Prajakta Koli, CarryMinati, Bhuvan Bam, Mallika Dua — why digital influencers are fetching key acting roles

Karishma Upadhyay
·7-min read

During an audition for a second lead role for an OTT show recently, Harsh (name changed on request), a model and aspiring actor, was asked about his social media presence. "They wanted to know how many followers I have on Instagram. Normally, at auditions, they used to only ask for your vital stats and phone number but it's changing. My agent did tell me that upping my Instagram engagements would help me get noticed by casting agents and producers," he says.

Harsh did not book that job but since the audition, he has been consciously creating content for Instagram, and added a few thousand new followers.

With direct access to millions of followers, digital stars are a new kind of celebrity. And producers and OTT platforms are looking to explore talent that comes preloaded with their own fan bases. In the last year or so, social media influencers have become an integral part of the talent pool that casting agents are dipping into.

As for digital creators, many of whom are aspiring actors, their online popularity is helping them find a foothold in an industry that is notoriously difficult to break into.

At the beginning of 2020, internet sensation Kusha Kapila, who is best known for playing Billi Maasi, appeared in a short directed by Karan Johar for the anthology Ghost Stories. Her colleague from the famous South Delhi Girl sketches, Dolly Singh, made her acting debut in Netflix India's Bhaag Beanie Bhaag last month. Bhuvan Bam, of BB Ki Vines-fame, is currently shooting for Dhindora, a film that he both stars in and is producing.

Prajakta Koli, who started her YouTube journey as MostlySane in 2015, was seen in Netflix India's Mismatched, and is shooting for her debut feature film Jug Jug Jeeyo, that also stars Varun Dhawan, Anil Kapoor, Kiara Advani, and Neetu Kapoor. Koli was reportedly one of the 200 girls who were tested to play Dimple Ahuja for Mismatched, an adaptation of Sandhya Menon's book When Dimple Met Rishi. "My team and I had seen her online content. She plays different characters in her videos so you get that she has that actor's instinct. Dimple's character is unconventional-looking, and we thought Prajakta totally fit the bill," says casting director Panchami Ghavri.

Around the time, Ajay Devgn's production company ADFFILMS was producing the Abhishek Bachchan and Illena D'Cruz-starrer The Big Bull was when the A-list producer-actor first discovered YouTuber CarryMinati (Ajey Nagar). "We were looking for a song to be included in the film when my young nephews, who work at ADFFILMS, showed me his videos," says Devgn. When casting started for Mayday, that Devgn is also directing, there was a character he thought was 'tailor-made' for Nagar. "The reason he is in the film is not a gimmick but because the role is apt for him. Of course, his huge popularity is a win-win for all of us," he adds. Mayday, which also stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rakul Preet Singh, went on the floor in Hyderabad in December 2020. Before joining the shoot, Nagar, who has 2.8 crore subscribers on YouTube told The Indian Express, "In the past, I have got offered film roles, but I agreed to be a part of this project because I had the opportunity to play myself and bring my alias CarryMinati alive on the 70 mm screen."

CarryMinati
CarryMinati

CarryMinati

Another digital star getting to relive his childhood dream is 26-year-old Faisal Shaikh aka Mr Faisu. The salesman-turned-TikTok star is making his acting debut with ALTBalaji's forthcoming web series Bang Bang: The Sounds of Crime. "I was very filmi and loved performing but I never thought I'd get an opportunity like this. It's all because of my online fans," he says. Like most online creators, Shaikh used to write, direct, shoot, and edit his own videos but now that he is on a proper set, he has learnt to give up creative control. "I believe that my director and DoP want what is best for the show and me. In the initial days of the shoot, I was very conscious of being surrounded by a large crew and facing a proper camera. It's very different from shooting on a phone camera alone or with your friends. It was our director and DoP who helped me overcome that," Shaikh shares.

One of the earliest to reap in the benefits of a viral video was Mithila Palkar, who sang a Marathi song 'Hi Chaal Turu Turu' set to the popular 'Cups' song (originally sung by Anna Kendrick in the film Pitch Perfect) and uploaded the video on YouTube. The video went viral, and Palkar has since been cast as the lead in shows like Girl in the City and Little Things, and films like Karwaan (2018) and Tribhanga (2021).

Mallika Dua, who shot to fame with the video Shit People Say: Sarojini Nagar Edition, has featured in films like Hindi Medium, Namaste England, and Zero, and shows like The Office. Harsh Beniwal, whose YouTube channel has 1.18 crore subscribers, made his debut in Dharma Productions' Student of the Year 2 (2019).

Dhruv Chitgopekar, one of the Founding Partners at the talent agency KWAN, credits music labels as being the first movers in harnessing the popularity of influencers. "The one who really started this trend were labels like Desi Music Factory, that consistently cast digital stars, specially TikTokers like Faisu, Avneet Kaur, and Siddharth Nigam in their music videos. Certain producers in Mumbai saw the value in having a recognisable face with social media clout, and that's when we started seeing a few influencers make the transition," says Chitgopekar. In the post-COVID world, though, he believes the numbers could explode. "The economics of filmmaking will be relooked at until theatres are fully operational. Many of these influencers are literally little media houses in themselves. They know how to interact with fans, they know how to create short format pieces of content. They have a basic understanding of acting, editing, make-up, styling, and writing. This skill set, if well-groomed and harnessed, could become huge," he adds.

While there is a world of a difference between doing a 30-second Instagram Reel and playing a character through a whole season, casting director Ghavri believes "a lot of content creators are actually good actors." "Influencers like Dolly Singh or Prajakta are getting cast because they can act, not just because they have a lot of followers online. These people have an innate love for drama and performing so it's not surprising at all. While casting for a Netflix show recently, we widened the scope a little more a looked at digital stars from music and other fields as well," says Ghavri.

The tremendous following some of these new faces have might still be a huge discovery for a jaded generation of producers, but the audience that consumes the most entertainment has validated these celebrities time and again over the past half-decade. And COVID-19 has presented the perfect opportunity for these digital stars to step in and eat the lunch of an entire middle rung of actors. "And there, producers will look for more bang for their buck. If they can hire a model who can act as opposed to a TikToker who has a certain media reach, they'll go with that option because they're getting a little more return on investment in the form of that little media and hype that the individual might have for a certain key audience segment," says Chitgopekar, who has witnessed first-hand how the pandemic has played a role in opening more doors for these influencers.

All images from Twitter.

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