The internet, especially its various gateways to self-empowerment, has proven to be a boon for a country as diverse and socially stratified as India, but its work is far from done. Mallika Khanna investigates…
ILLUSTRATION BY POOJA SREENIVASAN
The thing that makes digital media a particularly tricky world is its facade of inclusivity…there is a danger in buying into this seeming democratisation of virtual movements and platforms.
The thing that makes digital media a particularly tricky world is its facade of inclusivity. The defining marker of this self-perpetuating ecosystem of content creation, proliferation, critique and community is its direct-to-audience model. This unfiltered space, free from mediation from an external body, creates a new form of political participation that allows people to tell their stories without relying on mainstream outlets.
Yet, there is a danger in buying into this seeming democratisation of virtual movements and platforms. A few prominent marginalised voices here and there trick us into believing that their visibilisation has translated into equitable real-world impact. Ultimately, the stories that gain the most traction are the ones told by those who already have power — online or offline. Hierarchies don’t disappear on screen, and this is echoed when we see how viral stories tend only to be picked up by traditional media when bolstered by a prominent mainstream voice. It would do us good to remember that the ‘mainstreamisation’ of marginalised voices is still centred on support from popular Twitter handles, content creators and directors at the helm of new webseries and made-to-stream films.
There’s another big misconception at the heart of the inclusivity facade: that everyone has access to digital media. For a lot of Indians, internet access is simply not a reality. For many who can get online, a lack of literacy prevents them from using digital media. And since a large part of India’s internet usage is in English, with Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali dominating the remaining spaces, linguistic barriers play a huge role in limiting access as well. In this environment, hashtag activism and inclusive representation online do very little to empower or inform people.
What drives optimism about digital media’s potential to become more inclusive is the sheer diversity of content available. Unlike traditional media, the online world offers unlimited space for new content and platforms to pop up. This is exciting. It means that for the people least represented in the mainstream, alternate networks of resistance, solidarity and, indeed, entertainment can develop.
Movietonne, an OTT (over-the-top) platform launched in August 2018, is a great example of the kinds of hyperlocal content the digital space can champion. An Assamese movie streaming platform, Movietonne digitised old Assamese movies while offering patronage to young film-makers and helping them reach a larger regional audience. Similarly, Rainbow (2018), Goa’s first home-grown web series, is available to stream for free on YouTube, and has reached a Konkani-speaking audience that numbers over 60,000. Hoichoi, an on-demand streaming platform launched in 2017, provides content exclusively in Bengali. And as demand grows, more and more nationwide OTT platforms like Voot, Zee5 and Alt Balaji are bringing in regional content to cater exclusively to linguistic minorities.
Social media offers a different model of community development: Twitter handles like @DalitWomenFight and blogs like adivasiresurgence.com enable marginalised groups to rally around community leaders and gain more exposure to the everyday ways in which microaggressions against their communities perpetuate. Platforms like ShareChat, India’s first home-grown social media platform, which operates in 14 local languages, allow people from the same linguistic group to speak to each other. This visibility allows them to feel like part of a larger network, to have their experience of the world — not just their struggles or marginalisation — validated.
GirlsFeed (2019), a web series produced by BuzzFeed India, is a case study in the way mainstream digital media outlets can use these intra-community networks to publicise disempowered perspectives. In each episode of the six-episode series, a group of women from different backgrounds discuss the experience of being a woman in India, touching on dating apps, the representation of women in Bollywood, internalised misogyny and marriage culture. It’s an insightful look into problematic aspects of womanhood that are constantly normalised and reinforced, but what makes it radical is its determined inclusion of perspectives across the spectrum of class, caste, geography, sexuality and even gender (both trans and cis women are on the panels). Writer Sonia Thomas and line producer Aniket Chitnawis explain why bringing in diverse points of view was so important to the project: “Tokenisation happens when you include people solely because they are from marginalised communities. For GirlsFeed, we wanted to make sure that no one was there just to represent their minority group’s struggles. We were talking about things like our love for Shah Rukh Khan or our experiences with a dating app, and we each have different experiences with these things because of our backgrounds, and we all had an equal space in which we could share our feelings.”
Maybe that’s the best that mainstream content creators and platforms on digital media can do: give a space to underrepresented groups to develop and share their own work by bringing them onto production teams, reading their work as a whole, and considering their perspectives outside of their specific form of oppression.
Like Thomas puts it, “maybe it’s time to recognise that not all content needs to be for everyone”. As India’s digital space becomes more and more dominated by local languages, hyperlocalisation is an inevitability. Platforms that engage with this phenomenon by offering more local content will gain ground as new consumers who are no longer limited by language and a lack of relatability enter the arena. Those that insist on catering only to the global Indian, who belongs to the upper-class urban elite, will gradually be relegated to only a very small sliver of consumers. It is, ultimately, in everyone’s best interest to acknowledge and patronise marginalised and underrepresented groups on digital media, because, as TikTok, Hoichoi and ShareChat have shown us, there’s an entire world of content and community buzzing at the margins.