Creator: Pushpendra Nath Misra
Cast: Neeraj Kabi, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Danish Husain, Sheeba Chaddha, Anud Singh Dhaka, Anshul Chauhan
Streaming on: Netflix
I barely survived Taj Mahal 1989, a seven-episode series about several characters based in and around Lucknow university in 1989. The marriage of a Muslim philosophy professor (Neeraj Kabi) and Hindu physics teacher (Geetanjali Kulkarni) is intercut with the lives of some loved-up and politically charged students who look like they’ve flunked out of the Brahman Naman school of Kool-Aid teenhood. Somewhere in between lies the potentially interesting story of an ex-philosophy gold medalist (Danish Husain) and his ex-prostitute wife (Sheeba Chadda) – except their arc has the misfortune of being a transitory afterthought in a narrative made of disparate and desperate threads. Given the acting pedigree involved, it takes a spectacular amount of unsupervised filmmaking to roll out a boring, directionless and shabby show about pre-liberalization India in 2020 – a show self-satisfied enough to believe that the textures and mood of a bygone era are enough to charm nostalgic Netflix addicts.
For instance, the title sequence features a pencil box, dusty library, school corridors, rotary dial phone, typewriters and scooters amongst other elaborately chosen quasi-vintage shots meant to evoke a Generic Period Flavour ™. These images are often used as the most random cutaways – two characters are arguing, and suddenly the camera cuts to a compass box or a Milton water cooler, as if to say: Bro, forget my personality, look at my body. One can detect its effort to look quaint and wistful like a dusty Lucknowi mansion, but also like a TVF series minus its sense of craft, humour, rhythm, ambition and narrative control.
There’s no sense of timing, tone, emotional continuity, even visual transition – at times, quick fade-outs are used to jump from one shot (and not just scene) to another, while cartoonish wipes are used midway through the series. In the one scene that features any kind of action (a bullet brings down the ceiling), the pattern of cutting is so incoherent that I wondered if it was a failed film-school editing exercise.
Warning bells ring in the very first episode: Drama student Rashmi (Anshul Chauhan) breaks the fourth wall to tell us about her boyfriend, friends and surroundings. Akhtar Baig (Kabi) does the same in his introductory shot in a classroom. Plenty of other characters break the fourth wall at the most inopportune moments – at one point, in the middle of a tense face-off involving guns and goons, a sidekick turns to the camera and remarks about how the scene reminds him of Sunny Deol in Arjun. There’s no sense of timing, tone, emotional continuity, even visual transition – at times, quick fade-outs are used to jump from one shot (and not just scene) to another, while cartoonish wipes are used midway through the series. In the one scene that features any kind of action (a bullet brings down the ceiling), the pattern of cutting is so incoherent that I wondered if it was a failed film-school editing exercise. The background score is the worst of stock music set to a parallel universe: When two old friends discuss their woes over a peg of Old Monk (“My wife wants a divorce,” “Mine was a sex worker”), the instrumental track of a hotel-corridor ghazal seems to be scoring their conversation.
I don’t like harping on about the fundamental weakness of technical craft, but in this case, it’s so distracting that the few bouts of fertile writing feel inconsequential. The conflict between the intellectual, poetry-loving Faiz fanatic and his inferiority-complex-riddled wife is performed well, even if it takes off on a gimmicky honeymoon-before-divorce tangent. He looks down on her, and she refuses to look up at him anymore: Kabi and Kulkarni, ever so fleetingly, make Taj Mahal 1989 look better than the quintessential Netflix India gaffe. It’s not the first time an older generation of companionship is more watchable than the modern one, and it won’t be the last. But then it cuts to the university…where an abusive boyfriend, an artistic girlfriend, an upcoming election and a couple of smart-alecky communists remind us that this tenderly tedious series has 1989 problems but its pitch ain’t one.