These influencers are shaping a new India—one short video at a time

Digital natives from the world’s largest youth population are using their large followings on YouTube and Instagram to capture India’s imagination.

By Veda Shastri
Published 17 Aug 2022, 15:51 BST
Samreen Ali, of Delhi, India started her YouTube channel when she was 11. She now has close to four million subscribers.
Photograph by Juhi Sharma for National Geographic

Samreen Ali changes her bedroom decor every six months. Her current wallpaper, a pastel pink, is accented with a light installation spelling out “You Go Girl.” The only things she doesn’t change are the brass plates inscribed with prayers from the Quran. This is where she broadcasts to her YouTube subscribers every Saturday at 2 p.m. without fail. “If I don’t change the background of my videos, my followers will get bored, she says. "So I keep changing the entire look of my room." 

In her videos she’s fast-talking, expressive and funny. She uses costumes, props and zany editing for quick comic send-ups on parents, family dynamics, teenage angst, basically, ordinary life. She has 3.8 million YouTube subscribers—and she just graduated from 6th form.

If those born 75 years ago at the moment of India’s independence—as the clock struck midnight on August 15, 1947—were “Midnight’s Children,” in the words of author Salman Rushdie, Samreen and her young followers are the grandchildren of the Midnight generation. Born exactly 57 years after India broke from colonial rule and split into two nations—India and Pakistan—Samreen, now 18, is part of India’s Generation Z, the largest youth population of any country. More than half of India’s 1.4 billion population is under 25; the median age, at 28, is 10 years younger than China’s. India's deep diversity in language, caste, class and culture is reflected in its youth. But what sets this generation apart–and what it shares with Gen Z members all over the world–is that they are digital natives.    

High-speed internet has brought an astounding degree of exposure and opportunity to Indian society, where close to 60 percent of the population lives on less than £2.50 per day (a 2010 study found that more Indians had access to a cell phone than to a toilet.) The nation has some of the cheapest mobile data rates in the world, and as its literacy rate has climbed in recent decades, so has internet access—creating a new kind of digital literacy that is exploding internet video and media use. India now has the planet's largest YouTube audience, with more than 450 million active users. 

Enter entrepreneurs such as Samreen. In a country where most young people in the formal economy make starting salaries equivalent to a few hundred U.K. pounds per month, digital creators such as Samreen are making 10 times that using smartphones, internet access, and their own imagination.

The biggest investment for these new entrepreneurs is the phone, which costs £66 to £82 for cheaper models thanks to an influx of Chinese options in the Indian market. A tripod for steady shots and a ring light (for that glowing face) come next. Once the income starts to flow, they often invest in laptops, higher-end cameras, and recording devices; serious video and graphics software come next. They understand the art and science of going viral. They know how to game the platform algorithms.  

“I feel the pressure to upload a video at the same time every week,” Samreen says. “I’ve even recorded a video when I have a sore throat.”     

In this community, “YouTube,” can be a verb. A growing number of creators identify as “YouTubers.” The Indian audience is immense—some digital creators have tens of millions of subscribers, and YouTube’s video monetisation system allows creators to run ads on their videos. Samreen’s brother, Kashif, who helps manage her business, says a month of 10 to 15 million views—not unusual for Samreen—can bring in the equivalent of £5,000. They make additional income from paid partnerships with brands they advertise on Instagram. TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was banned in India in June 2020 after a border dispute with China, but before that, four of the 15 highest-earning TikTok creators in the world were from India.

These creators come from a range of backgrounds, castes, professions and regions: a farmer from the west of the country, an embryologist from India’s most populous state, a former labourer from coal country. They’re forcing open conversations on traditionally taboo issues. They’re turning into powerful citizens, with a dramatic impact on the public; and they are often getting the recognition earlier reserved for Bollywood celebrities or revered politicians.  

“When I go out on my balcony, groups of children form and start screaming my name,” Samreen says. “I wave to my fans.”  

Samreen is the youngest of three children. Her father is a government school teacher; her mother, a housewife. Their home, a second-floor flat accessible only from a congested lane too narrow for a car, is a half-mile walk from the main road in Daryaganj, one of Delhi’s oldest neighborhoods. It sits behind Jama Masjid, Delhi’s principal mosque.   

Samreen was theatrical even as a 4-year-old, acting and speaking to the walls, her mother Nagina says. Filming at home started spontaneously, and the growth was slow: “I used to get trolled a lot in the beginning, for how I looked, and my makeup,” Samreen says. But once some of her sketches went viral, her subscriber numbers ballooned. While most of her videos now hit around a million views, some of her viral ones have as many as 23 million. She now has a business manager and a separate video script writer assisting her. 

Each member of the Ali family has their own YouTube channel. After Kashif learnt video editing the summer after year 11, he enlisted their eldest sister Mahjabeen, who became their in-house editing whiz. Mahjabeen, now 23, edits most of Samreen’s videos. 

“If anyone voices opposition or questions why our daughters are filming themselves and being on-video, my husband cuts off ties with them,” Nagina says. 

Sibling dancers

At another home in the northern Indian village in Dhanbad district, cell phones were purchased before a television. 

The Mahato family’s goats were sold to purchase Sanatan Mahato’s first smartphone when he realised it would be useful both for entertainment as well as for school. The buffalos went next, to have enough to buy a television a few years later. By the time TikTok was banned in India, Sanatan, 26, and his sister Savitri, 27, had more than a million TikTok followers for their videos, which featured the two of them, often side by side, dancing to music in their dirt courtyard. 

Their home is in India's coal country of Dhanbad, where most young men are expected to either work in the mines or farm. The siblings' mother would pick up leftover coal from the ground around the mines, transport it on her head, and sell it to local shopkeepers. Their home had no bathroom. "Everyone bathed in the village pond,” Sanatan says.

At a modern dance class, while attending university in Dhanbad, Sanatan learned the elements for choreographing and filming his popular videos. Eventually he enlisted Savitri's help; his sister is a primary school teacher, and never had a chance to study dance. "I make the choreography easier," he says, "so she can follow the steps." 

Persistence and resilience have kept the two of them going. Until three years ago, their village had no Wi-Fi and almost no mobile network, but Sanatan figured out he could pick up a slightly stronger signal in a field down the road. "I used to sit at one spot by the field, and wait hours to upload a video,” he says. Others in the village looked down upon him. “People in the community said our caste doesn’t dance. They said we farm.” 

For Savitri, the hostility is sharper. She dances mainly in their courtyard, and only when no one else is around. “If a village boy faces so much opposition, can you imagine how much a village girl gets trolled for this?” she says. A woman performing dance in this community is equated to a “dancing girl,” a euphemism for a woman without honour. 

The siblings now earn enough from their dancing to run their household. They've enrolled their niece and nephews in a private school. The loss of TikTok was a serious setback. “It was very disappointing and demotivating, starting all over again,” says Sanatan. Now, Sanatan posts a daily video on his YouTube channel, which has 1.54 million subscribers, and experiments with themes or the background setting.  “You need to keep doing something different to keep the audience interested,” he says.  

The siblings have now built a studio inside their house with wall-to-wall mirrors. “When we sit here and look around," Savitri says, "we say to each other, 'We can’t even believe this is our home.'” 

Sex health education

“Is first-time sex painful?” “Can I get pregnant if I have sex during my period?”

On short Instagram videos, Tanaya Narendra, aka "Dr. Cuterus," answers questions rarely articulated in public in India. The 27-year old physician, from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, became a sexual health video creator to counteract misinformation. “There has definitely been an increase in the access to information with Youtube, with Google. But oftentimes people don’t have the right words to refer to their body parts,” she says, “A lot of sex ed content especially on YouTube is not backed up by science.”

She now has close to one million followers on Instagram

“The moment I crossed 10,000 followers was incredible,” Tanaya says. “My friends and I sat looking at my phone as it went from 9,999K to 10,000. But that’s when it hit me, if 10,000 people want to know about this, this is maybe an important conversation to have.”

As a physician specializing in assisted reproduction who used to treat hundreds of patients in a single day, Tanaya describes her video creations as "a side hustle." Her audience is active and engaged, and many of her videos are responses to common misconceptions or questions she’s asked: What is a hymen? Can you get AIDS from kissing? 

Tanaya is familiar with the feeling of shame; she was teased as a child for being overweight, and says that as she grew older, she learned how much shame can accompany young Indian women's feelings about their bodies. 

“My whole idea with this is to make people feel a little bit more comfortable about their own body and a bit more empowered with knowledge," Tanaya says. "And what they do with that knowledge is their business.” 

The "Indian Farmer"          

Santosh Jadhav, 28, has a passion for the camera and for the okra plant. "Indian Farmer," the YouTube teaching channel he hosts, has 2.82 million subscribers, with a playlist that includes  “A-Z Farming," "Smart Irrigation," and "Agricultural Machinery." “People have this mindset that if a young person pursues farming, his future is wrecked," Santosh says. "But that’s not true. There is potential in farming."

India continues to be largely agrarian, with close to 60 percent of the population relying on agriculture for their livelihood. But farmers consistently face crises: land fragmentation, droughts, overextended loans, low crop yields, price volatility, lack of power or water. And among the regions with the highest distress is Santosh's home state of Maharashtra.  “No one wants to marry their daughter to a farmer," he says. "There is so much stigma.”

But Gen Zs and millennial farmers are using the internet to farm better and smarter. In the videos, Santosh talks to them about how to prepare a bed for planting, or what to do during a blight attack. Or as in his most popular series, “Desi Jugaad,” he offer DIY methods for common farming challenges.

Santosh grew up watching his grandfather tend okra and tomato fields on their family farm. A college dropout, he took over the farm in 2016 and decided to research best farming practices, especially with limited water. The video channel launched in 2018; and his longtime friend, Akash Jadhav (no relation), produces and edits the footage. The partners have added a dedicated cinematographer, video editor, and line producer, all from their local village farming community.

Through YouTube viewership and Instagram brand partnerships, the "Indian Farmer" has a revenue of six to seven thousand dollars per month. “Most of our income, we reinvest into our business,” Akash says. “Our costs are high, as we travel to other parts of the country to film, and now plan to travel abroad as well.” Dubai is first on their list—to explain to their viewers how farming is done in desert areas with little water. 

Like "Dr. Cuterus", the "Indian Farmer" account engages directly with its audience, seeking and responding to questions, picking themes according to viewer feedback, and responding to comments. In addition to video literacy and editing, the producers have taught themselves how to manage social accounts, analyse metrics, and run a business.

In recent years, India’s young have been seen as the catalysts for its rapid economic growth. But while its demographic dividend is an advantage, with consistently high unemployment figures, it remains to be seen whether their numbers will be a liability or a boon. At a time when India is desperately seeking to create jobs for its youth, the creator economy is making a difference. Already worth more than £80 million, it saw a boost during the pandemic. But beyond the income, young Indians are in the process of shaping a new Indian imagination. Those who suffered because of the tyranny of geography have found the world at their fingertips. Those who were expected to stay within the confines of their homes are breaking barriers to speak to a wider public sphere. 

And together, as creators and audiences, due to the nature of the content as well as its uncensored transmission, they are finding ways to challenge patriarchy. Tanaya Narendra addresses loudly and publicly what is often a subject of silence. Savitri Mahato confronts opposition in person, but also finds comfort, reassurance and validation in the online comments. Samreen Ali posts bold content on class and patriarchy, with her most popular video about power dynamics in an Indian joint family between a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law (Samreen plays all three roles in the 11 minute skit).

When asked about her dreams, Samreen says, “I’d like to keep acting. I’m open. But I don’t dream of Bollywood. I already have my own identity and brand that people know me for. 

"Actors are trying to start YouTube channels now," she says. "I’m already there.”



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