Saloni Gaur has understood the only problem with becoming popular: “You have to answer the same questions asked by different news channels,” as she complained in one Instagram post. The questions, Gaur told Scroll.in, usually are “When did you make your first video? When did you become viral? How did you get Nazma Aapi’s idea? Why play a Muslim woman?”
Here are some quick answers. The 20-year-old Delhi resident, on getting her first phone in 2017, began making funny videos for her Instagram account, when late last year, one of the characters she’d started playing called Nazma Aapi became immensely popular. The idea of commenting on the world as a Muslim middle-aged mother came from her time growing up in Western Uttar Pradesh, before coming across similar women in Old Delhi.
Wearing a headscarf, Gaur, as Nazma Aapi (aapi means elder sister in Urdu), has so far made short videos about Delhi pollution, soaring onion prices, the Citizenship Amendment Act and the ensuing protests, the violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, and most recently, the Delhi elections and its results. In a span of two months, Gaur and her Nazma Aapi character have attracted tens of thousands of new followers to her Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Nazma Aapi seems to be the alter ego for Gaur to channel criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.
In her video about Maharashtra’s state assembly election results last year, Gaur-as-Nazma says, “Why do I send my kids to a Kaushal Vikas Kendra where they don’t teach children Amit Shah’s useful skill of buying whoever is next to him?”
In the CAA video, she wonders, “Modi says he doesn’t sleep at all. That explains why he can come up with ideas like CAA.” In a video about Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, which became an anthem of sorts for the CAA protesters, she says, “Modi wants Indian kids to be educated, and then when they say educated things, the government has a problem. I tell my kids to not study lest they grow up and start reciting nazms.”
The question is, are these Gaur’s views or Nazma’s? “I don’t think I am offering any views or opinions,” Gaur said. “It’s up to the audience to see what view or opinion is present in my work. I only comment on things as a Muslim mother. I draw most of my content from what I see on social media or read in newspapers and find interesting. When I say, how can Modi sleep in peace, it is something I saw written on a placard and not something I came up with.”
Gaur grew up making fun of and mimicking her relatives, friends and teachers, much to everyone’s amusement. “I would give running commentary on the television serials my mother would watch,” she said. “Though she could not get enough of my jokes, she would also desperately want me to stop.” Soon Gaur began to perform stand-up comedy in college festivals. Meanwhile, she uploaded short videos of herself as various characters she had created herself.
One of Gaur earliest characters is Delhi girl Pinky, who blabbers on just about anything in a tinny voice. She followed it up with Tumour Bhardwaj, a pious and traditional Hindu wife, inspired by her mother’s favourite television serial Sasural Simar Ka, which she finds “kaafi toxic”.
There are also the old neighbours Asha behen and Kusum behen, who meet every evening and grumble about the other residents in their neighbourhood. Asha and Kusum are the names of Gaur’s grandmothers, but she insisted they are nice and not like her fictional characters.
“My characters come out of people I see around me,” Gaur said. Shooting and editing each video takes up at least two hours, most of which she spends writing the jokes.
The three real-life personalities Gaur has mimicked and turned into a character so far have been Kim Kardashian, Sonam Kapoor, and Kangana Ranaut. Of these, she has got Ranaut’s distinctive accent down pat, and her Ranaut impersonation has been a hit since February 1. In these videos, the voices of actor Harshvardhan Kapoor and journalist Justin Rao, with whom Ranaut got into a public spat last year, are also hers.
“I am a huge fan of Kangana Ranaut and I cannot count how many times I have seen Queen,” Gaur said. “I haven’t yet got any reactions from her or her sister Rangoli. But her fans seem to really enjoy my work. Sometimes someone says my videos might anger Kangana, then some fans say of course not, Kangana has a sense of humour.”
Gaur is enjoying her social media stardom: “It feels good, people are recognising me on the streets now, though nothing has changed at home or in college.” Significantly, it was only when Gaur’s videos became political that she became a hit. Her videos about Ranaut, prior to Nazma Aapi’s popularity, went unnoticed.
Despite this, Gaur doesn’t agree that a video creator has to be political to go viral online. “What explains [comedian] Bhuvan Bam then?” she said. “I have also made videos on Kangana, which are equally popular.”
Despite taking potshots at government policies, she said she has not encountered the sort of vicious trolling and abuse that are commonplace on Indian social media. “I can count the negative responses I got on my fingers,” Gaur said. “Honestly, what is the problem with being funny and making people laugh? I mean, what is life without humour?”