What is it about love that inspires and confounds people in equal measure? Why does it inspire sonnets and grand gestures but act like a slippery eel, trickling away from the gaps between two people who are bound by it? Is love mutually exclusive to sex, is it friendship, is it companionship or a spiritual journey where two people, any two people, become the best versions of themselves?
These are some of the questions that a promising little series Taj Mahal 1989, now streaming on Netflix, asks its viewers. Co-produced by Tipping Point productions and Flying Saucer, the series is set in Lucknow and Agra in 1989 when â€˜baeâ€™ was a term of familiarity suffixed to sentences, like Da/di or machan in Tamil. Perhaps a happier time pre Babri Masjid when people didnâ€™t analyse an interreligious marriage, when we kids drank Rasna, our parents drank Old Monk, everyone bought cakes with roses from local bakeries, and wrote letters and love notes instead of sending WhatsApp forwards.
The show features an ensemble cast of varying ages whose intersecting love stories play out with the background of Lucknow University and later the Taj Mahal. Akhtar (Neeraj Kabi) and Sarita (Geetanjali Kulkarni) are professors of Philosophy and Physics respectively, who have a 12-year-old son and have known each other for 22 years. Their marriage is hanging by a thread and her constant irritation with him and his refusal to participate in seemingly â€˜unintellectualâ€™ things that matter to her are only widening the chasm between them. Akhtar bumps into his old classmate Sudhakar (Danish Husain) and his partner Mumtaz (Sheeba Chadha) at a Mushaira (poetry reading).
Sudhakar and Mumtaz, we realise almost immediately, are in love but not married. Akhtar and Saritaâ€™s students and their friends are the confused college kids dabbling in love, sex and politics without quite committing wholeheartedly to anything. The show too doesnâ€™t attempt to find answers or take a stand on the issues it takes up, going from serious drama into romantic comedy every time things get a tad too real and uncomfortable.
Dharam (Paras Priyadarshan) is in a relationship with Rashmi (Anshul Chauhan) and things are rosy, to begin with. Their mutual friend Angad (Anud Singh Dhaka) who declares that he prefers sex to the entanglements of love is the most fleshed-out character from the younger lot. While these youngsters could have a show by themselves, writer-director Pushpendra Nath Misra seems unsure about how to treat the emotions and dilemmas of his younger characters, leaving them to grapple with half-baked character arcs.
The older characters are far more interesting and get some of the best lines and moments of the series, making me wonder if this show was originally just about them with the youngsters being a later addition. While it starts off as a fun frothy tale with characters breaking the fourth wall for the purpose of exposition, the show meanders haphazardly into more dramatic territory and then exits just as abruptly without really tying up all the loose ends.
There is an unnecessarily long and stretched out student politics track that the makers undermine with humour, never allowing us to get too attached to any of the characters. A minor subplot involving an underage girl who almost gets trafficked was completely unnecessary. The editing of the show is another weak link with abrupt jumps between the parallel stories, instead of creating connections through characterisation, or finding devices like music or locations.
Also, a genuine piece of feedback to the creative folk making digital content, please donâ€™t add explanatory songs or excessive background music that has plagued our films for years. It kills the impact of scenes, especially ones where the actors are brilliant enough to convey emotion or messaging.
While it could have done with better post-production, Taj Mahal 1989 scores in other departments, especially production design. Sonali Bhatia creates cosy lived-in spaces with props and furniture that are authentic to the time period and add credibility to the premise of the show. What I loved was that while the show indulges in the nostalgia of a time gone by, it never romanticises the time as being a better or morally purer time to live in. If anything, the characters are just as messed up and confused as people we meet today, only they didnâ€™t have Google to give them answers and had to sort out issues using their own instincts.
While the writing is partial to the senior characters, the four actors playing the older characters do complete justice to their better-written roles, keeping the show grounded in its quest to understand love. Neeraj Kabi and Geetanjali Kulkarni are especially fabulous as the squabbling Akhtar and Sarita. Also brilliant is the ever-dependable Sheeba Chadha whose expressive eyes bring a tear to your eyes and a smile to your face. Watch the scene when she makes a confession to Sudhakar about why she took so long to trust him- itâ€™s a masterclass in acting.
Amongst the younger actors, Anud Singh Dhaka is the only one who stands out, bringing much-needed depth and humanity to his character of a now flippant now serious student.
The Taj Mahal, Akhtar tells Sarita, looks pink in the morning, white in the afternoon and golden at night. So even when the greatest monument to love never looks the same, is it fair to expect love to remain unaltered as it 'alterations finds'? The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan in memory of his dead wife, but Taj Mahal 1989 asks us to create monumental love stories by simply never forgetting just how lucky some of us are to find people who love us inspite of ourselves. This one is an enjoyable must watch.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.