Celebs on demand: When Saina Nehwal sings happy birthday to you

Celebrity video shoutout apps are bringing fans closer to their favourite stars, for a fee of course
After three months of work-from-home, startup founder Bhawna Sethi noticed that the spirits of her employees were flagging. She found a unique way to motivate her team of 10 — she got Kalki Koechlin and Huma Qureshi to give them a pep talk! No, they didn’t come physically but read out two video messages penned by Sethi on staying strong and being patient during the pandemic.
Sethi availed the services of Unlu, one among several celebrity video shoutout platforms that let you hire actors, singers, comedians, influencers and sportspersons to wish you on your birthday or anniversary or even apologise to your partners.
You could also get Ed Sheeran and Donald Trump doppelgangers to do it for you. Many of these are modelled on the US app Cameo, which was in the news recently for a viral video in which desi comedian Ali-Asghar Abedi pranked TV host Tomi Lahren into calling US President Donald Trump “as wise as an ullu (idiot)” unknowingly.
While pranks like the Trump video are yet to happen in India, there are instances of roast videos being requested for friends and family. Lawyer Neelambara Sandeepan booked her younger brother’s favourite stand-up comedian as a Rakshabandhan gift this month. “These days everyone has access to everything so physical gifts are difficult,” she says. “An experience like this is unique and novel and still has an element of surprise.”
Hyderabad-based Wysh, which launched in January and claims to have done 10,000 videos, also has Telugu, Kannada and Punjabi actors and singers in addition to Hindi ones. “India has localised movie industries and stars, so we grew region by region,” says founder Mahesh Gogineni. While stars of reality show Bigg Boss are the most popular, it also has lookalikes of Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, with prices ranging from Rs 750-Rs10,000.
In June, when Hyderabad-based engineer Rakesh Gupta and his wife Harshini were unable to travel to Warangal to celebrate her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, they commissioned a personalised wish from her favourite TV actress Sreemukhi through Wysh instead. “They were really happy and circulated it on their WhatsApp groups,” says Gupta.
Launched in May, Unlu has celebrities such as Saina Nehwal, R Madhavan, Prem Chopra and Kabir Bedi on board for anything from Rs 500 to Rs 43,000. While 30-35% of its bookings are for Bollywood celebs, 20-25% are for athletes, while the remaining are for TV actors.
Co-founder Himanshu Perwal says it brings fans closer to their idols. “Earlier you would wait outside a cricket ground or a movie shoot for hours just to get an autograph but with this, you can get a personalised moment with them on video.”
For celebrities too the platforms present a new revenue stream, albeit small. “With Covid-19, many understand the value of micropayments,” says Perwale. Celebrities typically set their own rates and alter them depending on demand or the lack of it.
These platforms present an evolution of the fan-celebrity relationship offering the former a semblance of intimacy through these videos “However, the basis of these relationships, though they seem more direct and personal, is still commercial,” says Dr Rukmini Pande, assistant professor at Jindal Global University.
In addition to video messages, Tring also lets users buy direct messages from a celebrity’s verified handle on Instagram, have live video calls or get them to answer five questions of their choice on video. Their rates range from Rs 99 for an Instagram DM to Rs 60,000 for a video call.
A significant chunk of their customers are in tier-II cities. “India is crazy about celebrities but we lack access to them. If you’re in a metro, there is a chance you might bump into a celebrity in a restaurant but in tier-II cities you don’t have any access to them,” says Akshay Saini, co-founder, Tring. They’ve also partnered with flower retailer Ferns N Petals, which has been getting over 500 such orders a month, with Delnaaz Irani, Shaan, Jonty Rhodes and Ashmit Patel being the most popular.
Truefan, which recently raised $4.3 million in funding, takes a different approach with a quiz format. Fans can buy tickets for Rs 50 to play daily quizzes based on a celebrity to win personalised video messages. Founder Nimish Goel says the idea came from his own fanboy experience of gate-crashing a wedding to meet Virat Kohli. “Celebs and fans have an emotional relationship and we don’t want to make it transactional,” he says.
“We’re building a platform where fans can show their passion to earn that moment.”

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