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Indian pop culture has a nostalgia problem and it’s getting out of hand

A still from the web series ‘Taj Mahal 1989’.

A still from the web series ‘Taj Mahal 1989’.  

New web-series ‘Taj Mahal 1989’ is merely the latest symptom of an industry-wide malaise

For a show set three decades ago, this feels particularly ironic, but it has to be said: in an earlier era, Taj Mahal 1989 could have felt like an interesting failure. This, however, is the streaming era, when even the most prolific binge-watcher necessarily misses the vast majority of new shows and movies being released every week. From the audience’s point of view, therefore, the notion of an interesting failure is a luxury at best — critics must adapt accordingly. And by those standards, Netflix India’s latest original, a series about four interlinked romances set in and around Lucknow University, comfortably misses the mark.

Two of those romances form a campus love triangle, between Rashmi (Anshul Chauhan), Angad (Anud Singh Dhaka) and Dharam (Paras Priyadarshan). Rashmi and Dharam are in a relationship, while Angad has the (mostly respectful) hots for Rashmi. Unfortunately, all three of the young leads lack dialogue delivery skills. They look and sound like present-day Mumbai youngsters. Together, they proved irritating enough for me to fast-forward their stories after episode 3; I have no shame in admitting this and I’d strongly urge you to do the same.

Which leaves us with the middle-aged romances — Akhtar (Neeraj Kabi) and Sarita (Geetanjali Kulkarni) play philosophy and physics professors, respectively, married to each other for dog’s years and about to confront stagnation. Sudhakar (Danish Husain), Akhtar’s college buddy and a gold medallist, has since abandoned philosophy and taken over his father’s old tailoring business. His wife Mumtaz (Sheeba Chaddha) used to be a sex worker.

Linguistic charms

These four characters are well thought out, in comparison, and their linguistic charms — Akhtar’s Urdu and Sudhakar-Mumtaz’s Awadhi delivering a pan-Lucknow spread of sonorous dialogue — are considerable. And yet, ultimately, their stories, too, lose steam because of the same deficiencies that plague the other half of the show — amateurish writing, slapdash editing and a frankly juvenile conviction that a certain number of era-appropriate object shots will add up to period authenticity.

And while we’re on the topic, I should point out that Taj Mahal 1989 is merely the latest symptom of an industry-wide malaise: Indian pop culture has a 90s nostalgia problem and it’s fast getting out of hand. Our engagement with this period is myopic at best and potentially dangerous at worst. Films like Chhichhore (2019) and shows like Yeh Meri Family (2018) are content peddling a cotton candy version of the 90s — an endless parade of iconic advertisements (Taj Mahal’s title credits include an appearance by the ‘Rasna girl’), close-up shots of legacy tech like Walkmans, and wide-eyed references to the wonders of a newly-globalised economy. The 2017 Prateek Kuhad music video ‘Tum Jab Paas’ could very well have been an alternative opening credits sequence for Taj Mahal 1989 (and I’m convinced it’s a source of ‘inspiration’). The same lingering shots of pencil boxes and era-appropriate candy dominate; the same hollow, saccharine nostalgia is shoved down our throats.

It makes one want to grab these filmmakers by their collars and ask: What about Babri Masjid? What about the rise of the BJP? Our collective indoctrination, the long road that has led India to the events of February 2020, may have started earlier but it kicked into overdrive in the 90s — to its credit, Taj Mahal at least tries to incorporate political violence in its plot (it fails miserably, that’s the only thing you need to know). But almost every period drama (Sacred Games, apart) glosses over all of this entirely and asks instead, “Melody itni chocolatey kyun hai?” Remember, collective amnesia goes a long way towards achieving collective apathy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all nostalgia is stupid and potentially dangerous. But this particular nostalgia is certainly both of those things. And until Indian TV gives me something that addresses the real issues of the 90s, I’m just going to fast forward the fake nostalgia.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:27:56 AM |

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