“Some people made Dalgona coffee and sourdough to get through the lockdown, while some of us drowned ourselves in memes,” says advertising professional Rebecca Daniel. Since 2019, she has had a “note” saved on her phone titled “Filters that should exist”. In August last year, when Instagram launched its own augmented reality (AR) platform, SparkAR, which allowed people to develop and upload filters, she knew she had to get started.
“Filters are kind of like ‘interactive memes’ that helped get my mind off the news and the negative energy it brought with it. Apart from that, I mostly got through lockdown by annoying my dog and taking videos of me annoying him,” she says.
Daniel created what would become one of the most popular filters during the pandemic—”Sima Roast”— in which Sima Taparia (or an AR version of her at any rate) from the popular Netflix series Indian Matchmaking roasts users. Within the first week of launch, the filter got 20 million interactions.
“Celebrities and influencers shared it, including the contestants from the show Indian Matchmaking—Nadia, Aparna, Pradhyuman and Rashi,” says Daniel. “Right from the intersectional feminist to the hardcore Bolly fan, everyone wanted to give their opinion on the way the arranged marriage culture in India is portrayed. This filter, with its playful and edgy take on the show, neither dissed it, nor approved of it, appealing to a wide bunch of people who loved, hated, or loved to hate the show.”
Instagram’s face filters—AR effects that allow creators to make custom filters for the face, and users to share them—have been very popular during the pandemic-induced lockdown. It helps that the platform they are made on, SparkAR, is free to download—anyone can create and publish a filter.
“More than one billion people have already used AR effects and filters powered by SparkAR on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Portal,” says Manish Chopra, director and head of partnerships at Facebook India. They have been so popular that brands such as OnePlus, Swiggy and Puma and films like Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and Dabangg 3 have used them for promotions.
“In June this year, as part of our commitment to invest in the future of India’s digital economy, we partnered with CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) to introduce a curriculum in AR, so it could help students to understand the technology and be aware of its scope and potential applications across various sectors. We believe it could serve as an opportunity to broaden their exposure and get introduced to digital problem-solving skills for the future,” adds Chopra.
It’s fairly simple to use, and its democratic character is appealing. “You have to learn a little bit of SparkAR and basic graphic designing is also a must. Plus, there are way too many tutorials on YouTube also, so you can always look them up as well,” says Anuj Chhabra, 24, social media strategist and content creator at digital media and entertainment company Pocket Aces. For more advanced filters, knowledge of software like Blender, Cinema 4D or C4D, and Adobe After Effects generally helps. If creators know how to write an action script, the results are faster and better.
The filter Chhabra created tells users their desi nicknames, and it helped him both channel his creativity and skills as well as make the lockdown a little easier to endure. “This whole lockdown I have been swamped with work, I am already super into this content and what’s trending and what’s working on social, and seeing all these international filters I thought of making something bit desi and I thought nothing is more desi than the nicknames Indian parents give to their kids—Montu, Chotuu, Bittoo. I am ANU at home by the way!” he says.
As people stayed home, and glued to their screens, these filters kept both users and creators engaged, with filters like Guess The Gibberish and Which ___ Am I. In India, a lot of these even had hyperlocal versions—Dimple Meera Jom, whose page “di_writers” puts out content for the young Malayali audience, created a “marriage prediction” filter, a throwback to the FLAMES challenge students would play in school. Within the first few days, it had close to 200,000 interactions.
“I have created a few filters for a Bengal-based page, filters like ‘Quarantine Cravings’, ‘Bengali Gibberish’, ‘Never Have I Ever’, ‘Quarantine Days’ got very good responses,” says Smriti Jha, 21, a student based in Kolkata. “Later, I started creating my own; my first filter, ‘Guess The Bollywood Gibberish’, has the highest reach.... Another filter — “Complete The Phrase” — has reached 200,000 (interactions) too.”
But it is not just fun and games— the filters have also been used for political engagement. Delhi-based new media artist Akshat Nauriyal, for instance, released the #withkashmir filter in August after the unprecedented shutdown in Kashmir in 2019 and then a Reject CAA/NRC/NPR filter in December.
Through the pandemic, the filters have played a larger role, of keeping creators engaged, increasing their reach and motivating them to create more. “I have been getting positive responses from people from different parts of the world. Some unaware users asking me how to find the filter, and some who just wanted to let me know that they couldn’t get themselves to stop using it. I also heard from a couple of friends that influencers in Singapore and South Africa were sharing it,” says Daniel.
As she works to turn the “note” on her phone into reality by publishing many of the filters there, she adds: “The strangest, yet somehow most endearing, thing was when people I barely knew or spoke to messaged me saying they have been proudly telling others ‘they know the person who made this’.”
The filters, it seems, helped forge bonds during harsh times.