Taj Mahal 1989 review: Poetic writing, attention to detail make this Netflix Original rise above its low production value

Karishma Upadhyay

Language: Hindi

'Tis the season to be soppy. While V-day 2020 had theatres playing up Imtiaz Ali's renewed attempt at decoding what love is today, Netflix quietly dropped something that showed us what love was 30 years ago: without an overdose of the colour pink and without Tinder (as one of the characters helpfully tells you). Like Love Aaj Kal, Netflix's Taj Mahal 1989 also straddles stories of old and young love, but that is where the similarities end. 

Set in 1989 Lucknow, the show revolves around an ensemble of characters, of different ages, living different kinds of lives and with different interpretations of love. This is a story that is told in sepia tones with subtle servings of nostalgia and romantic Urdu poetry. It is different. 

The central conflict is provided by Akhtar (Neeraj Kabi) and Sarita (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a couple stuck in the mundanities of middle-class married life. A philosophy professor, Akhtar has seemingly replaced real-life romance with a version that exists in the poetry he loves so much. Sarita, a physics professor, is highly pragmatic, and craves real love rather than the idea of it, which makes her hate the 'empty words' her husband lives by. He loves mushairas; she would d rather watch a Bollywood masala film. The cracks in their relationship seem even deeper when compared to their couple friends, Sudhakar (Danish Husain) and Mumtaz (Sheeba Chadha). These two might not have gotten life right in the ways society demands, but feed off their love for one another.

In a parallel younger universe, there is a love triangle of sorts playing out between three students of the same university Akhtar and Sarita teach at. Rashmi (Anshul Chauhan) and Dharam (Paras Priyadarshan) are dating, while Angad (Anud Singh Dhaka), a close friend of theirs, carries a torch for Rashmi. While Rashmi thinks she knows exactly what she wants, be it sex or love, Angad is as woke a character as you would expect to find in 1989. He spends a lot of time being cynical about love and nonchalantly talking about sex around Rashmi, but respects the boundaries of his friendzone like some impending knighthood depended on it. This track seems a little underdone when compared to Akhtar and Sarita's story.

To Akhtar, all that matters are the words spilling out of his poetry and the ideas in his philosophy books. That the milieu surrounding this man is a no-frills middle class Indian home of the 1980s actually elevates the absurdity of who he is.

There is a fine line between a character like this feeling real and ending up being caricaturish, but Kabi owns the role in a way very few actors can. Every understated gesture, every deliberate pause builds a convincing portrait of a man living in an ivory tower, far removed from reality and genuinely disinterested in everything that is going on around him. He seems more connected to the poets and philosophers whose work he reads, than the people surrounding him.

Angad's character is similar in a lot of ways but represented very differently to account for the generation he belongs to. The moment this realisation hits home, it is pure gold. Herein lies the charm of the show €" the moments are not necessarily the ones that happen on screen but the ones that happen inside one's head. It lazily allows one to soak in the multiple threads and live in the shoes of each character. The writing is incisive, and the characters are crafted carefully and allowed to blossom. One walks away with very vivid pictures of each one of these people. This is where the show is an absolute winner. 

Debutant writer-director Pushpendra Nath Misra announces a flair for not just creating complex and layered characters, but breathing life into them. Lucknow is portrayed beautifully. There is some real love in his attention to detail. The show handles its nostalgic theme well without throwing it in your face €" you are treated to a little bit of Karamchand and Kitty here, a Rasna ad thrown in there. Someone sells B-tex on a bus, and you are reminded of the good old days when a quarter of Old Monk cost just Rs 15. There have been other attempts in the recent past to cash in on nostalgia (Yeh Meri Family, Netflix) but Taj Mahal 1989 is so much more than just an attempt to play on that sentiment.

Everyone here is trying to build his or her own little Taj Mahal, that everlasting symbol of love. The period the story is set in is used sparingly to elevate scenes and to inject additional shots of poignancy. You connect because you might have been there in that moment, if not emotionally, then physically. The end product is feel-good content on multiple levels.

Sadly, what the show delivers in its writing and storytelling, it lacks in overall polish €" the editing is jagged and the background score is straight out of saas-bahu television. It is almost as if budgets ran out post shooting, and someone had to make some pretty miserable compromises; so much so that a layperson could be forgiven for thinking this was some bootstrapped web-series that wormed its way on to YouTube, rather than something with a Netflix Original tag.

One just cannot help feeling this is a case of unrealised potential, one that could have been so much better with a little more belief and backing from its studio, and a little more investment on its packaging. All that aside, Taj Mahal 1989 is definitely recommended viewing.

Taj Mahal 1989 is now streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***

Also See: Taj Mahal 1989 Season 1, starring Neeraj Kabi, Geetanjali Kulkarni, to premiere on Netflix on 14 February

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