How OTT Films Perpetuate an Upper Class, Caste Aesthetic for the Social Media Generation
A new vibe in popular cinema is here. Characters have short, sleek first names, their upper-caste surnames either absent or mentioned in passing. They live in mood boards rather than houses. They struggle vaguely with money to be relatable, but not so much as to affect their material realities. They have real, messy relationships, they have mental illnesses, but most importantly, they have these beautifully. Welcome to the Instagram vibe.
Such a shift in aesthetic or “vibe” takes place in popular cinema every decade or so. It’s an amorphous sensibility – usually constructed by the privileged – and it defines the zeitgeist for a time. It tells us what to wear, how to speak, where to be, whom to relate with; it shapes the aesthetic aspirations of a generation.
The “class film” – as scholars have dubbed films that were meant to attract an increasingly affluent middle class – was defined in the 90s with melodrama, exotic locales with mustard fields and tulip gardens, and generous dollops of family drama. This new subgenre of films was characterized by the universal theme of “desi”-ness and family values abroad. In the 2000s, there was a shift. Here were opera houses and towering, glittering cityscapes of the west; plonked in the middle were protagonists who navigate not “desi”-ness, but a vague sense of discontent in their own lives – no longer aspirational but relatable. The party song in a foreign city bursting with glass-skyscraper modernism was, undeniably, a vibe. In the late 2010s, these very beautiful and troubled people no longer needed to be abroad to navigate their discontents. They stayed in the homeland, amid homegrown manufactured modernity and sophistication, yearning to break free of the self-same norms that the 90s celebrated.
In the 2020s, we sit on the cusp of yet another shift, ushered in by OTTs and marketed through Instagram so much that the films themselves look like they were made for Instagram. Here, all ugliness and asymmetry is erased. Context, too, is erased.
The aesthetic is optimized to fit only the best-looking imagery, with profundity (read: gehraayian) shoehorned into it as an afterthought. We now have characters who speak more English than ever, who swear more, who are unafraid and young and restless with a frenetic energy that best suits the distracted anxiety of the Instagram infinite scroll. Frame after frame of such films is filled with a kind of manufactured beauty, simulating real life with a Valencia filter applied on top. The music is definitively “indie”; Prateek Kuhad, When Chai Met Toast, and other rootless “Indian English” artists form the soundtrack to the problems that characters go through.
Throughout the class film’s trajectory, however, one thing has remained constant: an erasure of caste, class, and lived experience that can never be beautiful.
The secret ingredient essential for this new shift is OTT streaming services. They allow creators to explore uncharted territory while retaining the same class-caste subtexts – especially if they feature big stars in the cast. The result is something akin to a pretty picture with a profound Instagram caption, leaving many to come away with something more to be desired.
Through the decades, when the class film migrated from being a “multiplex film” to an “OTT film,” it carried a sheen of subversiveness. OTT promises multitudes – filmmakers and actors now have much more leeway to tell stories without worrying about censors. And yet, they have taken this as an opportunity to show and not tell.
“OTT film is a class film aesthetic. It is a continuation of the multiplex film, which in turn was the class film… It has similar conceptions in terms of what it is and whom it is for,” explains S.V Srinivas, professor of film studies at Azim Premji University. Whom these films are for, in other words, are the ever-burgeoning, aspirational middle class. The stories they tell aren’t necessarily middle class – but they’re screened in places that the middle class can access and succeed in charming them for a few hours into wanting their lives to look like what they see on screen.
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Although the new crop of films claims subversion in terms of gender and sexuality (as in the case of Kapoor and Sons), this is only available to a certain strata of society that is inaccessible to most. In a manner of speaking, it almost conveys the notion that such subversion is impossible for anyone else, that challenging norms around gender and sexuality are a “privileged” notion.
“[These films] desperately want to be complex. I think when there’s no complexity, the camera just dives into the sea to tell us that maybe something complex is happening. It’s like ‘Oh my God, look at the human depths and the complexities of human nature.’ But there’s nothing very complex about it,” says Rajesh Rajamani, about the most recent film to characterize this era: Gehraiyaan. Rajamani is an anti-caste writer and film critic, whose recent short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas satirizes upper caste filmmakers’ preconceptions about people outside their realm of experience. In the film, three people are in pursuit of an elusive actor who “looks Dalit” for a film they want to make. In just 20 minutes, it represents how Bollywood as a whole treats identity and experience: if the experience they want to represent is universal, the characters are casteless (but with upper caste surnames). If there are characters who aren’t upper caste or upper class, it is then a film about something specific, no longer claiming the same universality, and looking for an aesthetic defined by a savarna gaze.
The OTT platform offers more room for expanding this particular vibe of the “class film” into other languages too. Aparna, 23, talks about a 2021 Malayalam film called Sara’s which discussed abortion and was pro choice. But while she liked what the film had to say, she was put off by the class subtext. “The protagonist Sara is ‘struggling’ but she lives in this big apartment with impeccable interior decoration. And she wears shorts at home without being judged. I feel less than 5% of the mallu population living in Kerala can relate to that. So I felt, while they were saying, ‘hey this could be you and I want you to relate to this,’ they were putting obvious class markers in there that screamed the opposite message… it gave the critics a chance to say ‘choosing abortion just because you didn’t want a baby or because you wanted to focus on the career is something only snobby rich brats would choose… real mallu women would never do this,’” she says.
This is because, as Rajamani explains, Bollywood has always been somewhat rootless. Although many stories are told in Hindi and the industry is based in Maharashtra, they don’t tell Maharashtrian stories. But with OTT platforms, things appear to be shifting: while the regional movies have begun to aim for a pan-Indian audience, movies coming out of Bollywood have begun to aim for an internationalized audience. For OTTs, this has a geographical meaning. But as far as the stories themselves are concerned, they’re aimed towards the descendants of the middle class multiplex generation: the Instagram generation that speaks more English. They’re the globalized audience that can come from any metropolis in India and would be indistinguishable from one another.
Take the adaptation of A Suitable Boy, Mira Nair’s adaptation of the Vikram Seth novel of the same name. Although the series was produced by BBC, it streamed on OTT platforms and the overwhelming vibe was that of beauty without substance. There was a superficiality to the whole affair that belied the appearance of a communally fraught post-partition India, but which was a picture-perfect romanticization of how lavishly privileged aristocrats and bureaucrats of the time lived.
Four More Shots Please on Amazon Prime is another Hinglish series that is sold as empowering because of all the gender conventions it supposedly breaks. However, the whole series comes across as one elaborate Instagram reel – as depthless as it is alluring and out of reach.
With the rise of OTT films, however, a troubling consequence emerges from the erasure of caste and class. Catering to the cosmopolitan gaze means that the new aesthetic doesn’t just apply to urban stories. “They all look like they use an Instagram filter to make the film, not just with urban stories… but they also have a very fixed small town aesthetic,” says Rajamani. It means that small town stories are told cheerily, colorfully, with an all too “wholesome” vibe that fits squarely within a Humans of Bombay sensibility.
“… they polish off all the darkness and blemishes, they make everything extra pretty, prettier than they really are.”
Shyam Singha Roy which was released on Netflix. features a relationship between an upper-caste savior hero and a woman from the “Devadasi” community – this latter part, however, is intensely aestheticized and made to look captivating even as it portrays an ugly, exploitative system.
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In other words, pain and suffering are aestheticized to a fault. They’re also confined to the realms of a very small section of people. When the pain isn’t as universal, it is obvious, horrific, and grotesque. Films featuring marginalized protagonists are no longer universal and, according to Rajamani, are commodified and packaged to horrify a Savarna audience. This is especially true for OTT releases, as opposed to theater releases that make it onto OTT platforms later. A Tamil anthology called Paava Kadhaigal is another case in point. Featuring four short films about honor killings, Rajamani points out how they waste no time in getting to the gory parts for shock value without investing in the humanity of the characters and their lives beforehand.
Another anthology series on Netflix, called Pitta Kathalu, features stories that are so deliberately “modernized” that they are painfully awkward to watch. This is because their fundamental understanding of modern sensibilities is superficial – swearing, intimacy, and an overall aesthetic that feels limiting and inorganic. And yet, the set pieces are elaborate, expensive, and glamorous more often than not, even when the story tries to explore the decidedly unglamorous, ugly side of love, jealousy, and lust.
This superficial aesthetic isn’t a new trend, but it’s a natural continuation of an older one for the social media and platform age.
The global expansion of Bollywood over the decades has relied heavily on caste and class erasure, as Apeksha Priyadarshini, a cinema studies scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University points out. They were “the picture of Indianness, which automatically assumed upper caste and upper class.”
These early crop of “class” films, therefore, were instrumental in cementing a vaguely ahistorical, apolitical notion of Indianness. Against the backdrop of the Babri Masjid demolition and the anti-Mandal Commission protests in the 90s, the “class” films of this era established upper class and caste aesthetics firmly in the audience’s minds as “Indian.”
Now, this aesthetic has turned into something with a less overt identity; it glosses over difference. “But what they [filmmakers and producers] remain deliberately ambiguous about is, who are these people who want to watch this? Who are the people who they assume to constitute as their audience, that becomes very important in terms of defining these films,” Priyadarshini notes. This makes it clear that the cinema is not meant for everyone; they are escapist fantasies for an emergent, internationalized Indian audience that is mostly upper class and caste – not by design, but by default.
“Class films” and now, class TV it would appear, seem to be training their gaze toward the “new” Indian generation. In the worlds of these stories, the individual is the story. Political or other contexts are absent, and we view individuals through a heavily filtered lens that lends an air of honesty. But that’s just it – it only remains an air.
It might be, therefore, that Gehraiyaan signals the arrival of a new class film that appears to challenge the status quo, but which really doesn’t. “Here’s an Instagram film, beyond the Instagram reel. Everything is perfect, effortless brushing off things that don’t look nice,” Srinivas notes. These films are relatable, but not too much. They are accessible, but only to an extent. They pique the interest by talking about complexity and many universal themes, but staying distinctly out of reach. “Is Gehraiyaan presenting an Instagram influencer’s life story?” asks Srinivas. “We identify to the extent that we know this person is not like us – we nevertheless follow this person. We’re familiar with this aesthetic – we too present our best selves. There’s at once this idea of luxury and plenty, but something that troubles them. It’s like our social media selves.”
In other words, suffering is among the many universal human experiences that is aestheticized and sanitized by privilege. Which is not to say that privilege precludes suffering. Zadie Smith, notes “it is possible to penetrate the privilege bubble and even pop it – whereas the suffering bubble is impermeable.” The problem is, the films and series on offer increasingly refuse to pop the privilege bubble while exploring suffering. With the coming of another “vibe” that is transcending language and region, the ecosystem of film criticism remaining placid about the difference spells trouble for how stories are told, and for whom.