“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” – Meryl Streep
Left: Top, by Kommal Sood; skirt, from Notebook
Right: Dress, from Bodice
In her tribute to Jane Fonda in 2014, Meryl Streep thanked the older actor on behalf of other younger ones because the kindness shown to her on the sets of her first feature film (Julia, 1977), which Fonda headlined, is something she learned to pass down through the course of her own career. In a world where women are constantly pitted against each other, internalised misogyny is very much a reality, and we still hear people assert that two female actors “can’t be friends”, Streep’s words not only speak to what acting is or isn’t but also on what womanhood can be.
Perhaps a distant recipient of that generosity is 22-year-old model and actor-in-training Diya Patel. Ever since she saw Meryl Streep in her Oscar-winning role in Sophie’s Choice, Patel has been enamoured of the Hollywood titan: “To me she wasn’t just another character; she was a real person. Someone I could relate to. It is my dream to express myself through acting in the seemingly effortless way that Meryl Streep does.”
Left: Dress, from Aikeyah
Right: Shirt, from Zara; pants, from Bodice
While it is Streep’s versatility on-screen that Patel thinks makes her “beyond great”, it was her aspirational skill in exuding “real beauty” and simplicity that melted the young student’s heart when she watched more of Streep’s early filmography. Along with her understated yet alluring style, glowing skin and flowing hair, Streep’s defiantly aquiline nose and “average” body also channelled a more imperfect, individual femininity; this attitude of self-acceptance appealed to Patel, who, like most urban Indians growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, was more used to American films that seemed to be filled with surgically streamlined women, and who, as an athlete, prioritised health and fitness over physical appearance. Even though modelling and her photographer mother have allowed her to appreciate beauty in its aesthetic sense, Patel still believes that “being comfortable in your skin is when you truly feel beautiful.” An important trait to develop for someone about to set foot in an industry that relies on superficial markers of worth and can erode one’s sense of self, regardless of how well you fit into its narrow standards. It is no surprise then, that her most memorable on-stage experience so far has been performing a monologue from the play ‘Wounds to the Face’ where she played a tragic woman obsessed with cosmetic products, unable to see the person who lay under the layers of make-up.
And isn’t that what we are all looking for at the end of the day? To be able to recognise the true beauty that lies beneath others and ourselves, no matter if the world tries to convince us otherwise?
Left: Shirt, from Zara; pants, from Bodice
Right: Cardigan, from Massimo Dutti; pants, from Bodice
In my own case, it took getting a pixie cut and an onslaught of unsolicited comments to realise what happens to women who challenge gender norms and how my experience was made relatively easier thanks to the women before me. The pandemic has also been a moment of reckoning; all over the world, women have been inspiring each other to look inwards, ditch rules that expect them to dress and act a certain way and truly embrace their real, beautiful selves.
Something my permaculture teacher, Simrit Malhi, said has stuck with me since last November. A fierce and gentle woman, she began our course by telling us about her teachers, highlighting that it is important to acknowledge those who mentor us not only because it gives context to where we’re coming from, but also because our teachers and role models are our line of influence. In the permaculture world we call it our lineage.
All of this is to say that, as women, we have the most radical and profound choice of finding our (matri)lineage in those women that inspire us as we forge our own paths – inheriting their influences, amplifying their goodness, learning from their mistakes and of those before them, and even emulating their hairstyles!
For as long as she can remember, Patel has always been extremely shy, but acting has given her a newfound confidence and the ability to overcome her insecurities as she continues the journey of finding herself in the characters she plays, just like Streep. Here, she pays homage to her idol’s initial years on film, and whether it’s donning a cardigan with a soft up-do from the ’70s, or channelling the glamorous, yet down-to-earth, confidence of long, silky waves and oversized shirts from the ’80s, for her, facing a camera is a special space where she can take on a new life. And maybe one day, Patel will stand up on a stage, accept an award and tell the world how a famous actor, albeit from Hollywood, taught her lessons in humility, kindness, self-assuredness, and thus became part of her chosen lineage.