How Danish Zehen became a star, so big, that his death made him more popular

Jan 13, 2019, 18:30 IST | Anju Maskeri, Faizan Khan and Aastha Atray Banan

Dead YouTuber who left maulanas in a twist, Danish Zehen grew from school failure to Instagram star, but haters, his family says, were never far behind

How Danish Zehen became a star, so big, that his death made him more popular
Danish Zehen

Standing outside late YouTuber Danish Zehen's home in a narrow gully on Kurla Pipe Road, we are half expecting to be turned away at the door. And, understandably so. Ever since the sudden demise of the 21-year-old on December 20, when he died after his speeding car crashed on the Vashi highway, the family has been trying to resist the onslaught of attention it has been receiving from all quarters. Apart from relatives, friends and fans turning up to offer condolences, there have been unpleasant encounters with maulanas, who have dropped by to vehemently condemn Zehen's "unIslamic" life.

A fashion influencer — with his ever-changing coloured hair and tattoos — Zehen was popular for his hair tutorials, TikTok and Musically videos. But his claim to fame was his stint in actor and controversial Bigg Boss contestant Vikas Gupta's reality show, Ace of Space, on MTV last year. In light of the current events, it's only natural that the family wants to be left alone to grieve.

Zehen with friend Suresh Sonawane hours before the accident
Zehen with friend Suresh Sonawane hours before the accident

'He was extremely chanchal'
Yet, when we arrive, his mother Yasmin is welcoming. The two-room abode of the Mullahs — Zehen was the YouTuber's pseudonym — has all the vestiges of what the "sabse shaitan" of the Mullah offspring fancied: four Persian cats scuttling around, a ukele, a full-length mirror with light bulbs and numerous fan letters. It's here that the young blogger's craze for videos took root. His first video four years ago on YouTube showed him flaunting a friend's motorcycle in the neighbourhood. The video fetched 500 views.

The next day, he uploaded another video — only this time there was more of him and less of the bike. This received 1,000 hits. From that point on, there was no going back. "Initially, a large chunk of his videos were to do with pranks on unsuspecting people. Later, he gravitated towards fashion," said his close friend and gym instructor Suresh Sonawane, who shot most of his videos and pictures. The duo was together hours before the horrific accident occurred. "I dressed him up for the wedding [of a neighbour in Kurla] in a three-piece suit. He insisted I join him, but I refused because I had other commitments," he says.

He moved out of his Kurla tenement to a rented flat in Seawoods in 2018
He moved out of his Kurla tenement to a rented flat in Seawoods in 2018

According to Sonawane, Zehen wasn't the kind of boy, who would race to show off, yet, he allegedly lost control of the car while speeding. "The real reason was his exotic parrot," he says. "Zehen had bought the parrot, days before he died. Before leaving for the wedding, he had forgotten to close the window. While he was returning home, the watchman of the building called up to inform that the parrot was sitting on the ledge of the window and was likely to fly off. He was in a hurry to reach home," he says.

Born and raised in a Kurla tenement, Zehen moved to Seawoods six months ago, where he rented a sprawling 2-BHK apartment. Here, he would shoot his TikTok and Musically videos and post mirror selfies flaunting his glorious mane. "The moment he'd wake up, he would take at least two to three videos or selfies, before even brushing his teeth. His posts would fetch almost 30,000 likes within minutes," adds Sonawane.

Zehen and his friend Suresh Sonawane at a fast food joint in Navi Mumbai hours before the accident
Zehen and his friend Suresh Sonawane at a fast food joint in Navi Mumbai hours before the accident

His mother too, remembers Zehen's earnest attempts to jazz up the Kurla home by installing a light-embedded mirror. "But his Seawoods flat had enough space for his idiosyncrasies," she says. Initially, she was not in favour of his predilection for fame and glamour, but grudgingly gave in. The family admits they pulled all stops to ensure he'd focus on studies. But it never happened.

A student of Kedarnath Vidya Prasarini's English High School in Kurla, Zehen later completed his Std XII from MH Saboo Siddik Junior College in Mazgaon. He enrolled for engineering, but abandoned the course mid-way. "In school, he consistently got zeroes because he was never interested in academics. Once, the teacher called me and said, 'Even God won't be able to make this boy pass.' I was hurt. I told Danish about this comment." That year, he cleared his SSC exams with 53 per cent.

Kedarnath Vidya Prasarini's English High School where Zehen studied till Std X
Kedarnath Vidya Prasarini's English High School where Zehen studied till Std X

With more than 876K followers on Instagram and 328K subscribers on YouTube, Zehen exited Gupta's Ace of Space mid-way due to a family emergency. He was brought back a few weeks later alongside Fiza Khan as a wildcard, but the latter was chosen. Gupta, the flamboyant judge of the show, where youngsters from all over the country live together and compete against each other to win bigger spaces to live, likens Zehen to American heartthrob James Dean.

They both had the same kind of hair, were "rebels without a cause", and died young in car accidents. "So many people wanted to stop him, because when you come from his social strata, getting enough to eat and drink should be enough for you. Why dream of a bigger life?

The entrance to  Danish Zehen's home in Kurla West; (right) the light-embedded mirror in his parent's home
The entrance to Danish Zehen's home in Kurla West; (right) the light-embedded mirror in his parent's home

But he started getting the love, and it kept coming. He wasn't traditionally good looking either, but he made what he had, work." Gupta credits Zehen's success to his guts to colour his hair silver. "He was real and he was ready to take risks. The people who are now maligning him, are using his death to their benefit. They are fuming on social media, because they want the popularity."

His fans echo Gupta's views. Fifteen-year-old Divyanshu Purohit from Uttarakhand, who was a big fan of "Danish Bhaiya," says that what drew him to Zehen was the fact that despite being middle class, he didn't become a doctor or engineer. "Instead of doing something mainstream, he started watching hair transformation videos, which wasn't a trend in India, and then he started doing the same. For me, he was the one who brought blonde to India and the first person to upload such videos on YouTube."

Danish Zehen
Danish Zehen

Another fan, 20-year-old Nitin Garg from Sirsa, Haryana, said till last year Zehen only had around 2 lakh subscribers. But it's when he started taking his fashion persona seriously, and doing more hair videos, that he became popular. "It was then that I made a fan account for him, which now has 66k followers. The only time I spoke to him was when he asked me to take down a TikTok video, where he had used bad words. The best trait about him was that he was kind-hearted, and down-to-earth."

Despite the ambiguity over his exit from Ace of Space, Yasmin insists there was no "emergency" so to speak of. "He did not like being tied down to one place. He was extremely chanchal," she adds. But there were a few constants in his life, his pet cats being one of them. "On many occasions, he had brought home pups and goats. We would always put our foot down. Crestfallen, he'd return them. But, he managed to get his way with cats," she says, allowing a glimmer of a smile.

Danish Zehen
Danish Zehen

When it came to major life decisions, his mother was his sounding board. In fact, the stage name, was a result of a casual conversation with her. "He wanted to know what Danish meant, to which I replied 'akalmand' or intelligent. But he needed a substitute that was more crisp. Zehen fit the bill," she says.

To a safer home
Last year in May, Zehen uploaded a post revealing how he was beaten up by a group of boys while going to his friend's place in Kurla's LIG colony. "Suddenly, more than 15 people attacked me for no reason. They snatched my chain and broke my cellphone. Then I went to a nearby police station (Vinobha Bhave Nagar)... These guys are typical gundas of the area and did this for hate reason and money. I tried to defend but I'm not Shaktiman. First I thought I should not share this with you'll, but then I felt it might be wrong to not tell you guys (sic)," his post on Instagram, read.

Zehen's brother Gufran, who is currently working in Saudi Arabia, feels that his brother's fame had aroused jealousy among locals. "I still remember Danish telling me, 'Bhai, you don't know what I go through in our area.' But now I can understand what he actually meant. His accounts were hacked many times."

Soon after the incident, he moved to Seawoods. He already had a cadre of close friends there — Sonawane being one of them. The two met at Sonwane's gym in Seawoods for the first time, four years ago. "Danish's girlfriend, also a Navi Mumbai resident, had signed up for my zumba class, and he would come to pick her up," he says. By this time, Zehen's videos had already started going viral. "I'm a blogger too, and had seen his YouTube channel Fambruh. That's how we got talking," says Sonawane, who offered his space to Zehen to shoot videos. This proved to be a win-win because the fitness centre began witnessing more footfalls.

According to Sonawane, Zehen had become so popular as an influencer that gym owners in Navi Mumbai would offer him free membership in return for a tag on his social media posts. "We have had to return all the advance payments to brands that Zehen was supposed to tie up with this year," says Sonawane.

While most of Zehen's videos were shot by Sonawane, the captions, he tells us, were crafted by his girlfriend. This is not the same girl, who went viral after his death. "She's a random fan getting mileage out of the tragedy. His girlfriend was a legit blogger, who had, in fact, more fans than him initially," he says. Zehen preferred keeping her identity under wraps.

Back in Mullah's living rooms, it's evident that between the parents, father Gafoor is the more reticent one. On hearing of his son's death in December, he fainted, a relative tells us. That night, nearly 10,000 people turned up for the funeral, exceeding the capacity of the Kasaiwada Kabristan burial ground in Kurla East that can hold close to 1,000 people. "It took him a while to get to the coffin," adds the relative. The only time he speaks up is to lash out against the maulanas who have been character assassinating their son. "Who has given them the authority to pronounce my son a sinner? Only Allah can decide that," he says.

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