In the hands of The Viral Fever (TVF), nostalgia feels a lot like nationalism. Nostalgia is not an aesthetic (a Vasan Bala or Sriram Raghavan movie) or a tender backdrop (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2015) – it’s an aggressive, in-your-face protagonist here. Despite TVF’s notoriously isolated and casteless approach to storytelling, the nostalgia in their productions is unwittingly political. It’s a language of denial – the equivalent of, say, a privileged person validating the trauma of societal discord by living in the past. Given that most of the makers are creative Nineties’ kids who’ve survived their coaching-class and engineering days, the business of reminiscing is shaped by a single decade. “Winter of 90s” is the tagline of Yeh Meri Family Season 2, a follow-up to the summery sweetness of Yeh Meri Family (2018), a series that privatised middle-class nostalgia so hard that even my memories of tier-two stillness were activated by its anti-premise.
This time, it’s the Awasthi family in a nameless Lucknow-like town. It’s the escalating cold of December-January, so the opening montage waxes romantic (the song: “Dekho, thand ka mausam aaya”) about roasted peanuts, the return of woolens, dusty blankets, bonfires, morning walks, hot tea, cricket matches, and the sudden sting of pipe water on skin. The teen protagonist who breaks the fourth wall with voice-overs is an 11th grader named Ritika (Hetal Gada). Her father, Sanjay (Rajesh Kumar), is a mild-mannered engineer and the Good Cop of the house. Her mother, Neerja (Juhi Parmar), is a school teacher and the disciplinarian (“Kiran Bedi”) of the house. Her little brother, Rishi (Angaad), is a brat with a Muttley-like chuckle who behaves older than his years. Grandma Awasthi visits for the month, and the family of five embark on a journey of curated nothingness over five cloyingly cute episodes. The episode names – like “Cable TV,” “Blank Calls,” “Parent-Teacher Meeting,” “Party” and “Apna Kamra (My Own Room)” – leave little room for misinterpreting the Golden Era of Growing Up. There’s the usual treasure trove of pop-culture nods scattered across everyday life: Phantom cigarettes, WWF trump cards, Amitabh Bachchan’s Agneepath (1990), Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne, Miss World Aishwarya Rai, Caller IDs, Antakshari, Banegi Apni Baat, Ruf & Tuf jeans, Fiats and Kinetic Hondas.
Not all of it is organic, as is usually the case with combatively nostalgic shows. You can almost see the twinkle in the eyes of the modern-day actors casually dropping these references. Rishi declares that he will grow up and invent a phone that shows not just the number but also the name and photo of the caller. The camera does its best to stay indoors, lest we see a rogue Hyundai Swift ruin the innocence of this Maruti-loving decade. Some of the touches are nice. For instance, we sense the linearity of winters through the lens of Ritika’s existence. A New Year’s Party is followed by exam anxiety (who can forget those pesky second-semester tests?), sports tournaments and kite-flying season. An episode also riffs on that age-old recurring nightmare: Getting the question paper and realizing you’ve studied for the wrong subject. (I still get cold sweats in the middle of the night, which only goes to show that academic stress, especially in this country, is a lifelong scar). I also like that this second season retains a few solid elements of the first – like the young protagonist processing infatuation, heartbreak and freedom through the prism of 1990s soundtracks. The tracks are original, but the vibes are of an Anaida, Raageshwari or Alisha Chinai indi-pop anthem.
But the film-making is too simplistic, almost like the makers present the rewind in time as a rewind of intellect and emotional intelligence. Vintage need not be the same as dated. The moral conflicts are stripped of complexity only because it’s the sort of show that doesn’t want to burden the viewer; it wants to be an escape from today, not so much a harmless excavation of history. As a result, the characters end up speaking and behaving like Nineties’ television characters instead of Nineties’ people. The craft (jarring slow-motion and stilted reaction shots) and performances are infected by this, too. Each episode is devoted to Ritika’s relationship with a different family member (including herself), neatly bookmarking her lessons at a stormy age that’s sanitised for the sake of family viewing. Or maybe because it’s an all-male writing team that stages Ritika as more of a narrative device than an actual girl navigating the forces of adolescence.
For instance, one of the episodes has a decent idea – it tries to update a clunky old trope. Ritika has a secret suitor who makes blank calls, but her initial giddiness (derived from stalky Bollywood romances) soon morphs into fear. The boy follows her every night, and it casts a cloud over her life. Things get ugly. The problem isn’t the retrospective correction of such an event. It’s the performative treatment – it suggests that the makers are striving to offset the inherent male gaze with superficial wokeness. After the kid brother steps in to protect his sister, the father remarks that Ritika slapping the boy herself would have been the perfect ending. See what I mean? It’s too much, and the grandstanding is too basic, almost disingenuous in its reading of social dynamics. Ditto for an episode where Ritika sacrifices her own sports aspirations to boost her brother’s science crisis.
I used to like this selective feel-goodness about TVF shows – this misty-eyed ability to milk the oddities of living rather than the drama of life itself. It was a soothing detour from the more critical glances at childhood. But in 2023, the same formula feels culturally manipulative. It’s too obviously deflective. A lot of it makes it seem like nostalgia is a commodity that needs to be sold in shiny Nineties’ capsules at discounted rates. How it’s done is all that matters; the quality of the product is incidental. And as we know, there’s nothing more unnerving than a salesperson that knows they will never be short of buyers.