I was quite excited to watch Netflix's Mismatched. A bunch of students in their late-teens developing apps in an outstation school is an overdone narrative, sure. But even then, the show's predictable plot was its main selling point for me. What's better than watching young romance and friendship develop between a bunch of teenagers?
But the show became difficult to watch as soon as lead writer Gazal Dhaliwal moved from app development and relationships to complex issues such as homosexuality, cyber bullying and the toll of being a social media influencer — similar to Netflix's brilliant young-adult drama Sex Education. The writing started to feel rushed and sloppy, reducing plot points and characters only to their one-line descriptions instead of developing them into realistic human beings.
This isn't a one-off instance — mainstream Indian movies and TV shows are prone to inaccurate depictions of young adults. "Making young-adult movies in Bollywood is a different ball game altogether. The initial few discussions include who is going to play the lead. If it's a big well-known actor, then the budget is decided according to his salary. It's only when you have a known face in your movie that exhibitors will screen your films in their theaters and people will buy tickets," says Nupur Asthana, who wrote and directed Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (2011) under Yash Raj Films' now-defunct youth-focused subsidy Y-Films.
The reasoning makes sense when you think about how Dharma Productions got 30-year-old Tiger Shroff to play Rohan, a teenage boy, in their 2019 release Student of the Year 2. The film's plot is similar to its predecessor — an underprivileged boy gets a scholarship to an expensive private school, after which he struggles to fit in. Rohan's ripped body and his new school's Olympic-size race track are light years away from reality.
Hussain Dalal, who wrote the dialogues for young-adult film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), says a young-adult film should be true to its characters, and its conflicts should be relatable. "Movies are usually a dramatic representation of real life-incidents. Certain things can be totally fictitious and far from reality but when films are being made on day-to-day incidents, then people should be able to relate to them."
Dalal attributes Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani's relatability to him being 22 and director Ayan Mukerji being in his late 20s when it was made. "I was the same age as Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) was in the film's first half and Ayan was the same age that Bunny is in the second half, which helped us understand the character," he adds.
TV shows that were able to do justice to young-adult characters include the now-axed Channel V's dance-fiction Dil Dosti Dance (2011-2014), Star One's medical drama Dill Mill Gayye (2007-2010) and Zee TV's Hip Hip Hurray (1998-2001), which Asthana directed when she was 26. Much like Mismatched, Hip Hip Hurray focussed on a group of 12th graders, delving into teenage issues such as eating disorders, drug abuse and losing one's virginity.
"I'd heard about these issues during my teenage years and wanted to depict them in the show. I did a lot of research and also observed teenagers before writing a particular issue into my story," Asthana says.
Hip Hip Hurray aired once a week on Zee TV, a format that made it easier to invest thought and time into the storylines. "When you have to push out five episodes every week then keeping up with the quality becomes difficult. But here there was time to do research and create good episodes," says the show's assistant director Palki Malhotra, who also created Dil Dosti Dance. As part of her research process for the show, she attended college festivals across Mumbai to understand the "craze" students had for the dance competitions. She also cast professional dancers including Shakti Mohan, Kunwar Amar and Shantanu Maheshwari. "I could not have cast actors for a dance show," she says.
Budgetary constraints meant that Malhotra and her cast members had to stage dance performances across college festivals in Mumbai to create buzz around the show. "I don't know why there are budget issues, especially in this genre. Maybe it's because studios have had losses or maybe because producers don't see this as catering to their ticket-buying audience. In the US, teenage shows are seen as a money-making genre. Look at High School Musical. They do great marketing campaigns and also invest in the film's production," says Asthana.
Both she and Malhotra say accurate depictions of young-adult lives only come when there's minimal interference from producers. "Aditya Chopra gave me complete freedom when I was creating Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge and so did (UTV Motion Pictures co-founder) Zarina Mehta when I did Hip Hip Hurray. They trusted my work," Asthana says.
The good thing is that in the last few years, digital platforms like YouTube have begun representing young adults in an authentic way. Great examples include Dice Media channel's Little Things, The Viral Fever's Kota Factory and its sister-channel The Timeliner's Flames.