The Politics Of Reels: How Privilege Shapes What's Considered 'Aesthetic' Or 'Cringe'

Aesthetics or humor is not created in a vacuum but is a social commentary on the Indian elite's mindset.
Aesthetics or humor is not created in a vacuum but is a social commentary on the Indian elite's mindset.Manasi Patankar For Homegrown

I am going to create a hypothetical scenario for you to visualize. Imagine the lives of two teenage boys, Ravi and Vikash. Ravi grew up in one of the most affluent families in Mumbai. He was surrounded by high art since childhood — from the original MF Hussain painting on the walls of his living room to the dinner table discussions with his parents, both of whom are renowned academics and painters. Ravi was heavily inspired when he saw Frederico Fellini’s The 400 Blows (1959) when he was fifteen and that was the day he decided to become a filmmaker. So when he turned eighteen, his father enrolled him in the New York Film Academy to study Film Direction.

Parallel to Ravi’s palatial house is a slum, dense with shacks, which cramps together almost a couple hundred folks. In one of those hovels, lived Vikash, along with his parents, three brothers, and sisters. Growing up, he watched his father lay bricks all day on construction sites, and at night he would hurl curses at God and his family, after getting drunk on local hooch. Vikash’s mother worked as a maid cleaning houses and scrubbing toilets of rich families for a meager wage. Vikash always wanted to go watch a movie but the closest he came to was watching the movie posters stuck on the half-broken walls of the local buildings and cinema halls. One day, one of his friends managed to steal a smartphone and that is where he saw a video of Mithun Chakraborty dancing to the superhit Bollywood song ‘I Am A Disco Dancer’. From that day, Vikash would often sport a headband as that was the only part of Mithun’s attire from the movie that he could emulate. Vikash picked up all the dance moves from that song and would often perform them to entertain his friends. When he turned eighteen, he joined his father as a manual laborer in the construction business, and after six months of working under the grueling sun, he was overjoyed to be able to afford a basic smartphone.

Now, if we were to put Ravi and Vikash in the same room, hand them the same camera, labeled ‘Equality’, and ask them to shoot a short video, should we really expect similar results? The reason for creating these two fictional lives, with very close resemblance to reality, is to draw your attention to how the privilege of birth and cultural capital determines one’s capacity to create media or art. Even if you were to hand them the same equipment, they never started the race from the same point.

We are now living in the fast-paced world of social media. Short videos or Reels are the fodder for media consumption in the present-day virtual world where everyone's attention span is fairly short. Even in the post-TikTok ban era in India, Reels constitute a significant part of social media are here to stay. With access to smartphones and cheap internet, almost everyone has the privilege of making Reels and releasing them on their social media accounts.

However, the reaction that different Reels elicit from the audience is worth exploring. There is this phenomenon where a Reel made by a Ravi will receive a nod of cultural appreciation for its artistic brilliance and probably rightly so, but a Reel by a Vikash will elicit a righteous wrath and ridicule of the middle class and the elite. They 'cringe' at the Reels and openly ridicule them with the most vehement classist insults. But why? Possibly because they do not ascribe to a certain Instagram filter-washed urban aesthete that the elite is used to consuming.

Aesthetics, like all things, are not created in a vacuum and neither is humor. A Vikash Reel comes from a particular class background that portrays India’s reality. These Reels, which become subjects of ridicule or ‘trolling’ come from a place of honesty, reflecting the hopes, aspirations, need for expression, and realities of the majority of India, which often does not mesh with the urbanely polished social media users of today.

Here are some 'Vikash' Reels that capture the point that I’m trying to make:

The elite sees his half-opened ragged shirt, his Hindi accent, his over exaggerated hand movements, and his lack of 'urban polish' and makes him an easy target of ridicule. But if we were to just dig a little deeper, we’d look at how accurately he is portraying the helpless act of begging. If you ponder awhile, you can tell that he is creating this Reel based on his lived experience of what the act and rhetoric of begging look like. This Reel ought to be interpreted more as a social commentary on India’s poverty than an object of ridicule.

This Reel elucidates the point I was making about these Reels stemming from a place of honesty. Vikash does not understand the derogatory insults in English aimed towards his mother or the vicious name-calling that the urban crowd has assigned him. He interprets it innocently saying that he creates Reels for his mother, who he loves very much, and thanks the viewers for giving him the name “MotherMan”.

Maybe it is the low-quality camera video, the unaesthetic hairstyle, and hair color, or just vehement classicism, this Reel received major sneering. But if you examine it a little carefully, it is a wonderful take on a very Indian problem — spitting on roads. It is an environmentally conscious video with a distinct Indian take. Yes, the Reel does not have a powerful Greta Thunberg-like speech or the videography budget of a UNICEF Reel, but it, too is making an ecological point in its own unique way. Also, there is the question of identity politics. I bet that if a white pop singer or a hip-hop star from Brooklyn sported the same hairstyle as the two Vikashs in the video, a certain section of people would drool over their 'aesthetic looks'.

Makeup is the holy grail of the urban youth. Also these days in the country of Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma, weddings have become less about engaging in a lifelong commitment and more about having the ‘most aesthetic wedding photo shoot’. In such a context, the woman in the Reel becomes an easy object of jeering and trolling. Yes, her face is probably whitened too much, her clothes are not designed by Tarun Tahilani and her jewelry is not from Tanishq. But that is the reality for most Indian brides. Urban magazines and television advertisements have created such an unrealistic standard of what an 'ideal wedding' should look like, that the ground reality eludes us. This just goes on to show that Vikash is not any particular gender but rather a symbol of everything that stands against the aesthetics of the urban elite.

When we are talking about the 'politics of Reels', the politics of aesthetics are intrinsically linked to it. With the world at our fingertips, thanks to the internet, our visual taste buds are used to enjoying European supermodels with angular cheekbones and razor-sharp jawlines sporting Gucci clothes with a superhit American pop song in the background. But that's just a cultural bubble that the elite are living on. Most of India does not consume that kind of media or rather, can never relate to it for Vikash constitutes the majority of Indians. In no way I am asking you to step out and make a Vikash Reel for yourself or abandon your aesthetic sense but rather, the point is to draw your attention to the roots of where a Vikash Reel comes from. After all shouldn't we try to locate inclusivity in 'Digital India'?

The internet is a funny place though. It is the perfect all-consuming capitalist structure that does not discriminate on the aesthetics of content and focuses more on the content consumption rate and how much money can be minted off of it. ‘MotherMan’, the Vikash you saw in the first two Reels, started from TikTok and then went to MX TakaTak after the TikTok ban. He has bought cars and even a house from the revenue he has generated from the Reels he has created over the years. I guess, at the end of the day, the joke has always been on Vikash’s haters because unknowingly, they have contributed to expanding his ‘reach’ and popularity over the world wide web.

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