Zeenat Aman Instagram: The Zeenat Network: How the veteran actor is slaying Instagram game at 71

Every time Zeenat Aman posts something on Instagram, Usha Pisharody gets an alert on her phone. It’s a setting she has activated only for a handful of people, says the 60-year-old retired academician from Thrissur in Kerala. Pisharody remembers Aman, the 71-year-old Hindi film actress, as the “diva” she would go to watch in theaters back in the ’70s. “Zeenat [Aman] wasn’t just a glamorous celebrity for me, she seemed like a real person even back then,” she recalls.

Three months ago, Aman started her Instagram journey with a casual portrait picture and a single-line caption announcing her arrival on the platform. Every subsequent post from her has turned into a digital event that gets discussed across the internet. The veteran actor shares anecdotes from her career in cinema, gives a glimpse into her present life, talks about the people and issues that matter to her, sportingly shares memes featuring her and gives an insight into how and why she landed on the ‘gram — courtesy of a little nudge and tech support from her sons.

In one of her posts, she even takes a friendly dig at most Instagram profiles, likening them to “advertising billboards”, all the while highlighting that she would like her to retain the blogging essence and do very few, “clearly labeled” sponsored posts .

Aman has only a quarter of a million followers so far, but his Instagram account’s engagement rate is 16.61%, as per data gathered by Qoruz, a creator tech company.

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The figure is three-four times higher than what many popular celebrities on the platform command, including global pop culture icons like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Aniston, as well as popular Indian actors across age groups, like Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Singh, Kareena Kapoor Khan , Madhuri Dixit Nene and Jackie Shroff, to name a few. In absolute numbers, most of these celebrities’ content drew more eyeballs than Aman’s because of their significantly higher follower count at the moment.

For context, engagement rate measures what percentage of your audience engages with your content. To arrive at the percentage, you divide the total number of likes and comments on all posts by the total number of followers a person has, and then multiply the result by 100. Typically, analytical firms refine this formula for better results. Qoruz omits anomalies like unusually viral posts while calculating engagement rate to give a more accurate average figure.

“Zeenat Aman’s current engagement rate is phenomenal,” says Aditya Gurwara, cofounder of Qoruz. “Most big accounts (with a few million followers) tend to have 1-5% engagement rate,” he adds. “When her account reaches the million mark, if it is able to retain even half of this engagement rate, the absolute numbers will be impressive.”

Celebrity accounts can have an unusually high engagement rate at the beginning but it tends to normalize over time, notes Gurwara. “It happened in the case of both Jennifer Aniston and Kareena Kapoor Khan. Even their Instagram arrival was the talk of the town back then,” he adds. The surprisingly high engagement rate of Aman’s account is noteworthy as it does not follow any of the norms that should get the platform’s algorithm to push content to more people’s feeds.

For example, most Instagrammers, or IGers, post static images in a reel format for better traction and add a song in the background at minimum volume to ride the trending audio wave. Aman’s feed, however, has a grand total of two reels among 31 posts and they don’t align with an audio, meme-centric, or dancing trend.

One is the footage of an interview, during the shoot of the popular track “Laila O Laila” from Qurbani (1980), in which Aman talks about gender inequality in terms of opportunity and pay in the film industry at that time. The other reel features an image of her in her son’s music studio while the audio showcases her recital of a Derek Walcott poem titled “Love After Love”.

Aman’s post about there not being too many “silver-haired” women in the public eye resonated with Pisharody. On a platform where people seriously show only the shiny parts of their life, Aman comes with no masks, says Pishirody. “You could say she had faded from public memory over time, but now her voice is helping many in our age group find theirs,” she adds.

ET reached out to Aman via his Instagram account, requesting an interview for this story, but the message didn’t elicit a response until press time.

While a few influencer marketing professionals believe the majority of Aman’s fan-following could belong to an older demographic, which can limit her reach on a platform dominated by the Gen Z cohort, the comments underneath her posts, some of them paragraph-long, indicate that she has a growing following of 20-somethings who make it a point to mention their age while leaving a comment.

Anushree Joshi is one such follower. “I haven’t grown up with Zeenat Aman or haven’t seen her captivate the audience in real time,” says the 22-year-old researcher and writer. Yet, when she sees her posts on people’s Instagram Stories, she finds herself visiting Aman’s page to read the caption, something she seriously would not do for 95% of the Stories that appear on her feed.

“I suspect the reason I am drawn to her posts,” says Joshi, “is because of how authentic their popularity seems, unfazed by trends. She is not actively trying to be even against the trends, but gives me a sort of sweet nostalgia for what Instagram used to be at one point,” she adds. Aman has brought long captions back in vogue on Insta.

Her post honoring actor Parveen Babi on her birth anniversary spoke to Joshi about how the male gaze likes to limit women’s abilities and their relationships with each other. Aman didn’t cover the post in hashtags of “female friendships” or “girlbossing”, notes Joshi. Instead, “she shared a slice of her life and experience in a way you would hear an actual person talking to you if you were just sipping tea with them. It’s not dialogic for popularity’s sake, just thoughtful in the way a lifetime often ends up being when visited quietly.”

Aman’s Instagram account has also shed a spotlight on 27-year-old Tanya Agarwal, who is credited as the photographer of many of the posts featuring the veteran actor. “There are definitely more eyes on my work now but, more than anything, I feel more in tune and confident in my abilities as an artist,” says the Mumbai-based photographer, who was initially nervous about photographing “a legend”, a first for her. Agarwal, who is a friend of Aman’s son, is not surprised by the actor’s popularity on the platform. “Her way of expressing her thoughts is powerful enough to tame any algorithmic force,” she says.

Perhaps that explains why Aman’s only paid partnership on the platform so far, with jewelery brand Misho Designs, fetched twice as many likes (close to 109,000) as her regular posts. Branded posts are historically known to get less engagement. “The reason it did so well is that the audience that is otherwise bombarded with branded content on Instagram appreciates the authentic tone in which she spoke about choosing the brand and collaborating with it,” says Pankhuri Harikrishnan, founder of Fetch India, an influencer marketing agency based in Delhi.

In her recounting of stories from the ’70s showbiz era, Aman is reclaiming her narrative, which wasn’t a luxury that celebrities, especially women, had back then, notes Harikrishnan. “To that extent, she is unknowingly riding Instagram’s POV trend, by telling stories from her point of view.”