The Taj Mahal 1989 – Netflix’s latest series from India, written and directed by Pushpendra Nath Mishra (Ghoomketu) – opens on Valentine’s Day in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, about six hours east of the white marble mausoleum. It’s a very different world, with no internet and landline phones not common, and it takes place at a time when people were more afraid of losing their love, as noted by its cast. But it is also similar. Its set of characters, unaware of impending change – 1989 would prove to be a big year globally – are naturally captured on their own personal issues.
Among them are the duo Akhtar (Neeraj Kabi) and Sarita Baig (Gitanjali Kulkarni) of Lucknow University, who teach philosophy and physics respectively. They are trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage with a 12-year-old son. Akhtar admits that he never really understood love, but it is clear that he does not try to listen to Sarita’s wishes. Their interests don’t overlap – she loves poetry, while she enjoys hoodnits and action flicks – and Akhtar loathes to support Sarita, who has grown frustrated knowing each other in 22 years, loses. Close to agree.
Akhtar has a budding debutante parallel in Angad (Anud Singh Dhaka), a philosophy student of his, who works odd jobs on the side. Angad considers himself above subjects like love, although he certainly takes sex a lot. He shares this openness with his friend Rashmi Malik (Anshul Chauhan), a physics student, who declares that “girls only look for love” is a misconception. She is dating Dharam (Paras Priyadarshan) – she shares a flat with her younger brother Sudhir (Priyank Srivastava) and Angad – whose details are limited to Rashmi’s words: “good body and good looks”.
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Angad’s maternal uncle Sudhakar Mishra (Danish Hussain) and Akhtar’s long-lost friend, who was better than him in philosophy in college, but chose the tailoring family business. Akhtar accidentally meets Sudhakar at a local poetry reading, where his fascination for the art-form is shared by the latter’s wife, Mumtaz (Sheeba Chaddha). This leaves guitar-loving schoolgirl Sunaina Garg (Vasundhara Rajput), who is in love with a boy older than her. Sunaina and Sudhir are part of the same music class in the school.
Taj Mahal 1989 uses the breakdown of the fourth wall to propel itself from the very beginning, with nearly every character addressing the camera. It is used as an exposition tool, accompanying them to their backgrounds, motivations, and value systems, or as commentary, whether discussing the actions of other characters or making chronological jokes. The latter includes a reference to Tinder, leading to the feeling that the authors are concerned that a portion of their target audience may not identify over time. The Fourth Wall also doesn’t quite gel with the series’ otherwise honest tone.
But the bigger issue, in at least two episodes previewed for critics – there are seven in total – is how the Taj Mahal 1989 seems to have been renovated in the editing room. This is evident in how the same character is introduced twice, how inexplicably it jumps from moment to moment, how the lack of flow leads to one scene in another, and the way some scenes suddenly fade. -Becomes black. All this indicates problems in post-production. There is also an overuse of extravagant insertion and setting shots that are neither one nor the other, and express little except for the director’s indifference.
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Of the many actors, Kabi, Kulkarni, and Chaddha are immediately credible in their roles, though not enough is given to do the last of them, at least in the first two episodes. Hussain is given the task of being a wise old man, as he becomes the medium through which the Taj Mahal 1989 transmits his thoughts. Among Young People, Dhaka is the opening standout as he is given the most catchy lines, though some of them are very short on the nose in his sermons, including the invocation of a top quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s influential sci-fi novel, The. Titan’s Sirens.
Netflix series is better when it is woven naturally, as it is when Akhtar invokes Faiz Ahmed Faiz nazmi “Mujh se first love mere Mehboob na maang” at the dinner table with Sudhakar and his wives. Sarita, who couldn’t care less for Kavita, is not impressed by the lack of romance in her. Mumtaz notes that it was written not for a lover, but for the revolution. At a time when the far right has tried to portray Faiz’s words as communal, it quietly becomes a powerful moment. It’s a rare political effort – even an accidental one – though given its setting, the Taj Mahal 1989 could have done well to mix the personal and the political more often, as Faiz was famous for.
Taj Mahal 1989 has been released worldwide on Friday on Netflix.