You are always performing a version of yourself on social media: Jyoti Dogra

The theatre artist’s popular piece, ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein’, is part of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival’s online showcase this year

Jyoti Dogra and the poster of ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein with Geeta Tyagi’

By Reema Gowalla

A closed umbrella leaning against the wall, a bookshelf and a chair are some of the things you see in the backdrop as Geeta Tyagi — who otherwise teaches English, Math and Science to schoolchildren — sits in front of her phone camera today to give you some makeup tips. What starts off as a tutorial soon transcends from hacks to hide double chin and low cheekbones to her dream of becoming a peace ambassador and someday visiting Japan and Agra. All within the 20-minute runtime, Geeta smiles and weeps and lays bare her hidden desires in this powerful online performance.

A brilliant representation of life’s unfiltered realities that often fail to make the cut on social media, acclaimed theatre artist Jyoti Dogra’s ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein with Geeta Tyagi’ was one of the most watched performances at the Serendipity Arts Virtual (SAF) 2020. Ranga Shankara brings it back to your screen at the online chapter of its annual theatre festival. Jyoti, who is currently also working on a live version of this piece that centres on body politics and the concept of beautification, elaborates on the thoughts behind creating this piece — an intimate conversation with Geeta. Excerpts:

The irresistible urge to look perfect in pictures and videos online

Early in 2020 when I was in conversation with the team of Serendipity Arts Festival, ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein with Geeta Tyagi’ was being planned as a full-length theatre performance, which was partly in-person and partly recorded. This would have been performed live on stage, where you can see the actor through her phone screen as she sits with her back to the audience and makes the video. The camera element was only a part of a larger, live performance. But with the pandemic raging, it was decided to make the show virtual. My first reaction to that proposition was to withdraw from it because personally I feel technologically quite illiterate, and struggle to operate Facebook or Instagram on my own.

Anmol Vellani, who had curated the piece for SAF, then suggested that I work on the camera idea as a piece in itself, but for that to happen the context must change. One of the aspects about social media that has always intrigued me is the deep psychological and emotional impact it makes on people’s minds. Why are people incessantly putting up pictures and videos of themselves — of what they are wearing or travelling to? What is this need? There has to be something more than the posts getting a certain number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. By itself, social media had begun with the possibility of enabling you to get in touch with another person or sharing something with that person who may be a complete stranger. I was interested in understanding how this idea fascinates the human mind.

Over time, we have also seen some etiquette or rules being developed around how one should appear on social media. One should always present a version of themselves which is happy, charming, wise, respectable and praise-worthy, irrespective of their class and social or cultural background. But what happens if I want to open my heart out? I’ll no longer be the only person who is vulnerable here. The viewer will be equally so, because something very intimate has been shared with him or her as part of the conversation.

The dynamics of being acceptable on social media

I was interested in the dynamics of breaking these rules of how a video should be created; how it impacts the creator of the video and the viewer. Based on this context, I started building the character of this woman, named Geeta Tyagi, who has very little contact with the outside world. And one day, she suddenly decides to put up a video which she thinks is a one-on-one conversation with another person on the other side. The piece analyses how the medium itself is very performative. One is always performing a version of himself or herself on social media. ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein..’ begins with a performance and then it completely breaks down. If you are not aware that it is an act, by the end of the video, you’ll wonder if it’s still a makeup tutorial or something else; is something wrong with the woman in the video. The act of objectifying oneself has a much deeper impact on us, which may eventually alter our relationship with ourselves.

I had sent the first few draft versions of the video to my nephew and niece, and they were quick to respond, saying: “Masi, please don’t send this video to anyone. You’ll not have friends anymore. Everyone will make fun of you.” It means that this video is so real that it should not even be out there on social media, and these kids who have grown up in the generation of Instagram and Facebook inherently know what should or should not be shared on social media. But the wrongness of this video is what makes it right. The piece questions what version of us is acceptable or consumable on social media and what is not.

How the internet raises aspirations beyond boundaries

Nihayati Niji Baatein..’ starts off on a rather ridiculous note and then it delves deeper into the pulse of this character. She was once a finalist in the ‘Miss Ramesh Nagar’ beauty contest, and she wants to go to Japan, Iceland and Agra. These elements reflect how the internet has created so many aspirations in us, which are probably not always attainable. The whole world is accessible to us virtually, but not in our real life.

A quick look at some of these TikTok or similar videos will tell you how kids in small villages and towns are imitating the dance steps of their favourite movie stars with equal joy and energy. It’s like you are transplanting yourself into someone else’s life, recording it, putting it up on social media and then returning to your real life, and somehow there is no conflict in it. There is no representation of what happens in that gap between your virtual life and your real life. It’s always kept hidden or cast aside. This piece explores what happens when these aspects of social networking and our vulnerability start fusing together.

Watch ‘Nihayati Niji Baatein with Geeta Tyagi’ as part of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2021’s online edition from October 27 to 31. You can book your tickets here.

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