Towards the end of May, a middle-aged man from Bhopal became an overnight internet sensation after a video of him dancing with abandon at a wedding went viral. Around the same time another Indian was gaining her own social-media celebrity status, though for something far less dexterous.
The woman in the video wasn’t aping the famous moves of Govinda, or for that matter, even going out of her way to gain attention. All she could be seen doing was greeting her followers (or friends, as she called them), and asking them to drink a cup of tea. That was before she took a sip from her own cup, and awkwardly admitted that her chai was too hot.
That 15-second video not only went viral, amassing millions of views, it also inexplicably ended up spawning a subculture of sorts. Her greeting, “Hello friends, chai pilo”, became a catchphrase, a greeting, a meme, and a self-explanatory joke, all rolled into one.
Proof of Somvati Mahawar’s popularity emerged the next month, when the social media-savvy Mumbai police referenced her video in a tweet in June. Exchange4Media reported that several brands, including Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance, ShopClues and Foodpanda, have referenced the “chai pilo” video in their digital marketing campaigns.
Someone even shot a video introducing the phrase to people overseas.
The immense popularity of Mahawar original video opened the floodgates. Other clips of Mahawar started surfacing on the web. In these, she has moved on from urging her friends to drink tea. Instead, she’s asking them to eat “paape” (a rusk of sorts), kheer, watermelon, paneer and other kinds of food items. These videos too notched up several lakh views. But it is her “chai pilo” clip and variations of it that remain the most popular, inspiring dozens of copycat videos – in India and abroad.
Bafflement about why the video has become such a phenomenon has created another category of posts, where social media users speculate on the reasons for Mahawar’s popularity. These posts, of course, have also worked to spread her fame.
Meanwhile, others have piggybacked on her success, using her name or video to get more views on their nascent channels.
An auto-tuned (and surprisingly catchy) version followed.
Even though she’s risen to fame in unlikely fashion, Mahawar is a reluctant star. Despite her prolific video output, she remains elusive off-camera. Hardly anything is known about her. She does not seem to have given interviews and Facebook and YouTube searches for her only throw up dummy profiles.
Mahawar seems to have started posting her clips on a mobile app called Vigo Video, on which she has 9,000 followers – but that profile is no longer accessible. Exactly how her videos found their way to YouTube, and began to be widely circulated remains unclear. An Instagram account and a Twitter handle exist in her name, but they are unverified.
When she isn’t talking about food, Mahawar, shows off her dancing skills in her videos, lip-syncs to lines from the movies or asks her followers for their views on how she’s looking. In one viral video, Mahawar shows off the outfit she intends to wear at a wedding she is about to attend. As her son enters the frame, she shoves him out of the way.
Mahawar’s video proved to be a wellspring of inspiration for memes, tweets and mashup videos, often with hilarious results. One of these videos, combines Mahawar’s “chai pilo” line with Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra’s equally absurd “Namaste, biscuit khao” dig at Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Mahawar, as the baffled commenters on her videos suggest, is an exception even in the world of social media, where few or no rules apply. She can’t quite be categorised as “it’s so bad it’s good”, the quality that made cringe pop stars out of Rebecca Black, Taher Shah and Dhinchack Pooja. Neither are her videos as quirky as, say 2016’s viral oddity Pen Pineapple Apple Pen.
In a 2011 TED Talk, Kevin Alloca, head of Culture and Trends at YouTube, tried to decode what makes some videos so popular. He said that about 48 hours of material are uploaded on YouTube every minute, of which only a fraction go viral. He examined this in the context of three trend-setting videos of 2010-’11: Paul “Bear” Vasquez’s Double Rainbow, Rebecca Black’s Friday and Nyan Cat.
The three videos were very different from each other. Double Rainbow, which has 45 million views so far, wasn’t as famous for capturing the phenomenon that was described in its title as it was for Vasquez’s commentary, which reflected his ecstasy and unfiltered emotion. Friday, meanwhile, is perhaps the earliest known example of cringe pop, setting off a trend that would spread across the continents. Nyan Cat was a seemingly simplistic animation of a cat flying through space, leaving a trail of colour behind, set to music from a Japanese pop song.
The common thread to their popularity, Alloca surmised, were “tastemakers, communities of participation and unexpectedness”. Put simply, all three came to the limelight because someone influential had shared them, there was something unpredictable in their content and perhaps most crucially, they inspired a host of parody videos and versions, fostering a sense of community participation.
It is on this last count that Mahawar’s video seems to have scored.
Mahawar’s fame seems to be a testimony to these contradictions of social media – a space that has made stars out of Justin Bieber as well as Dhinchak Pooja. It’s a place where videos of cats, puppies and babies share space with dank memes. In this unpredictable landscape, perhaps Mahawar’s example holds out hope that celebrityhood can be anyone’s cup of tea.