Pandemic Aesthetics & Authenticity – How A Video Relieves Lockdown Anxieties

In the appearance of authenticity, ‘Kasoor’ cures some anxieties exacerbated because of the pandemic. PC: Gabriel Benois. Source: Unsplash.

In the midst of another extension to the ongoing lockdown, Prateek Kuhad’s ‘Kasoor’ harmonised optimistic vocals with sentimental lyrics on an uplifting composition.

Kuhad had been performing ‘Kasoor’ at his live shows for a while. But the release was a surprise on YouTube. It impinged on emotions that have transformed into anxieties because of the ongoing situation. The anxieties are a product of simultaneous emotions, ranging from boredom as there’s nothing to do, to nervousness about the economy, to worrying about holding a job, to withdrawal from social life.

The video for ‘Kasoor’ is crowdsourced and features well-known people from social media circles. It utilises the media aesthetic of looking directly into the camera from what seems to be their homes, which has been normalised during the pandemic. In the appearance of authenticity, the video cures some anxieties exacerbated because of the pandemic.

This new media aesthetic developed and normalised in the initial days of the lockdown, and is aptly called the Zoom aesthetic, as the platform began to be used for both, labour and leisure. But it’s not about the aesthetic of symmetrical tiles organised like a perfect game of Tetris – that is seen in Google Hangouts, Skype, Whatsapp video call etc. The forceful entries into our home, faces constantly staring back at us, and our inability to receive social cues is novel, especially because anxieties increase with increasing reported cases. Kuhad utilises the aesthetic, although not it in the exact format of adjacent tiles.

In the video ‘Kasoor’, face after face look directly into the camera and offer a glimpse into their homes and lives. This is a break in the Zoom aesthetic as the watching is one-sided. Kuhad is not alone in utilising the aesthetic; Ritviz uploaded ‘Thandi Hawa’ over a month before Kuhad’s ‘Kasoor’. ‘Thandi Hawa’ is also crowdsourced, and features people dancing in front of a camera. Kusha Kapila and Srishti Dixit of ‘Behensplaining’ occupy sides of a split screen, but look over their shoulders to squabble with each other.

However, what Kuhad does differently is deliver authenticity to the aesthetic. The people who appear in ‘Kasoor’ respond to prompts about relationships and romance, and their reactions are an emotional whirlwind. It is the raw emotions of crying, drifting away into nostalgia, and laughing that delivers authenticity to the aesthetic.

Those who appear in the video know they are being recorded and will be seen by others yet, they reveal their vulnerable selves. To be emotional in front of a camera reinforces self-reflexivity (‘I am consciously doing this’), transparency (‘I have nothing to hide’), and performing-not-performing (‘I do not care that the camera is there’). However, authenticity is merely an illusion of real-ness.

Despite the raw emotions, the many different responses are edited to fit into the overall narrative of Prateek Kuhad’s discography, i.e., love is painful, but also beautiful. While the narrative is true, it also taps into our current anxieties. The narrative altogether appears authentic, but functions on the premise of people watching each other – a type of surveillance.

It is noteworthy that some of the initial research on authenticity in media was in response to Reality TV that became widespread in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The anxiety of another attack authorised the need to keep a watch on others while simultaneously declaring ‘I have nothing to hide’. Subsequently, media profited off this surveillance culture and vis-à-visthe spectacle of Reality TV, viewers watched others as entertainment to remedy some anxieties.

Reality TV and the inherent surveillance are an import to India’s media culture, but anxieties of the pandemic are organic, and media responses are native. When Zoom aesthetic combines with the presentation of authenticity, we get a new surveillance culture for the pandemic. The narrative of ‘Kasoor’ provokes an emotional response, but also relieves some anxieties through the act of watching others.

The pandemic has contributed to the development of a surveillance culture, albeit similar forms of watching each other have always been festering. There are now methods of self-reporting in some countries that require citizens to update local authorities about their wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. The process of contact tracing has mutated into apps accessible by the general public to avoid certain locations and people, and thereby know who is infected.

Such developments are necessary, and difficult to argue against, but inadvertently, they contribute to the emergence of a surveillance culture. Therefore, watching people whether live (on stand-up shows, streams, webinars) or recorded (on entertainment content) enables a type of surveillance, and remedies some anxieties exacerbated because of the pandemic.

One of the shared anxieties of the pandemic is a successful conclusion of these so-called unprecedented times. The anxiety is shared because it as personal as it is social. A successful conclusion depends on others acting in our benefit, and vice versa. But with the individual inseparable from the public, such logics promote a surveillance culture in a way to ensure others are doing what is expected of them. So, when we watch Kuhad, Ritviz, or any entertainment content that directly addresses the camera, especially during the lockdown, we are watching others declare ‘I am home following protocol’.

As we enter September, while yesterday was still March, our anxieties are aggravated because of another possible extension of the lockdown. We are at the mercy of others. However, as we consume media with a new aesthetic based on authenticity and a sense of real-ness, it is worthwhile to wonder how it affects us. What is normalised in the process?  

There have been several experiments with media in the lockdown that have introduced us to new modes of consumption. But it is difficult to imagine a Prateek Kuhad ballad without characters standing-in for our insecurities. These ideas about aesthetics, anxieties, and authenticity are, ultimately, not wholly and just about ‘Kasoor’. There’s more.

Ryan Arron D'Souza

Ryan D'Souza earned his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of South Florida. He writes about South Asian media, and, when feeling extremely pretentious, high theory that makes little sense.

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The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.

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