Like the name itself, Singhal was bumpy and boisterous. She lived in a major Indian city where cars staggered along in the horrendous traffic and customers haggled with shopkeepers. Her home consisted of too much furniture and a frenzied family that shouted, sobbed and sighed in the span of a single conversation.
She herself was no more tamed. Her frizzy hair escaped her ponytail to frame her tubby face and compliment her overgrown sideburns. Her signature style included bright Christmas socks during the summertime and faded basketball shorts.
Her fellow basketball players could never fathom how someone of her bulk had competed at every level of the sport. It was probably the advantage of bulldozing contenders off court. She ate out of odd-smelling lunchboxes with her friends while they collectively orchestrated cringeworthy schemes to declare her love for boys that didn’t know her name.
The high school social dynamics of dating and drama never included her. Being the fat, funny friend had its upsides: With sex appeal not being a concern, Singhal was free to be too much.
Like the name itself, Mahi was plain and planned. She lived in a small American city where cars glided through the freeway and customers exchanged niceties with store owners. Her house consisted of only the essential furniture and restrained roommates that communicated curtly — and exclusively — over text.
She herself was just as trained. Her glossy hair flew out of her chiseled, smoothened face as she walked briskly to college with a blueberry smoothie in hand. Her signature style included the college uniform: a flimsy black cropped top and wide-legged jeans.
Her friends didn’t ever fathom she was shedding pounds drastically. It was probably the result of almost running herself off the treadmill every morning. She ate out of prepackaged salad boxes with her friends while they cringed over boys that declared their love while she hadn’t saved their names on her phone.
The college social dynamics of shopping and scandal always included her. Being the frivolous, fashionista friend had its upsides: With sex appeal being the only concern, Mahi was free to retouch.
When I knew I would be moving from India to the U.S. to attend Berkeley, I began transforming almost everything about myself.
To have the representation of “the college experience” that is pictured in movies, I treated my own life like one. I scripted and directed every aspect of myself for a new narrative for my character.
With a drastic setting change like that, everything I was dissatisfied with became amplified as I amped up for a fresh script of plot and cast. I took on embarrassing amounts of crash diets, laser hair-removal surgeries, keratin hair treatments and even online courses on fashion, makeup and beauty.
I thought coming to a world of 30,000 students required a persona clipped for American convenience and easy digestibility. I abandoned the person I was and carefully curated my personality to become someone I envisioned for “the college experience”.
At first, the aerial shots were glamorous: a montage of clinking glasses and fist thumping, with exotic beachy backdrops, bikinis for costumes and the special effects all in Technicolor.
A few months into these cameo moments and cinematic images, the credits still refused to roll. Nobody yelled, “Cut!” Instead, I was left with empty dialogues, “Oh my god, I love your dress!” I had jump cuts from one coffee chat to another, voice-overs by DJs asking me if I’m ready and background music of Mr. Brightside on repeat. That’s when the theater lights came down to shine on the ugly truth. It led to the epiphany my movie had been missing so far.
My clasped control on my manicured identity had given me multiple eating disorders and a vapid social circle with no one to really talk to. I had never considered what would happen after my coming-of-age film reached its resolution, and it was anticlimactic, to say the least.
Singhal and Mahi would be unrecognizable to viewers in the alternate space that either character occupied. But they are both extremely familiar to me because they both have been me, and are still me.
I am trying to reconcile their conflict instead of pitting them against each other in binaries of antagonist and protagonist, ugly and pretty, pitiable and popular, happy and sad, old and new.
Spoiler alert: With me being the worst critic of both these characters, it’s not easy. But I am learning to internalize that my movie exists in continuous, unending time. It has bloopers I don’t want seen, scenes I’ve deleted if anyone asks, useless b-roll and cliffhangers alike. It cannot be choreographed.
I cannot negate any prequels that have come and need to allow any sequels that will to occur naturally. It is experiential and immersive, with me being the only viewer, rather than performative and for an audience. As it turns out, “the college experience” is just an extension of my experience as Mahika Singhal.