Rashi Shinde's video of a popular Instagram trend — dancing to the funky hookstep of the hit Hindi track Saami Saami — garnered 2 million views within a day or two of her mother posting it on Facebook. Comments poured in from across India and some neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. And in the mix of nearly 2000 congratulatory and creepy messages left by men, women, and in some cases, minor boys and girls as evident from their display photos, a few dozen screamed at Rashi's parents to 'drown in shame'.
This is a pattern familiar to the Shindes now. The more viral Rashi's videos become, the more the comments shaming, chastising, abusing the girl and at times threatening violence against the girl's parents flood the comments section.
Take for example, a video from June last year. With 6.9 million views and over 9,500 comments — numbers affluent urban content creators and influencers don't easily garner — the top comments have men and women scolding Rashi to behave like a 'proper child', 'move' like a child, or asking her to quit dancing and 'concentrate on studies'. A few dozen, as usual, shower hatred and abuse on her parents.
The 30-second video shows the girl lip-syncing to lines from a popular Hindi track, "Bom Diggy".
"Better spend some time in your studies rather than wasting your precious time at this age," a woman commented, with dozens others agreeing and pointing out that she couldn't lip sync to the heavily accented English lines of the song. "She fumbled the english line that's why the education is more important," a 'wellness' consultant commented on the video.
Rashi Shinde is 11 years old. Dancer and a celebrity in Maharashtra. And perhaps one of the most scrutinised children on India's influencer landscape at the moment.
A 'Star' Is Born
In the winter of 2019, when 34-year-old Ashwini Shinde, a homemaker from Maharashtra's Kopergaon village, a small settlement near the pilgrimage town of Shirdi, attended a relative's wedding in Pune, she saw a gaggle of young women lip-syncing to Bollywood songs on their phones. That moment gave Shinde pause.
It took her back to the time when she was a young girl in school performing a Madhuri Dixit-song on stage, determined that she was meant to be a Bollywood star. She'd go on to dance at several venues: school annual days, marriages, Ganpati festival, and family functions but the Bollywood dream would be thwarted by the practicalities of life.
Ashwini was married off at 19 and in the next few years, had two children, Rashi and Rohan. While the ambition faded, the desire to perform didn't and on quiet afternoons when her husband would be away at work and the kids at school, there'd be a Madhuri song on the radio and for a fleeting moment, Shinde would dance like the young girl on stage she had stopped being ages ago.
So, when Ashwini discovered TikTok that day, it felt like a second chance. One she had never imagined getting.
Ashwini's renewed vigour, however, met with resistance. Her husband, who had a data entry job at a petroleum company, opposed saying that his parents would have a problem. She couldn't care less. "Not anymore. I had lived my life based on the decisions taken by others. Studied, got married, had kids. Now, I was clear about doing what I wanted to," she said.
Support came from unlikely quarters. Shinde's parents bought her an Oppo phone that had a decent camera and encouraged her to pursue her passion.
After a few days of domestic disquiet, the husband, too, relented. He said that they should start with 'couples videos.' They tried that. Ashwini went to Pune and shopped for clothes and make-up. The location was a problem. Their house, a tiny, windowless one-room structure with a kitchen space inside, wouldn't work aesthetically. There was a terrace that became the default venue for their videos.
The couple videos didn't quite fly. However, Ashwini wasn't willing to give up.
She would wrap up her housework for the day, take a shower and get ready to face the camera. While her elder, more studious son, didn't quite make much of her mother's activities, her daughter, then 8-years old, would follow her mother around and be her only audience.
Then one day, as Ashwini struggled with a song called Dil Vich Tere Liye Time Karke, an impatient Rashi got down from the water-tank where she was sitting and told her she was doing it wrong.
At first, Ashwini was angry. "Who're you to teach me? Go finish your homework," she yelled. Then, Rashi took the phone from her mother and performed the same number with immaculate precision. Her mother was stunned.
In that sweltering May heat, on the terrace of a village that still doesn't get uninterrupted electricity, a star had been born.
And Then, A Ban On TikTok
Rashi Shinde, 11, is somewhat of a teen sensation in her neighborhood.
When she steps out, the locals recognise her as someone who's 'famous on the net.' Many even request her for pictures.
A local shopkeeper told DECODE that the family keeps lowkey but people in the community avidly watch and discuss Rashi's videos, with some even suggesting the songs that she could perform next. On Instagram, she has 1.7 million followers. Her YouTube channel has about 4 lakh followers. On the relatively new Moj app, she has 5 million followers. But the journey began on TikTok.
The episode on the terrace made Rashi's mother think seriously about platforming her daughter on the short-video apps.
So a few days later, Rashi and her parents set out to Shirdi on her father's scooter. The plan was to get Rashi new clothes and find a shooting location that looked 'fancy' — like the backdrops of the zillions of Bollywood songs that inundate social media.
They got her clothes, hair products, and some basic cosmetics, all of which were paid for by her maternal grandfather. In a local shopping center, where Rashi changed into her new clothes, the attendants called her 'baby Alia Bhatt'.
After scouting around Shirdi, the family spotted a 3-star hotel, the approach road to which gave an impression of a metropolis. That's where Rashi's first 'shoot' was set up, the cameraman being her father armed with her mother's smartphone.
They uploaded the video — the family doesn't remember if it was an Aatif Aslam song or an Arijit Singh one — but it instantly went viral. This made them think of something they felt they should've thought a few hours ago. What do you put tomorrow?
The ritual the family then adopted was this. They'd pack 3-4 costume changes, get on a scooter and head to Shirdi. Then they'd scout for similar locations. A hotel exterior, a shopping complex promenade, an open park, a parking area, anything that'd look 'rich and posh.' In one day, they'd shoot about 4-5 videos which would be uploaded on TikTok over the week.
Ashwini took the role of the producer: she'd crawl the internet to figure out trending songs, help with hair and makeup while the father would see YouTube tutorials to fine tune the way the video could be shot. They benefited from the lockdown — schools were shut so Rashi, while being home-tutored, had ample time to create content.
From Bewafa Tera Masoom Chehra to Main Rang Sharbaton Ka to the Lagn Lagn song from Tera Naam, Rashi would tap into all things Bollywood.
The videos on TikTok soared and soon she was clocking millions of views. She was getting invited for the opening of local stores. Since she didn't have an iPhone, which has a feature to record in slow motion, she'd get children from the neighbourhood who had the phone to shoot the slow-motion videos in exchange for appearing with them in their videos.
Her one weakness? She couldn't fluently sing English songs, something that's more brand-friendly for TikTok's supposedly affluent cousin, Instagram.
Often dressed in bright colours, Rashi essentially lip-syncs to popular Hindi numbers and at times, dialogues from Hindi movies. On an average, her videos clock over half a million views and generate about 50 to 75 thousand likes, at times even crossing a lakh. It's hard to specifically locate what about an 11-year-old dancing to popular Hindi numbers makes the videos go viral but it's harder to deny just how naturally emotive she is. It often gives the impression of her being older than she actually is.
And coming up with these videos with consistency when access to wardrobe, internet, electricity, and a decent backdrop is a problem, it's a quiet triumph.
By June 2020, as Rashi's popularity had soared and news channels thronged the Shindes' modest house in Kopergaon, wanting to cash in on the fame of their local celebrity. The same month, the Indian government announced a ban on 59 Chinese-owned apps. TikTok was one of them.
As news reached the Shinde family, Rashi was inconsolable. It had been only a few months that she had been on the app and the response on it had given her a renewed sense of identity and confidence, her mother said. For it to be taken away this abruptly, with the followers gone and the views vanished, was the kind of shock she wasn't prepared for.
"For the next few days, she would cry all day. We'd try to console her but it wouldn't help. She stopped coming out of the other room," her father said.
For the next two months, Rashi Shinde didn't step out of her house.
A Caste-Based Murder
The modest living room of the Shinde family is adorned by a picture of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
In May 2015, Sagar Shejwal, Ashwini's 23-year-old brother, had gone to a local bar in Shirdi to have a drink with his cousins. At some point during the night out, his phone rang, the ringtone being "Kara kitihi halla, majboot Bhimacha killa" (Shout all you want, Bhim's fortress is strong), a song in praise of social reformer Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
On hearing this, dominant caste men in the bar asked him to shut it down. After an altercation, they broke a beer bottle on his head and dragged him away on their bikes. His battered body was found the next day. The cops said that he was run over by a bike and crushed with a stone by men from the Maratha and the OBC community.
Having filed a criminal case against the assailants meant that Ashwini had to frequent courts and police stations. When she couldn't go, her husband would take time out from work and go. Being embroiled in a 'court matter' led to stigma, and the frequent absences led Ashwini's husband to getting fired from his job.
With no salary coming in, the expenses at home as well as at school started piling. Days later, the cycle of injustice reached the kids, when they were denied entry in the school as the fees remained unpaid. Ashwini's parents helped her out, but they could only do so much. The family survived by borrowing money and with Rashi's father doing odd jobs. The income was scattered and the children were often in and out of school, but they'd get by.
Initially, when Ashwini found TikTok, she'd put songs of Jai Bhim, using the tool as an expression to assert her caste identity but she was quickly warned by her family and friends to not draw attention to their Dalit identity as it could 'be harmful' for their children.
Reluctantly, Ashwini stopped, but she admits that caste-based discrimination just doesn't go away if one stops talking about it.
"We're very proud to be Ambedkarites."
In the time Rashi had spent on TikTok, the family hadn't understood that content could be monetised. "We didn't even know that was a thing. For us, the incentive was to just fulfill a dream," Ashwini said.
Two months after the TikTok ban, the Shindes discovered another video-sharing app called Snack. They shot a video of Rashi lip syncing to a Govinda-Karisma Kapoor hit from Hero No 1 (1997) and uploaded it. It instantly went viral, to the point that Snack video made it one of their official promotional videos.
In the next one month alone, per the family, Rashi's follower count soared and she dethroned the no. 1 influencer on Snack by clocking in a record 9 million followers.
"When we would do live videos, people from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and MP would comment, saying how much they love her. There'd be people who said they worked at the Indian Army who'd comment saying that Rashi reminds them of their own daughter back home."
The app started paying Rashi Rs. 10,000 per month, a significant sum for the family. However, by the end of 2020, Snack video too shut shop, yet again wiping out the celebrity Rashi had rebuilt in the last few months of 2020.
At this point, Rashi's older brother, 14-year-old Rohan, nudged them to move to Instagram and YouTube. And yet again, the arduous process of building an audience from scratch began.
The Online Love And Hate
While I speak to the family, Rashi herself doesn't talk much, or at all. My questions to her are met with a look that she gives to her mother, who answers on her behalf. She's dressed up: she's wearing a glittery dress that she'd ordinarily wear to shoot one of her videos and her face has meticulously done make-up on.
Ashwini said that the first video they made for YouTube, in late August last year, was titled 'Rashi Shinde Chali Lockdown Mein Shirdi' and clocked nearly 3 million views, taking them by surprise. Clearly, her presence on TikTok and other apps had translated into an audience that was seeking her out on other platforms.
The fact that Instagram is largely monopolised by a certain faction of content creators isn't lost on the Shindes.
Ashwini points out that the women making content for Instagram come from a family of affluence where everything, from the cosmetics to the wardrobe to the backdrop, are a reflection of their everyday life.
"They don't have to arrange for it. They have it. The challenge for them is to create a dhamakedaar reel. For Rashi, each of those independent components are a challenge but the platform where she has to compete with the others is the same. And Instagram is very competitive. We never thought we'd be able to crack it."
Rashi, per her own account, carefully started watching videos of popular influencers. She wasn't a trained dancer so intuitively picked steps up by watching videos of Rani Mukerji, Kajol and Madhuri Dixit. She points out that other than the dancing aspect, she wanted to actually learn and master the art of emoting.
Once you see her Instagram, it's easy to map her journey and see her own evolution as a performer.
For instance, in one of her earlier videos, Ladki Badi Anjaani Hai, one can see her struggle with the lip-sync but she progressively gets better in the subsequent ones.
There's a world of a difference between that and Kitabein Bahut Si, which she shot a few months later in February this year. Rashi avoids doing a lot of English videos, and the ones that she has done -- mostly Punjabi songs with an English rap -- her expressions feel off sync as one can see her trying to remember the lyrics.
A week ago, actor Ranveer Singh shared a video of Rashi, uploaded on a new video sharing app called Moj, on Twitter. It was a 20-second long acting video with Rashi lip-syncing to Deepika Padukone's dialogues from Ram Leela (2013). "Love the expressions," Singh said in the tweet.
Abhishek Banerjee, actor and founder of Casting Bay pointed out that with the increase in the number of reality shows, the desire for parents to propel their children in acting or singing or any form of popular art form has shot through the roof. "Whenever we send an audition call where a child is required, we are flooded with requests. However, making children act is very very tough. The time of the typical "child acting" are gone and now filmmakers want children who come across as natural and not caricaturish," said Banerjee.
The Shindes, Rashi's videos show, seem to have got the memo.
Despite that it took them time and a lot more effort to build an Instagram audience, as compared to TikTok, Snack and YouTube, but as of today, she has 1.7 million followers with an average of 20,000 likes on her reels that range from a mix of Hindi and Punjabi songs to popular one-liners and dialogues from Bollywood films.
"I make sure I look at what's trending on Insta reels and then we choreograph our bit. Instagram is a lot of work. At times, I'm online till 2 am shortlisting songs that Rashi can work on," says her mother.
Another aspect of Rashi's online fame is her choice of songs, some that invite the wrath of men, who have commented on her appearance, her body movements, her choice of wardrobe. Some of the songs on which Rashi has made videos include Zara Zara from Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein, a song that talks about a woman's desire.
There are videos on songs by Honey Singh and Tony Kakkar with suggestive lyrics too. The abuse and objectification aside, a lot of the criticism Rashi and her parents face online harps on the fact that Rashi emotes like an adult, not glossing over the themes of the lyrics, but emoting them accurately, like an adult would.
What does the family feel about this, and more importantly, how do they deal with the trolling that's fairly consistent?
"I feel that people projecting their ideas on an 11-year-old girl is a reflection of their mentality," Rashi's father says matter-of-factly. "I don't know what gives the impression that Rashi is older than 11, but ultimately she's just a young girl having a good time on a song."
Rashi's mother, Ashwini, gives the example of Madhubala and Sridevi, who started off early and had to face a lot of sexism. "Naam unhi ka badnaam hota hai, jinka naam hota hai (Only people that are famous get defamed). Other than a couple of videos, she hasn't done songs that are too adult in nature. We've learnt to take this in our stride and ignore the negative comments, and celebrate the good ones."
At times, the father said, he goes and looks up the profiles of these men "and it appears that they do it for a living. They've very few followers, like 10-15, and all they do is bring others down. We can't take that seriously."
One of 'these men' is a 64-year-old Indian tech entrepreneur living in the US. DECODE had tried contacting several serial commenters on Rashi's videos who accuse the parents of 'robbing' the girl of her 'childhood', advising them to focus on sending her to school instead.
A quick survey of their profiles reveal that they come from fairly privileged and affluent backgrounds, have children of their own and are employed as engineers, teachers, professors, consultants, lawyers and artistes as well.
DECODE wanted to know what drove these presumably employed adults, who are parents themselves, to leave harsh and condescending comments on a child's dance videos?
The tech entrepreneur responded to our message on Facebook saying he did not 'wish to broadcast his views at this age' indicating how old he was. His comments on Rashi's views, however, berated the parents for 'making money' off their child.
DECODE reached out to Facebook to enquire if they have ever contemplated measures to make sure comments and trolling on content featuring children are monitored by the company closely to protect them from abuse. From 'child' influencers like Rashi, to family and baby accounts, Instagram is used across the world for monetised content that feature children.
In a lengthy email, Facebook explained that the onus on protecting themselves from abuse and hatred rested on the users themselves, in a child's case the adult who is handling the account. They also listed 'safety measures' that have been listed out on the app in different languages for people to access.
Facebook said they had partnered with a Mumbai-based youth media organisation for a 'six-part certificate programme for select young Instagram content creators' to build 'more inclusive spaces on the internet'. The initiative was a part of Instagram's #SafeStreeOnInstagram campaign. The few videos and content that DECODE could find with the hashtag were mostly in English.
The Shindes have never heard of such an initiative, and honestly, it was difficult to find the content related to the program through simple searches on the app and website as well. So unless people were actively looking to learn more about these initiatives, especially native speakers like the Shindes, there's no way they would be able to find anything on them.
A Childhood Lost?
Rashi's father doesn't hide the fact that 11-year-old Rashi, at present, earns the most in the family at the moment. He still doesn't have a permanent job and takes up whatever odd jobs come his way. He also remembers the time when his children were made to stand outside the school because he couldn't pay the fees.
"Rashi and her brother knew they wouldn't be allowed inside as the fees hadn't been paid but left home nonetheless, hoping the teachers and the school showed some kindness. Instead, the teachers, in typical fashion, would make bitter remarks," he said. Rashi's maternal grandparents supported them as much as possible, but not enough to cover their educational expenses.
"It was a time where I began thinking my children will remain uneducated," Ashwini said.
While the groceries were taken care of, the school dues, which ran upto 50,000 for both Rashi and her brother, was insurmountable. Things changed when money started coming from YouTube for Rashi's content, Instagram started sending them goodies like clothes, sunglasses and shoes and another app called Moj also started paying.
At times, there are social media agencies with music companies as their client, who reach out to Rashi, to get her to make reels on an upcoming song to ensure its virality. It's infrequent but it happens now and then, giving the family enough money to get by for the next few months.
"We never expected things to turn around through these apps. Today, I'm proud to say that my 11-year-old daughter runs this household, including paying the fees for her elder brother's education. We didn't even know how to negotiate back then but now we know better. We don't have fancy agencies managing her but we try our best," her father said.
Though 'child influencers' are found in thousands across the world, their accounts handled by their parents, the abuse Rashi faces is clearly rooted in her caste and economic location. Videos featuring children that show clear signs of affluence are often lauded for the child's talent and charisma. On the other hand, videos like Rashi's — which lack the usual markers of affluence like branded clothes, cars, expensive-looking homes — often attract widespread criticism and hatred.
Rashi's parents told DECODE that it was exhausting to go through thousands of comments on every piece of content and report the problematic ones and there's no way they would be filtered if it was not them sitting and actively deleting such comments. And one of the top accusations against her parents is that they are 'using' their daughter to 'make money'.
The crudity of the language aside, the work that Rashi and children in showbiz do, can be termed as 'child labour'. Shiney Chakraborty, Research Analyst at Institute of Social Studies Trust, explained, "It is not unusual to see children involved in work that hampers their education. In this case, the family is unable to meet the basic needs of the children — their education. We have to understand this is a socio-economic problem of poverty and inequality," she said. The researcher added that pandemic forced many out of jobs and pushed children into labour.
Mitali Nikore, a feminist economist emphasised on the need of policies to safeguard a child's mental health. "What happens if and when the fame goes away? There needs to be monitoring to ensure that the platforms don't take undue advantage of children. With more children earning through these platforms, the wages and the time spent on such platforms will be unequal and that will impact children."
Seeing her online presence, a lot of local brands, particularly a saree shop based in Surat, Gujarat, contacted her to do a modelling assignment. Her social media celebrity was percolating into gigs with traditional brick-and-mortar stores.
Filmmaker and writer Rajesh Rajamani pointed out that it was not uncommon in India to find 'child stars' supporting their families. However, this stardom comes with a shelf life, he pointed out, and more so for children from marginalised communities.
"It doesn't last more than 2-4 years, based on how early they enter. Beyond which, they aren't seen as child stars anymore. This forces them to take a break and attempt to return as adult stars, which is not always successful. So it is important their families have enough resources to support their transitioning to regular education so that they have better career option as adults. In cases where the child performers are from socially and economically underprivileged families, the transitioning to regular school can be challenging owing to the financial pressure," he explained.
Does Rashi feel the pressure of constantly coming up with content for her social media?
"Not really," she said. "It's something I enjoy, so I don't think of it as a 'job' or 'work.' I'm inspired by so many other content creators and actors. Shraddha Kapoor is my favorite," she said. While Rashi herself is hesitant to admit that she plans on becoming an actor, her father lets it slip that the plan ahead is to send her to Mumbai to learn dance.
Rashi has gone back to the same school where the teachers now make her a recurring presence during cultural activities. "We thought at least they'll apologise once or maybe reduce the fee since she's so popular now. But that didn't happen," Ashwini said.
His eyes moist, voice choking, Rashi's father points out that had it not been for their 11-year-old daughter, the family would be struggling to put food on the plate. "I should be managing the household, but we are struggling," he said.
"She's a star in our eyes and even for the world."
(With inputs from Adrija Bose)