Collage: VICE / Images: Zendaya (left) by Getty and Neel Ranaut (right)
When Indian actor Deepika Padukone wore a billowy green dress to a fashion magazine awards night in 2019, she went viral with people desiring or dissing her outfit in the comments section. But the Bollywood superstar was not the only one people were talking about at that moment.
Miles away, in the village of Teliamura in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura, 24-year-old Neel Ranaut recreated Padukone’s startling green outfit. Only, he did it from scratch, substituting the fabric with vivid green banana leaves paired with a blanket. It was at once genius, hilarious, inspiring, and totally wholesome.
“I thought her dress looked funny and so big,” the now 26-year-old Ranaut said, giggling over the phone in an interview with VICE. “It was already a meme, but my recreation with banana leaves made it funnier. People found it funny but they weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me. Getting all that attention was a bit overwhelming.”
To his 24,500 followers on Instagram, Ranaut is now known as the “village fashion influencer,” a moniker he gave himself after observing other fashion influencers use hashtags like #MumbaiFashionInfluencer or #DelhiFashionInfluencer. He often recreates popular celebrity looks but instead of posing with Gucci and Prada, he poses with dresses made out of wild flowers, and banana, papaya, date, and palm leaves.
“It’s not to be eco-friendly or anything,” he said. “It’s because I don’t have any other choice.”
Ranaut often uses easily available items like tape, socks, and his dad’s old T-shirts. In a recent post, he used steel bowls as stand-in boobs. Recreating jewellery pieces involves either getting coloured paper and cutting out shapes and patterns or thinking out of the box, like using a fish as an earring.
“We catch fish in the nearby river to eat. I thought I could make use of this for my Instagram too.”
Born Sarbajit Sarkar, he changed his name in college to include his favourite colour blue (“neel” in Hindi) and after his favourite actor, Kangana Ranaut. His love for fashion and dressing up goes back to his childhood. As a kid, he’d secretly wrap himself in his mother’s clothes and dance to popular Bollywood numbers or re-enact dramatic scenes from soap operas.
“I always played the heroine, never the hero,” he said. “This was the only outlet for my femininity.”
In 2019, he started posting short comedy skits along with re-enactments of scenes from movies and soap operas on Instagram and TikTok. But as views and likes soared, so did the hate comments. His comments section was a cesspool of homophobia and classism.
“My presence as a queer person from a village who likes dressing up was so threatening to the haters that they took it upon themselves to say horrible things to me,” he recalled.
Ranaut had 200,000 followers on TikTok until the platform deactivated his account in early 2020 for violating content guidelines.
“I was just dressing up and posting videos online,” he said. “I don’t know what was so offensive about that.”
TikTok has previously come under fire for arbitrarily censoring LGBTQ content
Ranaut then created another account, which hit 100,000 followers. When TikTok was abruptly banned in India last June, Ranaut switched to Instagram to post his content. He can never forget when the inspiration behind his name, Kangana Ranaut, publicly acknowledged his work.
“I was over the moon. People were watching me, and so was my favourite actress.”
Neel Ranaut wasn’t always a full-time fashion content creator. He holds a degree in law but never put it to use. While applying for jobs, he would often face taunts, jeers, or rude comments from his peers. He almost took a job at a law firm until a senior lawyer there told him otherwise, and that he should follow his dream instead.
“[She said] she would support me and shut down others who bullied me. She asked me to give fashion a try and if it didn’t work out, she promised to rehire me,” Ranaut said. He does not currently make any money off Instagram. His family depends on his father, who is a hawker at the village railway station.
A year after the conversation with the senior lawyer, he was discovered on Instagram and just before India went into lockdown, he ended up walking the runway for Indian designer duo Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla in New Delhi.
“I felt like I was floating in the air,” he said of the experience. “I have never felt anything like that before.”
Today, he spends his time studying and recreating celebrity outfits. Designing an outfit can take him anywhere between 30 minutes and several hours. His family is an essential part of his work; his mother is his photographer and his grandmother lends him her old clothes – her petticoats are the most featured items on his feed. The women in his family, like his grandmother, mother, aunt, and a cousin, help him with design and execution.
“They weren’t supportive in the beginning but they have come around now,” Ranaut said.
He has even given his grandmother and a cousin a makeover in some videos. More recently, his cousin sister was the inspiration for his “human hair dress” piece, which is a recreation of an outfit actor Deepika Padukone wore. In Ranaut’s rendition, the frills were replaced by his younger cousin’s hair, who stood with her back to the camera.
“I took that photo just for reference and when I looked closely, I realised I could post it as it is.”
He has recreated outfits worn by stars like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Zendaya, Disha Patani, and Kareena Kapoor Khan.
“Everyone says I’m so creative but honestly, my mind is able to break down how to recreate a luxurious outfit with the bare minimum,” he said. “It just happens.”
Online fame hasn’t made him a mini-celebrity in his village, though. Ranaut said the homophobia in his comments section often plays out in real life too.
“People in my village don’t really use Instagram but some of them have seen my videos on Facebook. They compare me to a girl but I don’t care. Being called a girl isn’t an insult.”
In many ways, Ranaut’s success represents the ambitions of several Indians in small towns and villages who dream of working in the Indian fashion industry. Behind his fierce strut and poses, he’s still dreaming too. He hopes to move to Mumbai, home to several Indian fashion houses and Bollywood.
“I think what matters is to be heard, and to be seen. I want to go to a big city like Mumbai to work,” he said, before taking a pause. “My dreams are all I have.”