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Every week, the US magazine The Hollywood Reporter publishes Social Climbers Charts- a report that calculates the popularity of a celebrity based on data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. On July 19th, Priyanka Chopra topped the list, for the third time in four weeks. What did the trick? A gorgeous photo of her in a white bathing suit, sprawled by a swimming pool. The photo, which was taken by her husband Nick Jonas, looked straight out of a fashion magazine shoot. According to the report, the image got a little under 3 million ‘favourites’. More recently, Chopra was listed by Hopperhq.com as the only Indian besides Virat Kohli to make it to the Instagram Rich List of 2019. According to the report, the actress is paid a staggering Rs 1.86 crore for every sponsored post on her Instagram page. If you’re one of her 43.6 Million followers, you’ll know she has quite a few paid partnerships with brands, which explains why she ranked number 19 on the list.

What the Social Climbers Charts or the Instagram Rich List establishes is that Instagram is not merely a place to promote your work, put up pretty pictures and connect with fans – it’s serious business. Instagram can make you rich, keep you popular and get you more work. Instagram clout can be your ticket to an acting job as well, but more on that later. Also, you’re never too old or too late to be an Instagram star. Even the 83-year-old Dharmendra religiously puts up well-shot videos of himself having fun with farm animals.

At 30.9 M followers, actress Jacqueline Fernandez has always had her Instagram game on point, even when her film choices were not. She admits that she looks at it as a full-time job that runs parallel to her acting career, and that any celebrity who claims otherwise is probably lying. “You do separate photoshoots for Instagram. You have to sit with digital teams. There are strategies in place and you have to be at it all the time. It’s taken us by storm and has definitely given us more work to do,” she says.

Fernandez uses her Instagram account rather liberally to give followers an insight into her movie star life, but a carefully curated version of it. Earlier this year when she took a break from films to attend acting classes in New York, she says she was advised against posting about it. “I thought why not just show the finished product,” she later said in an interview with Film Companion. This conventional wisdom is probably why there are tons of videos of actors pulling off jaw-dropping stunts at the gym but hardly any of them learning their lines or rehearsing a scene. But we’re privy to Fernandez’s glamorous photo shoots, videos of her pole dancing or doing impossible yoga poses, and her beauty regimen. And of course, there are regular posts of her plugging the multiple brands she endorses. “Yes, the higher your Instagram numbers, it definitely becomes more commercially viable for a celebrity, and brands do tend to work with celebrities who have higher social media following,” she adds.

At 30.9 M followers, actress Jacqueline Fernandez has always had her Instagram game on point, even when her film choices were not. She admits that she looks at it as a full-time job that runs parallel to her acting career, and that any celebrity who claims otherwise is probably lying.

With so much riding on just a photograph or a 30-second video, actors have no choice but to call in an army of experts to handle their Instagram accounts. In fact, each photo on a celebrity account typically passes several hands before it’s eventually posted. “It would be suicide to put up a bad photo today,” says Gautam B Thakker, owner of Everymedia, a leading digital solutions agency for films and celebrities. So every photo is first sent to a digital team for a routine round of airbrushing. Then another team comes up with options for a smart caption or profound quote to accompany it. All of this is sent to the star for approval, and after a few rounds of back and forth, it is eventually launched into the world. There are also larger strategy meetings on how often a star should post, if all their photos should stick to a particular colour scheme, and other such pressing issues.

Actress Kalki Koechlin, who handles her own account, says she often wonders if she’s “shot herself in the foot” by not exploiting Instagram better. She has tried getting it professionally managed in the past but it never worked out. “When I was speaking to a PR about what they can do for me, I just got a list of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Cat Day… I was like what about a random Thursday? So yes, they have very set ideas of how to put yourself out there. I was talking to another actor who told me ‘I feel like I’m getting stupider the more time I spend with my PR’. Everyone is aware it’s a business choice,” says Koechlin.

In spite of the social media babysitting, stars often make embarrassing faux pas that are hard to live down because the internet never forgets. Actress Disha Patani, who is a sensation on Instagram with 23.6 M followers, has been been called out for excessive photoshopping of her images. On one particularly facepalm-worthy occasion, she posted a photo which was meant to be a paid partnership with Samsung without removing the instructions from her social media manager on how to write the caption.

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According to Thakker, though almost every celebrity account is managed professionally, it still needs a “genuineness factor” if an actor is to truly connect with fans. If it looks too digitally constructed, you will be called out. So while Sonam Kapoor’s Instagram page looks straight out of a designer look book, there are also strategic images of her having a bad hair day or baring the imperfections on her face to balance it out.

That said, there are times when actors go overboard with the performance. There are stories of a star going as far as collecting piles of dirt and having it placed outside his home just so that he could make a video of himself mopping it up earnestly with a broom. This was to feign support for the government’s Swachh Bharat campaign. A digital strategist, who didn’t want to be named, says she stopped handling celebrities because they were too hung up on painting a false image of themselves on Instagram – either of the doting father, the fitness expert or the animal rights activist. “It’s a thankless job. Actors stalk each other all day and then ask questions like ‘why does so and so actress get so many likes on her selfie, and I don’t’,” she added.

When I was speaking to a PR about what they can do for me, I just got a list of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Cat Day… I was like what about a random Thursday? So yes, they have very set ideas of how to put yourself out there – Kalki Koechlin

Actress Sayani Gupta, who was last seen in Article 15, says she’s often considered an Instagram detox, but there is too much riding on it. “Take the clothes that we wear. We only get them because designers want us to post. My stylist gets stressed when I forget to tag them. But sometimes it’s a real pain to do this. That’s when I realised why actors have other people to do this,” she says. However, the benefits of Instagram stardom are undeniable. Apart from being a revenue source, it also provides free publicity. “A lot of the media picks up your Insta posts and makes stories out of them. It’s really weird but that’s how it is. So even if I want publicity, I’m not having to pay for it. Why would I not want that?,” she says.

But here’s where it gets worrying. A few months ago, actor Vikrant Massey said in an interview that he’s often heard of good actors losing parts to lesser talented social media influencers who have a bigger Instagram footprint. The theory being, the more followers an actor has, the higher probability of him or her grabbing more eyeballs. In effect, an actor is now expected to come along with a readymade fan base. “You know that a certain actor is talented but the reason why you can’t hire him is that he doesn’t have an Instagram following. Now that is ridiculous,” Massey later told Film Companion.

Mumbai-based filmmaker Navjot Gulati attests to this disturbing trend. He said it’s more rampant in casting decisions for ads and web shows. Last year, Navjot was in talks to direct a show for the streaming platform Viu for which he proposed three actors he wanted for the lead roles. “The producers got back to me saying, ‘We can’t hire them because they don’t have Instagram following.’ And then they sent me a PPT of other actors with their respective Instagram following and asked me to pick from there,” he recalls. He didn’t end up directing the show. In another instance, he had to direct an episode for a show on Voot, for which he was coerced into casting two people with a sizeable Instagram following. “I had to work with them and the show turned out to be horrible,” he adds.

Abhishek Banerjee and Anmol Ahuja, who have cast major Bollywood films through their company Casting Bay, say they immediately shut down all demands from producers to look for actors with an Instagram following. But they are aware of the pressure it’s putting on young actors to constantly perform on social media to grab attention. They also often find novices with barely any work behind them with mysteriously high follower counts. It’s no secret how easily one can manipulate these numbers through fake followers. From paying people to regularly comment on your posts to investing in bot accounts, the options to construct a false perception of your popularity are plenty. What’s scary is that people are falling for it.

But then again, one could argue that superficiality and stardom have always gone hand in hand. Earlier, struggling actors flocked to gyms to get six-pack abs, now they’re getting on Instagram. Koechlin says that while the deep-seated artifice is worrying, the Instagram obsession is merely a new avatar of a very old showbiz problem. It’s not very different from hiring someone based on how well-connected or good looking they are. “Earlier an actor would need to go to certain parties and events to be seen. Now that is being replaced with Instagram,” she says. It’s like old wine in a new bottle.

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