Meet Miss Malini
By Vivek Prakash
Where I live is not the India of most people’s imaginations or memories, and it’s hardly the India I once knew as a kid.
My Mumbai has easygoing cafes, organic markets, swish malls, expensive restaurants serving great food and wine, fabulous nightclubs and raucous house parties. The idea that this India is any less “real” than bad infrastructure or the world of Slumdog Millionaire is misguided.
India has many crosses to bear – I acknowledge that. I’ll be the first one to complain about crumbling roads, horrid traffic, corrupt politicians, impossible bureaucracy and the gulf between rich and poor. But you’d better get used to the idea that slowly but surely, generational change is taking place. My Mumbai is probably the India of the future.
When I’m outside this country and I tell people I live in Mumbai, their first response is usually a mix of bewilderment and concern – I assume this is from the reputation it has as a glorified dump with quaint colorful traditions, best cliched in popular movies like Slumdog and Monsoon Wedding and books like Shantaram and Beyond the Beautiful Forevers which mostly deal with life in the slums. The initial reaction is usually followed up with something like “you must love it as a photographer.” Yes, I suppose I do – it’s a magical dump of over a billion, easy fodder for lazy pictures of beggars at car windows and smiling street kids.
The so-called “real” India. Guilty as charged – my archive contains more than its fair share of these pictures. But they tell only one part of an incredibly complicated story. And it’s not easy to have access to shoot the other stuff.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working closely with someone to tell you a different story through my pictures. I’d like you to meet MissMalini.
35-year-old Malini Agarwal exemplifies what aspirational India is all about. She’s bubbly, energetic, and describes herself as “India’s blogging princess” and a “social media Jedi”. Huffington Post last year named her as “without a doubt, India’s most famous blogger” – you can’t argue with that, her blog, MissMalini.com, gets over 550,000 unique visitors a month. Hers is a business that exists in the “new” economy opened up by the internet.
She’s self made – after having grown up overseas as the daughter of a diplomat, she returned to Delhi, from where she worked and traveled as a dancer. She came to Mumbai, and as it was for so many of us, it was love at first sight. Seduced by the city with all its grit and glory, she moved down to work as a content producer for a website. That led to working for the website of a popular tabloid newspaper and then at Channel V.
A friend suggested she try her hand at blogging – so she did – and in a short while, she found that her blog was getting over 200,000 hits a month. So she devoted more time and energy to it. Nowshad Rizwanullah, her 32-year-old husband, is an ex-banker who quit his job to work on the blog with her full-time.
You can say what you will about the content MissMalini provides – a steady diet of Bollywood gossip, fashion, food and entertainment – but you can’t argue with the numbers she’s pulling. Her target? The upwardly mobile 18-35 Indian woman. Her formula of making the stars and the lifestyle accessible to the lay person is really working.
Social media is at the heart of everything she does: there was hardly a moment when I didn’t see her using a laptop or a phone. In the back seat of a car late at night, heading home from a cover photo shoot for a beauty zine, her face is lit up in the glow of light from her phone. On the floor of a night club, she’s tweeting. At a sushi making class at a five-star hotel, a picture goes up on Instagram, even as she herself is followed by a film crew. When she’s in the office – located on the third floor of a building with no lift in a tidy suburban apartment complex, where sari-clad women are doing household chores as you pass – she’s sitting at her desk, leading a small team that knows everything that happens in Bollywood, and all the cool goings-on in this city and beyond.
In light of all the recent news and developments about the Indian woman’s place in society, it’s been nice to be able to put the spotlight on a woman who breaks all the often-repeated stereotypes about what it means to be a woman here. Not to detract from the gravity of those stories, but it’s important to remember that there are many different narratives about women. It would be irresponsible not to reinforce positive ones.
You won’t find Malini cooking Nowshad’s dinner at home. She’s either too busy blogging from her office, having dinner out with him as they review a new restaurant, interviewing a Bollywood personality or at an event on the social circuit. At night, you’ll find her in a club somewhere, enjoying the evening with her friends and Nowshad.
In writing about celebrity, Bollywood and all things related, Malini’s becoming something of a celebrity herself. Even in India, social media is proving to be a transformational force. I’ve spent a lot of time with her over the last few weeks, and I can honestly say I’ve had a great time hanging out with her and her friends. I hope the story I’ve put together tells you something about this other equally “real” India. It’s full of people like Miss Malini and her friends.
And it’s full of people like me – as much an aspirant as anyone else in this city. I’m strapped into the front seat as a heady mix of technology, liberalism and energy combine with the world’s largest upwardly mobile class to transform it from a cliched magical dump to a complex work in progress where each part is as real as the next.
Updated February 12: Reflects change in visitor figures to the site and changes company name