Snigdha Poonam in MIL:
When he’s doing his dance, Israil Ansari looks like a tornado. Keeping his feet pinned to the ground, he bends his elbows and knees and moves his arms and legs from side to side at such a high speed that his body and immediate surroundings dissolve into a blur. It’s a dance that divides opinion. His fans describe him as a “unique talent” and “the world’s eighth wonder”. He has more than 2m followers on TikTok, the video-sharing app that made his name. But his detractors don’t hold back: “I can’t bear to watch this”, “someone take this guy to a hospital”, “give us a break, bro”. Ansari says he is happy as long as people are watching. “Fifty percent of it is love, fifty percent of it is hate. I will take both.” Naturally, he prefers the love, although it can get a bit much. In Mumbai people stop him in the street. They ask for a selfie, then they ask him to do the dance. He always obliges, but when he’s in a hurry he wears a cap to avoid being ambushed. Without it, Ansari can be spotted a mile off because of his hair, which is almost as crazy as his dance. It’s currently green at the front and blond at the back, although it won’t be for long. He likes to dye it to match his clothes. “In one month I have changed my hair colour 27 times. No one else has done that in the world.”
Ansari is 19 and comes from a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, one of the poorest parts of the country. Until recently, he lived with his parents, grandparents and 11 siblings. His family couldn’t afford to keep him in school over the age of ten, so he dropped out and started working at a hardware store, supplementing his income with odd jobs, like painting houses or tiling. In 2017 he was at a wedding when a friend with a smartphone showed him TikTok, whose users post short, lo-fi videos of themselves doing just about anything: lip-syncing to pop music, conducting make-up tutorials, standing on their head. He was sold. “People were just expressing themselves. I thought: I could do that as well.”
He asked his brother, who works in a factory in Gujarat, to send him a smartphone. Then he started experimenting with TikTok. He made a few videos of himself joking around but failed to get much traction. Then one day in May 2018 he was walking through paddy fields listening to Bollywood tunes on his phone when a song featuring the actor Shah Rukh Khan began to play. He describes how, possessed by the music, he started to dance in a way no one had ever danced before: “This dance was just not there. Not in Bollywood films, not in the music videos. I brought it to the market,” he says, sweeping his hair back from his face.