96 to Oke Oka Jeevitham, South Cinema Goes Back to the Future With Nineties’ Nostalgia

What draws filmmakers to travel back to the Nineties with their films? It is much more than just nostalgia, directors say.
96 to Oke Oka Jeevitham, South Cinema Goes Back to the Future With Nineties’ Nostalgia

Three grown men gaze longingly at a small television set, unwilling to tear their eyes away from the screen. They’re watching the “Nirma, Nirma, Nirma, washing powder Nirma!” jingle playing on TV as a girl in a white frock spins on her feet. It’s an advertisement that any Nineties’ kid will instantly recall. The scene is from director Shree Karthick’s time travel Telugu film Oke Oka Jeevitham (2022, released in Tamil as Kanam), where the protagonists go back in time to their precious childhood.

Arguably, the Nineties isn’t so far in the past for films set in that time to be called ‘period films’. Yet, it was a decade that feels distinctive because it was at the cusp of rapid technological advancement and the liberalisation of the economy. It’s no surprise then that the Nineties’ kids who are now filmmakers keep going back to that era to rekindle the magic of those years.

As a teenager in the Nineties, Prem Kumar remembers chasing after aeroplanes he saw in the sky on his bicycle. “I grew up in Thanjavur and a plane was a rare sight back then. We would race down the road on our cycles. It was a time when things were beginning to change, a period of transition – but there was also a lot of innocence in us,” said the director who made the blockbuster Tamil romance film 96 (2018).

In the film, a pair of high school sweethearts is unexpectedly separated by circumstances in the year 1996. They have no way of getting in touch, and it’s only 22 years later that they meet during their school reunion and catch up with each other. Such a plot would have been improbable had it been set in contemporary times — thanks, social media — when almost everybody has a digital footprint. “You can classify the Sixties to the Eighties as one block, but the Nineties stand out because our world was becoming modern and yet, our way of dealing with things was still conventional. I would call it the golden period when it was exciting to discover the new but the familiarity with the old was still there,” said Kumar.

96, a bittersweet romance with Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in the lead, is tinged with nostalgia for a time of ink pens and Ilaiyaraaja songs; a time of unreliable LAN lines and no Tinder or WhatsApp. Not only did it earn Rs 50 crore at the box office, it also led to several ex-students holding their own school reunions. It was remade in Kannada as 99 (2019) and Jaanu (2020) in Telugu. Kumar said that he has received many emotional responses from people, but the one that shook him the most was a woman in her 30s who couldn’t stop sobbing during the film. “She came to me during the interval and asked me how I knew her story. I had no words to console her,” said Kumar.

Roopa Rao, director of the Kannada coming-of-age drama Gantumoote (2019), has no hesitation in saying that she still lives in the Nineties and doesn’t want to move away from there. “Even my web series (The ‘Other’ Love Story) is set in the Nineties. You can say that I’m stuck in that time, and I don’t want to lose the poetry in the romance of that era,” she said, laughing. “Another reason I set Gantumoote in the Nineties is because one of the main characters, Madhu, fails his board exams and has to wait for a few months to write his supplementary exams. This changed in the early 2000s in the Karnataka education system. Back then, if someone failed the boards, it meant that their batchmates would move on while they would lose a year.”

The gap in education is a crucial plot point in Gantumoote since it leads to Madhu (Nischith Korodi) falling into depression and eventually taking his own life after he fails in the re-exams too. Told from the perspective of his girlfriend Meera (Teju Belawadi), Gantumoote is an exploration of adolescence and assertion, the first stirrings of feminism in its female protagonist, and an eventual reconciliation with painful memories and the need to live in the present.

“What I saw on screen when I was growing up in the Nineties didn’t represent the kind of life I had or what I saw around me. I think a part of me wants to compensate for this. It’s almost a kind of grudge that I have,” said Rao. The influence of the escapist cinema of that period, however, is undeniable. In Gantumoote, Meera is a big Salman Khan fan – in fact, she falls for Madhu because she thinks he resembles the Bollywood star who had massive hits like the romance drama Hum Aapke Hai Koun (1994) in the Nineties.

Apart from strategically-placed film posters, Rao also recreated the decade with the fashion choices of her protagonists – ‘elephant’ bottoms and baggy pants. She had to make sure that nothing in the frame (like a cellphone tower) was from a later period. “We shot in sync sound, so I had to ensure that nobody’s cellphone ringtone was captured inadvertently,” she said.

While popular TV shows of that era like Swabhimaan, Shanti, and Dekh Bhai Dekh play in the background in Gantumoote to establish the time period, Jude Anthany Joseph’s Ohm Shanti Oshaana (2014) hilariously uses the Malayalam Doordarshan program Prathikaranam to explain the dilemmas of its protagonist, Pooja Mathew (Nazriya). The show – popular during the Eighties and Nineties – revolved on letters sent by viewers, asking questions and sharing opinions on various things.

“When I was a student back then, there were only about three-four programs on TV that we used to watch regularly. There was Chitrahaar – with Hindi songs – on Wednesdays at 7.30 pm. Then we had Prathikaranam on Fridays at 8 pm. On Sundays, we would watch a TV serial for kids and a movie,” recalled Joseph.

Joseph’s Malayalam film is about Pooja Mathew’s journey into adulthood and her lifelong crush on the flamboyant communist-farmer, Giri (Nivin Pauly). In the film, Pooja often imagines the hosts on Prathikaranam reading out letters sent by viewers voicing their opinions on her love life. The film begins in 1983 when Pooja is born, and then moves to 1999, when she’s in high school. She has posters of Mohanlal from the Nineties’ blockbuster Spadikam, Sylvester Stallone from Rambo (1982), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) pasted on her wall, and she decides to buy a bike she can barely ride after watching Kunchacko Boban’s Niram (a blockbuster romance film that came out in 1999). She’s also a fan of Shaktimaan, India’s first superhero TV series.

“I’m sure filmmakers who were born in the new millennium will make films that will resonate with 2000s’ kids next,” said Joseph. “But the Nineties’ isn’t only about the nostalgia that every generation feels. It is the period that marks ‘before the internet’ and ‘after the internet’. That impact has been felt by everyone. Between 2000-2010 and 2010-2020, there wasn't such a dramatic change in the world.”

In Shree Karthick’s Oke Oka Jeevitham (2022), three men revisit their past through a time machine in a desperate attempt to change their present. Adhi (Sharwanand), Sreenu (Vennela Kishore) and Chaitu (Priyadarshi) meet their younger selves in school and try to influence them to change certain life-altering decisions. The interval block – when the adults who are now in the past realise that their child versions have been transported to the future – is marked by two Chiranjeevi films (Hitler from 1997 and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy from 2019). Nineties’ heroine Amala Akkineni also plays an important role in the film.

“Every memory from the Nineties is etched in my mind. Be it the Nirma ad, Popeye or Aasai chocolate,” said Karthick. “It was an era when people had a human connection with everything. We were not constantly distracted like we are now. We had such a blast growing up.”

While his assistant directors – who were born in the 2000s – were somewhat bemused by all the nostalgia, Karthick pointed out that the film worked well with the audience because many of them could recall the references in the film and felt an emotional connection. “There is a child inside everyone, and when a film brings back such moments, people respond spontaneously like children. That’s probably why you see people clapping and laughing without any self consciousness while watching such films set in the past,” he said.

With films across languages set in the Nineties succeeding at the box-office and the charm of the era still casting spells over the audience, it is only natural that many more filmmakers will want to jump on to their own time machines in future. And the Nineties’ kids, who still harbour a fondness for Shaktimaan despite the profusion of Marvel and DC superheroes on IMAX screens, are certainly not complaining.

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