On March 24, India went into lockdown to battle the dreaded Covid-19. And with it went any semblance of regular life as we know it for the foreseeable future. As society shut off its door with ‘social-distancing’ and ‘work from home’ became the norm, millions of Indians found themselves searching for normalcy in the face of a growing pandemic. While the news blared with growing concerns for those stranded homeless on the streets, many individuals found themselves battling loneliness and connection at home. Yet, solace for many was to be found on dating apps online, as humans looked for meaning from the safe confines of the home. One storyteller —filmmaker Jessica Sadana took it upon herself to document the world of online dating to make meaning of love in the times of coronavirus. We ‘connected’ with the artiste to find out what she discovered during her social experiment in these times. Here are the excerpts.
“I got on to dating apps when they first showed up in India a few years ago. It was a different time, there were far fewer people on these apps. Dating as a cultural more didn’t exist in India. Nobody really knew the etiquettes of dating. I too had found someone on Tinder four years ago, and we were in a serious relationship. It was about investing your time and building relationships, and I had met interesting people who later became friends,” Jessica starts.
“I got back on a few apps once again, just about a year ago. And this time I realised it was different. I was battling thoughts about the relevancy of the apps, whether the intrusion and being vulnerable about opening up was worth it all. You start thinking about fulfilment, about engaging with people, the possibility of losing someone and the heartbreak that’s associated with losing a person if things go awry.” As life became busier, her relationships with the apps waned too. As with many of us, pursuing relationships in the face of 24/7 work cultures is very hard.
Following the lockdown, Jessica noticed a sudden surge on dating apps. Many of her friends had got on to the app during this period, and “people were on the app to overcome boredom and to respond to loneliness.” Get on to the app yourself, and you will find many bios stating the obvious — “that they are there to find connection during social-distancing.” She says, “This was when I started my inquiries under #loveinthetimeofcorona, to meet new people and inquire of others to share their experiences on the app during this time.”
With ‘no physical human contact’ to be made and a growing number of single people locked in, many would rather ‘quarantine and chill’ than continue the no-relationship dry spell in an end-of-the-world scenario. And these notions were to be found true by the apps themselves.
As per Tinder India, daily conversations have ramped up to an average of 39% and the average length of conversation is 28% longer. Similarly, Bumble saw a 25% increase in the average messages sent during the initial period of social distancing (13-22 Mar). If trends are to go by, these numbers show exactly how the world’s youngest population is seeking connection digitally.
As she started the crowdsourced project and sharing her findings on her Instagram stories, many others came forward with their own experiences. “We’ve changed the way we communicate and interact with each other, thanks to ‘social distancing.’ Where once, everybody was busy, now many have got on to the app only in response to pining human connection and relationships,” she claims.
With everyone avoiding human touch and contact during these days, it becomes apparent how much these simple things mean to us all. Beyond frivolous hook-ups and catch-up dates, there is an obvious search for meaning as dates get a makeover on ‘video chats’ and ‘distanced cook-ins.’
As Jessica started curating what her friends were sharing, the human dynamics were there for all to see, and they crisscrossed across various apps — Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Aisle, Happn, OkCupid, Coffee & Bagel, and Hinge. Responses started trickling in to reveal different stories from different quarters.
“I was chatting with this guy on Bumble. We haven’t ever met each other in real life, but we both are visual artistes and he had seen my stories on #loveinthetimesofcorona. So I suggested we exchange new photos of the life around us, one for each day of the 21-days lockdown period. Pictures that were mundane to find a fresher perspective and knowing each other.” She admits, “By the end of 21-days, we would have at least 42 photos between each other.” Jessica continues, “We may never meet in person ever. But it helps find meaning and connection. Everybody’s had an experience when you have this brilliant connection online, but the interest fizzles out upon meeting in real life.” Yet, she admits, this quasi-relationship could help both of them tide over the loneliness they feel from being cooped up indoors, away from their families. “Later this little collaboration could serve as a mood board to force a creative piece in the future,” she shares.
As she started to share her stories, others started sharing theirs’ as well. “I had always wondered whether the rules of dating were different for those who identified as homosexuals. As a few of her gay friends shared their dating insights, it left her asking more questions to delve deeper. Were people more candid with each other on apps such as Grindr? What kind of a connection were people looking for? The responses would vary — while a few wanted to get down others were looking for partners to share more, even if remotely.”
Then there were other insights to be gleaned to which you become sensitised.
“There is surely a certain class-divide and I’ve become aware and more empathetic to those inhabiting the apps. People with wrong grammar, cheesy pickup lines and sordid expectations, are mostly swiped left, but I started to realise my privilege,” she claims. “Aesthetic and mindset is oftentimes a direct function of one’s exposure, and I became conscious of it.”
Then there were times when things went strange. “A few of my friends shared how some users were on a hunt for jobs on these dating apps. You can’t blame them, we live in different times. I’ve found people updating their bios with their curriculum vitae, possibly first-time users,” she guesses. “We shouldn’t be the ones to judge. What we need is empathy to understand people better.”
In one bizarre incident, “a long-lost friend found my stories, and tried to set me up with his friend in Delhi. Being in Mumbai, I didn’t find much merit in this, yet he explained how it doesn’t really matter now with the shutdown. Thus, we engaged, and we found many interests.” Jessica’s findings find resonance on thousands of single Indians making a beeline on the apps to beat loneliness.
Many dating apps have changed their rules, symptomatic of the times we live in. While Tinder has opened its ‘Passport’ feature, allowing people to connect from across the countries, ‘Happn’ has allowed people to connect even if they haven’t passed paths. Bumble, on the other hand, has witnessed a clear increase in the video chat amongst its users.
Yet, Jessica’s social inquiries find resonance with her throwback years as a filmmaker and the hints of her exploration of human relationships and connections can be found dating back to her student film ‘Haal Faqueeran Da based on Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poem.
“I feel that I would truly love to create at this point, since I’m free of the burdens of the daily rigmarole. I could be writing, painting, reading or engaging, however I like. Yet, I am unable to do so productively because we are not cut off from the larger world. Anxiety and unrest seeps in, making it harder to create. Hence, I am just using the time to reassess and assimilate my goals and properties as an artiste and a filmmaker.”
“Back when I was a student at FTII, we were tasked by our college to reimagine a song which was already part of popular imagination with a student film. This is when I found the Punjabi, romantic poet and playwright Shiv Kumar Batalvi,” she explains.
Shiv Kumar Batalvi was the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967, and he has contributed in tomes to the lexicon of Punjabi arts and culture. His work is epitomised by romantic poetry, noted for its heightened passion, pathos, separation and lover’s agony. To quote Shiv Kumar from an interview with the BBC, “We are dying a slow death. Human connection is all that defines us. (sic)”
“Called the Keats of India, Batalvi was a romantic figure, who himself was a byproduct of the Partition of India, penning many poems themed on Romanticism,” Jessica explains. As per a prevalent myth, Shiv Kumar had fallen in love with a girl whom he later discovered to have been married and settled abroad. Heartbroken, the poet started searching for the many aspects of his lover in his future suitors.
In the age of dating app culture, one might well muse that we are window shopping for love.
The filmmaker adds, “I feel heartbreak is universal. At some point all of us have felt it. It is the only emotion which has such a unique and unanimous physical manifestation. And this celebration of heartbreak that Batalvi espoused with his poetry and his persona attracts me to him. It is what led me to making this piece.”
“My idea for the re-imagination of Batalvi’s Haal Faqueeran Da found traction and we crewed up with fellow students. We wanted to capture the essence of relationships and find an allegorical take of a ‘journey’ through the exploration of a train ride,” she reveals her inspiration. “The film was always suppose to experiment with the idea of genres. We were attempting to blur the line between docu and fiction. Some of the piece is shot purely docu-style, as the crew took a train journey. While the other is staged with actors. The idea was to capture the essence of what a moving home felt like. What a journey entails. Is home where our people are or is what we leave behind? Batalvi always questioned the idea of home, as he was personally very heartbroken in the context of the partition as well. That was always the backdrop of his work,” she explains.
The final film tried to delve into the idea of ‘love through people.’ “The fact that a person leaves the confines of his home, and interacts with others outside, but changes as he comes back home, doesn’t just change him. It also has a subconscious impact on others in his life.”
It has often been said that no man is an island, and the film with its exploration of themes such as journey, home, relationships and nostalgia reveals back to ideas that have forever held credence. As Jessica questions, “I’m privileged to have a house, where I can stay. But I find myself debating the very idea of home. Although I live in Mumbai, I consider Amritsar where my parents are to be my home.”
Circling back to our conversation on love and relationships, Jessica says, “We are witnessing a very important time in the history of this planet. Collectively a lot of things will have changed once this is over. No one right now can predict what human relationships will look like post this. Will we view each other with more suspicion or more empathy? What will human touch mean post this quarentine time? What home would mean, all will change. Health and relationships /social interaction have never been so actively connected in our lifetimes. All we could do right now is work with huge amounts of empathy, vulnerability and compassion.
©️ 2020. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.