Before the lockdown was announced, 29-year-old Arman’s daily routine included getting up early in the morning and washing as many as 20 cars a day―work that he has been doing since childhood. Once evening fell, he would switch gears completely. He’d meet up with his childhood friends Raj, Sonu and Karan for dance practice. Using an inexpensive Oppo phone with a broken screen, the friends would spend hours studying and choreographing dance moves to shoot the next day.
This phone, Arman says, has been a “blessing” for him and has given his dancing career the kind of momentum he had only dreamed of earlier. Gifted to him by a close friend a year ago for performing at his wedding, this phone has enabled him to record himself dancing, find flaws, correct them, and to share his talent with the world. Most importantly, said Arman, the phone boosted his confidence because looking at his own dance videos showed him that he really was “quite good”.
This realisation finally sank home after a dance career that had already spanned more than 15 years.
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Arman, who was born and brought up in Valsad, Gujarat, said he has competed in over a 100 local competitions, and won over 50 awards, but there were few tangible rewards. The first time he competed was in 2007, at a dance competition in Valsad, at the age of sixteen. But it was only two years later, in 2009, that he finally won a prize―a sum of Rs 3000. Indeed, he has never earned more than that in any of the local competitions that he has participated in. While he was sometimes invited to perform at weddings and other events, these engagements never provided a sustainable source of income. Nonetheless, Arman continued to dream big. “During these competitions, the public―in huge numbers―would gather around the dance ground and watch me perform. When they cheered, I felt so confident. I used to think I would someday be able to appear on TV and make millions clap for me,” said Arman.
Back then, he had no idea that his dream of an audience of millions was going to come true via his humble mobile phone.
One evening during dance practice, Arman’s friends showed him some TikTok dance videos for reference and suggested that he should use the platform too. “I used to upload funny videos, but comedy was never my thing. One day, my friends showed me some dance videos, and asked me if I wanted to upload such videos. I was a little hesitant at first, but I thought, what’s there to lose? So I gave it a shot.”
A TikTok sensation was thus born.
Arman Rathod, as of today, has 2.7 million followers on Tik Tok. Almost all his dance videos go viral on social media―most recently, his May 15 upload of him dancing to Hrithik Roshan’s ‘You are my Soniya’ received six million views―and his inbox is brimming with messages from fans. “A lot of TikTokers send me messages saying they want to meet me and make videos with me after the lockdown, and I look forward to that,” he said.
“I used to watch all these dance shows on TV a lot, and wanted to be on that stage and compete with the best dancers, at least once in my lifetime”
From Sanjay to Arman
Arman is a stage name and one that holds a lot of meaning for him, said the dance star, whose given name is Sanjay Rathod. “I used to go to these local dance competitions where judges would often ask the same question to me, ’tumhara arman kya hai?’ [what is your dream?] to which I would often say, ‘For my talent to reach millions of people.’ Once, the answer to this very question earned me an award. They really liked my answer, which was, ’Mera arman hai ki meri tarah dancer banna logon ka arman ban jaaye kisi din’ [My dream is that people should someday aspire to become a dancer like me.] Since then I came to be known as Arman.” he recalled.
While being on TV was his most dearly held aspiration, his social media stardom has achieved what he always wanted. “It doesn’t matter anymore. My dream was to be seen and appreciated by people, and that’s happening even on TikTok.”
How it all started
Arman told HuffPost India that when he was a child he pressurised his father to buy a small television set. After months of saving, when the set―a second-hand black-and-white TV―finally arrived, one of the first things Arman watched was Prabhu Deva’s ‘Mukkabla’ dance video from the 1994 Tamil film Kadhalan.
He started to imitate the dance moves from the song almost obsessively. It took him months, but he finally perfected the steps to the song.
“I used to watch all these dance shows on TV a lot, and wanted to be on that stage and compete with the best dancers, at least once in my lifetime,” he shared. But even though he auditioned for several TV shows, including Dance India Dance, Chak Dhoom Dhoom and India’s Got Talent, he never got selected.
“I still didn’t lose hope. I continued to dance at home and finally my hard work has paid off,” he said. He has been self-training since the age of 14, said Arman, and he was never deterred by the absence of formal teaching. “First, TV was my trainer, and then YouTube,” he said. “I was alone, without a support system. Nobody understood my obsession for dance back then. But with time, people started to understand how serious I was about it.”
However, while Arman pursued his passion for dance diligently over the years, he had to devote considerable time to the daily-wage jobs that gave him his living. Ironically, it was not until the lockdown that Arman’s dance career took off.
“Finally, since my work had stopped due to the lockdown, I had ample time. I decided to give myself a chance. I danced to the tune of a South Indian song and uploaded it on TikTok, and it went viral. Since then, almost all my videos have become famous and are liked by a lot of people. Earlier, people used to look at me as a loser, a struggler, but now I have shown them that hard work really pays off,” he said.
Behind the scenes
His viral videos prompted the organizers of Color TV’s Dance Deewane to invite him for auditions, according to Arman. “Soon after this call, some people started spreading lies about me, saying that I dress fancily and live in a big house. None of it is true. The truth is, they had seen me in good clothes during dance auditions. No matter how poor I was, I saved for months to buy a pair of good pants and shirt for myself when I went for auditions because I wanted to look presentable. They saw those clothes and thought I was rich. They didn’t see the struggle behind it, how much hard work went into buying that one set of clothes,” said Arman.
This Wednesday, Arman posted a video showing his small house, covered with tin, his mother sitting on the floor sifting rice and father seated on a charpai. He also showed his meagre collection of clothes. “If you still think I am a fraud, don’t like my videos,” he appealed in the video, which he also uploaded on his Twitter account.
Arman grew up in Gujarat’s Valsad, where he lives in a slum area in a small one-room hut that accommodates the family of eight. There is only one bed in the hut, for his elder brother who needs it due to his injured knees. The rest of the family―his mother, father, sister-in-law and her and his brother’s three children―sleep on the ground. Arman said that his brother still works occasionally in shops to help the family’s finances, despite his injured knees. “When he goes for these jobs, he has so much pain in his knees at night that he can’t sleep. He gets restless. But what can be done? He also has a wife and three kids to look after,” Arman sighed.
His father, who is 65 years old, worked as a watchman in a local hospital for much of his life, but has been unemployed for a year due to ill health. The family’s primary earners are now Arman’s mother and sister-in-law, who both do domestic work at multiple houses and earn around Rs 5000 each per month.
The lockdown, however, has shaken the family’s already precarious financial condition.
“For at least a month, my mother and bhabhi were told not to go to the houses to work. We didn’t have any money, and were using the money my mother and bhabhi had saved up for themselves. The next month they requested their employers to hire them back because the family was close to starvation, and they were allowed to resume their duties,” said Arman, whose own work of washing cars―his main source of income―came to a halt due to the lockdown.
“I never thought I would become so big. My life’s only dream was to appear on TV and become a star.
Arman studied in a government school until class seven, when he was forced to drop out in order to help his struggling family. “I had to start working because of the financial condition at home,” he said. Right from then until the lockdown was announced, Arman eked out a living by cleaning cars. “Everyday I would wash at least 20 cars, and still couldn’t earn much,” he said, adding that he would get Rs 30 to 40 for each vehicle he washed.
During festivals, he would seek extra jobs to increase his income. “During Diwali, I would start working at some cracker shop because they needed more staff, sometimes I would sell colour during Holi, and during Ganesh Chaturthi, I would colour Ganesh idols for Ganpati Visarjan. For food, we would use our ration card to collect supplies.”
Dancing was never a reliable source of income. “Performing at weddings made me some money, but it wasn’t stable. Sometimes I would get so many invitations, sometimes none,” he said.
Despite this, said Arman, his parents never came in the way of his passion. “Whatever I am today is because of my parents. They didn’t stop me from pursuing my passion even once, even though it didn’t get any money in the house. They have always supported me. They never nagged me for dancing or not making any money. My mother is proud of me because I share whatever little money I make with her,” Arman said.
To Arman, though, dancing was never just about the money. “I couldn’t study because of the financial situation at my house, but dance was something I could never give up. Even when I used to wash 20 cars a day, I would still have the energy to dance every evening for two or three hours.”
According to him dance is a calling that he cannot help but answer. “Since I am not educated, my only talent and passion is dance. There is nothing else I know so well. I can’t even tell you how much my dance means to me.”
But his fame still surprises him at times. “I never thought I would become so big. My life’s only dream was to appear on TV and become a star. Even though I haven’t appeared on TV yet, I am still a star.” For now, that thought sustains Arman, even in the absence of financial succour.