posts are about food, fashion or the news.
* Once you’ve found your niche, it’s time to invest time in understanding the algorithm. It changes periodically to support different formats of content. There was a time when Stories were prioritised, then long-form IGTV, now it’s Reels. Being a consistent hit-producer, then, means creating new kinds of content as required, chopping and changing, reinventing, using the same theme and identity but in a myriad different ways.
* Some influencers work alone, but most end up needing a team. With thousands of comments garnered per post, just managing responses can take half a day. Teams for those in the million club tend to range in size from 2 to 25 people. Food, fashion and comedy require sets, lighting, make-up, camera people, even graphic designers. This is aside from the talent representatives who drive and manage the influencer’s brand collaborations and offline appearances.
* Influencers can expect to use about 10% of the content they create. It’s all about honing, shaping, perfecting. You may have to tell the same joke 25 times and laugh the same laugh at the end, before you get it all just right. Sometimes the struggle is so entertaining, that becomes part of the content too.
* It’s hard work, the pressure is constant, but there are plenty of perks. Freebies — from gourmet hampers to clothes, shoes, accessories and electronics — flow in, on the off chance that they will be mentioned or used in a post. As for actual earnings, one influencer featured here bought his parents a home in Delhi. Another, asking that he not be named, said he never imagined the money would be “this good”. Most of the earnings come from offline gigs and brand collaborations, which can include featuring in online advertisements or helping to craft them, creating video content for streaming platforms or starring in a show yourself.