Twenty eight-year-old Tauqeer Abbas aka Phoollu lives in Dhok Shahani, a town close to Mandi Bahauddin and has six children. For seven years he worked for a zamindar [landlord], earning around 600 rupees per day. A year ago, his friend Abdul Manan asked Phoollu to pretend to sing a song on camera. “I watched TikTok videos of this Indian boy Israil Ansari and when I saw him dance and act funny, I thought Phoollu could do just that,” Manan says. “He’s such a saada sa banda [simple guy] and he doesn’t get nervous in front of the camera, so I thought there was nothing to lose. At most, he might become famous like Israil.” Phoollu was taking a break from work when he stood in front of the trough that he filled every day for the goats, his brown kurta soaked in sweat, and mimed lyrics. He wasn’t even on Facebook. He could not read or write.
Phoollu tried all sorts of videos: he sat on a donkey, held a mic and lip-synced to a love song, wore neon green sunglasses and did a funny dance. “This was just a way to have fun,” he says. One day, he made a video of his son reciting a naat. It hit 16.1 million views. When Phoollu was being himself — no singing, no movie dialogue — or sharing snippets from his life, people seemed to love it. When he made videos in the fields, filmed himself hauling bags of cement or threshing grain, his followers started increasing. Sometimes, when he was busy and couldn’t make videos, his followers noticed. “Tension nahi leni [Don’t worry],” he assured them in a video. “Gandum kaat raha hoon issi liye mein video nahin bana raha [I can’t make a video because I am cutting wheat].”
Manan, now appointed as his ‘manager’, decided that Phoollu needed a signature phrase. He told him to open his videos with, “Assalam-o-alaikum, sisters and brothers.” Phoollu pronounced it “sistron” and “blathers”. His viewers loved that. “At first, pind ke log [people from the village] would make fun of me, but then people from Mandi Bahauddin or friends of my zamindar wanted to be in videos with me,” Phoollu says. Phoollu and Manan would make videos in front of the visitors’ cars and motorbikes. In September, Phoollu starred in a music video for a song called ‘Mehran Gaddi’. He travelled to Islamabad, wore a midnight-blue sherwani made by a supporter who owns a fabric shop, and opened with his signature greeting. “Aao gaanay ko lister kartay hain [Come let’s lister to the song],” he said, mispronouncing ‘listen’. One of the singers gave him a ring light as a gift so he could start making videos with better lighting. He won his mobile phone in a TikTok competition run by a local shop.
While he gets many encouraging comments — “These guys work so hard and the food we eat comes from their fields,” wrote one viewer — Phoollu knows many people watch his videos to make fun of him. “I am paindu aur mein furr furr se English nahin bolta [I am a bumpkin and I do not speak fluent English],” he says. “But I’m showing you how we live, the food we eat and the work we do. Whether I’m cleaning hides or feeding cows or making videos, I’ll take whatever work I get.”
Phoollu has attended two meet-and-greet events for fans in Islamabad and Jhelum, making up to 15,000 rupees for an appearance. Manan wants to pivot on to YouTube, where they can monetise the videos. “He has more than a million followers now, so we won’t do meet-and-greets unless they pay at least 30,000 rupees,” Manan says. He had a passport hastily made for Phoollu and, this week, they flew to Dubai on a paid trip to do meet-and-greets.
TikTok is user-friendly and because it’s all about videos, there’s little to no language barrier. All you need is a phone connected to the internet. As a result, we’re seeing thousands of videos from people across the country, from those who have never uploaded a photograph of an artfully arranged salad at a fancy restaurant, or those who may never even have been to a restaurant.
I asked Phoollu if his children watched his videos. “Never!” he responds. “I don’t give them my phone. They’ll get into this kind of stuff and I want them to study.” Besides, Manan says, Phoollu’s daughters would never get on TikTok. “Taubah karein [God forbid!],” he says. “No woman in our village watches TikTok. If she did, then people would…” he trails off. “Well you can imagine what they would do to her.”