Director: Habib Faisal
Writers: Suhani Kanwar, Ruchika Roy
Cast: Akshay Oberoi, Sahher Bambba, Anjali Anand, Raj Babbar, Padmini Kolhapure, Poonam Dhillon, Sukhmani Sadana
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
An adaptation of Anuja Chauhan’s 2013 novel, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, the sunshiney ten-episode-long Dil Bekaraar has a terminal nostalgia problem. Not a scene passes by without a jarring reminder of just how adorable and ‘prescient’ the year 1988 was. I can handle it if the setting is the background, but in Dil Bekaraar it’s the all-consuming hero that keeps screaming for attention and validation. The Habib Faisal-directed series treats time as a financial sponsor, as though it were a product that needs repeated representation on screen: Think Pass Pass and Coca Cola in Subhash Ghai’s Yaadein, or a brand/app in a new-age TVF or Dice Media production. And multiply that by ten. Casting veteran actors from the ‘80s – Raj Babbar, Poonam Dhillon, Padmini Kolhapure, even perennial light-eyed sidekick Tej Sapru – is pointed enough, but the show insists on turning its production design and script into a museum of retro references. It’s cute for a scene, two scenes maybe, but then there’s no escape once the novelty wears off. All that’s left is a hollow assortment of characters who become both artistic and cultural surrogates, a confused tone and an extended montage of #YouRemember moments.
Now for some wider context. Over the last few years, a new genre of Indian storytelling – one that solely hinges on the warm intonations of oldness – has emerged. There has been a minor avalanche of Hindi films and shows set in the pre-and-post-liberalization India of the 1980s and ‘90s. These are not period stories so much as veiled invitations to look back on simpler times and sigh at the past. Like mournful uncles who keep invoking the “good old days” to chastise the impulses of modern youth, these titles are naked reactions to the sociopolitical complexities of today. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with this. Nostalgia is a business just as much as love, sex or patriotism is.
But the problem is the way these shows are composed – with the maturity of excitable kids at a fancy costume ball. This started as a playful textural device in the mid-2010s, when just about enough time had elapsed to reminisce about the ‘90s as an innocent decade caught in the throes of adolescence. Dum Laga Ke Haisha did it well, ensuring that the environment – the music, the visual grammar, the Kumar Sanu easter eggs – rarely overwhelmed the soul of the film. The era informed the central conflict without defining it. The lesser-known comedy, Hunterrr, starring a colourful Gulshan Devaiah, accomplished the same – wearing its time as a pun that knew when to recede. Then began the streaming era, when OTTs decided to amplify the irony of digital content exploring analog times. The idea of watching the pre-internet age on the internet quickly morphed into a cottage industry. TVF’s Yeh Meri Family pushed those small-town-summer buttons, and an entire sub-genre was born where Phantom cigarettes and Campa cola bottles were written into stories as though they were World War II artefacts. Taj Mahal 1989 pushed not just those buttons but the very limits of nostalgia fetisization – the craft itself started to feel incidental, like an afterthought to the flowery inflections of old-school India. One might argue Tarantino does the same, most notably with Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. But there’s a marked difference between revisionist art – where parading time is a distinct part of subverting it – and art that exists only to vacantly placate the escapism of its audiences. Even a solid series like Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story uses its ‘90s setting to supply the personality of its protagonist rather than directly seduce its viewers.
But Dil Bekaraar continues the Taj Mahal 1989 legacy. It’s a harmless-enough series with likable actors and slight ambitions, revolving around the Thakur family – a retired judge, his homemaker wife and their four spirited daughters – during a definitive year in their life. The year, as we learn again and again, is 1988. It’s annoyingly evident from the film-making that, even though the story comes from history, it is being told by present-day artists waxing eloquent about a bygone era. This self-awareness is jarring. As a result, this is neither a parody nor a dramatization. Nostalgia is flaunted, not worn lightly on its sleeve. The camera lingers on a bottle of Gold Spot and cream rolls. QSQT and Sholay analogies run thick and fast. Not a minute goes by without a cassette player or character crooning a ‘70s Bollywood song. Contessas and blue 118NEs appear because they must. A joke about Prince Charles and Princess Diana is made to sound ‘topical’. The 1983 World Cup final makes its way into a casual chat, hijacking the moment for no apparent reason (“she always supports losers; she cheered for West Indies in that final”). A computer game, a colour TV, cassata ice-cream, an ISD booth, a ‘new McIntosh computer’ and even the fact that 1 dollar equals 15 rupees in 1988 are sneaked into scenes with the subtlety of a Raj Babbar villain.
It stops mattering whether Debjani Thakur – the central character in a blossoming love story and the new DD news reader – will marry Dylan Singh Shekhawat, an intrepid journalist who divides his time between Bombay and Delhi. Given that an Indian Airlines flight crashed in 1988, I was worried that the incident would feature in Dylan’s journey too. Maybe the happy-sitcom budget didn’t allow it. The focus on making the past look cozy is so obsessive that even the dramatic parts – like the Thakurs missing their fifth daughter, the lecherous Thakur uncle and his affair with the househelp, a broken marriage – are played for fluffy laughs. The forced levity of the treatment drowns the slightest scope of gravity. It’s the film-making equivalent of Imran Khan’s creepy girlfriend in Jaane Tu Jaane Na, who uses a childhood game – where she reimagines inanimate objects as magical things – to fuel her denial about her broken family life. This series, like her, is almost afraid to acknowledge the real world hidden behind its retro-pop excesses. Even the politics of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which forms the narrative core, are turned into a vehicle for wink-wink nods to the distant future. Because there’s also another type of nostalgia problem at play.
The bygone era featured in such stories often contains cheeky odes to the contemporary world – our present, their future. The writers virtually break the fourth wall and pepper the scenes with modern clues in the hope that viewers get entertained by this interplay of time. For instance, in Dil Bekaraar, a press censorship arc is constructed entirely from the remnants of today’s issues. The PM Modi catchphrase “acche din” is forcefitted into conversations in no less than 7 scenes. At one point, a character talks about achhe din while lecturing his kids to be secular and not discriminate based on religion. At another point, a corrupt home minister repeatedly invokes his love for my country, labels the journalist as “anti-national” and tells him to “go live in another country”. The problem here is that the actor, Chandrachur Singh, looks like he’s clearly teasing the future; he’s in on it, and everything he says sounds like a ‘90s-MTV imitation rather than a genuinely toxic reaction. Not to mention reporters using Arnab Goswami’s trademark line “the nation wants to know” during arguments, with the sole purpose of making the audience grin at the clever-but-cringey in-joke. I’m kind of relieved the cameras didn’t reveal Goswami himself as a young intern in Dylan’s newsroom.
The dissent we see in such shows is a fence-sitting one – it uses the past as a shoulder to shoot (wood pellets) at the present
It can be argued that the creators – by taking a swipe at the current administration through a ‘period’ comedy – are finding new ways to express themselves at a time where projects get cancelled for so much as a weak syllable in a Hindu God’s name. In a way, it can be viewed as brave. But the fact is that most of these stories are based in the Congress era, so even if they’re fashioning their politicians in the language of today’s BJP rhetoric, they’re doing so under the pretext of safely critiquing a former government. That’s why we’re seeing more and more stories based in those decades; there will be little interference when it’s obvious that either Indira or Rajiv Gandhi were ruling during these ‘fictional’ narratives. So the dissent we see in such shows is a fence-sitting one – it uses the past as a shoulder to shoot (wood pellets) at the present. You can’t entirely blame the artists, though. Something – even if it’s disguised as flimsy skit-level punchlines – is better than nothing.
However, for all of Dil Bekaraar’s detail, it’s tragically fitting that the series falters with a simple instrument of journalism. A review. Debjani falls for Dylan, a family friend, unaware that he was the anonymous reporter who wrote a scathing review of her first telecast as DD presenter. When she reads it in the newspaper – the headline featuring “plastic doll” is prominent – the camera simply glosses over the piece and quickly cuts to the next shot. On the big screen, nobody might have noticed. But if one looks closer, the first two paragraphs of the review are repeated three times over to inflate the space of the review. The 2021-based makers of the 1988-set show didn’t count on the fact that – owing to the pleasures of the digital age – an actual critic would be able to freeze the frame to scrutinize the quality, and quantity, of the writing. The internet was always destined to kill print. Who knew that Dil Bekaraar would inadvertently predict this 33 years ago?