An n-year experiment

It could have been three years ago. I saw the slider on Netflix, and saw a row of white faces lined up for me to scroll. And for a moment, I thought - but, none of them look like me. It started as a desultory thought, the sort you stir inside your head, and let brew — what if I added lemongrass to milk tea? What if trees could move here and there and knock on your door for a sip of whatever’s brewing? What if I only began watching movie trailers again (I never see the trailers of movies I want to see. I stopped awhile ago when I realised the trailer usually has a lot of the juicy parts and scenes, and a dud movie feels even more of a dudder.).

Such thoughts rarely come to fruition — I still haven’t added lemongrass to milk tea. And yet, that day, looking at the Netflix scroll, I decided I am going to see movies without people who fit the conventional beauty ideal.

Of course, I know the theory — media you consume has a way of shaping the way you think. And somehow I had decided that having known the theory, I am now impervious. My logic was something like this — I am watching a horror movie; I know there’s a human being shooting that horror movie, and so now when I see it, I can imagine the people outside of the camera’s vision, managing the camera, set, other actors, their friends who are visiting the set around. And so I don’t need to worry about that silly person’s safety who decided to go explore a dark basement (ki bhai kyon, why would you go to a place that has a solitary dodgy lamp?).

Of course, that logic doesn’t work. I am terribly scared of horror movies. And so, even though I knew the media I consume shapes my head and world-view, I underestimated my ability to critically think my way through the constant barrage of images I was consuming.

In movies, I sought out people and characters who inhabited bodies that did not speak to convention, who question normative definitions of beauty. I discovered Nigerian movies. Lionheart has Genevieve Nnaji, one of my favourites now, who grapples with running a company. It could have been set in India; a former colony with its own class and other tensions. And she just imbues the screen with a presence that arrests you.

Of course, I saw a lot of malayalam and tamil movies. But the one I kept coming back to is ‘Nappily ever after’. There’s a scene in which the love interest gives her a head massage — fully uff. The movie has a lot to do with what’s on your head and inside it.

It didn’t happen overnight, but something shifted within. I am still unsure how to put it into words; it isn’t an epiphany, rather a gradual transformation like a tree shedding leaves. I started to ‘see’ differently, because what I was consuming was different.

I realised that there was something that had changed completely, when I couldn’t bring myself to see beyond the first episode of that Bollywood wives series. There’s a young woman there, and she is to be ‘presented’ in some sort of coming out ball. It is in Paris, and the parents are all excited. And I was sitting there, a bit horrified, and worried for that young woman. The pressure to fit in — to dresses, to expectations, to demands of an instagrammed world. Usually, I would have indulged the show — rationalising to myself that, isn’t it what everyone does? Everyone seemed complicit in making that young woman into a doll, and somewhere that deeply bothered me. I switched it off. And that to me seemed like both a privilege and a battle won.