Here Comes The Good Old 1990s

Published: May 6, 2019 - 16:13 Updated: May 10, 2019 - 14:55

Shaweta Anand, New Delhi

It was not that long ago when family conversations still happened face-to-face as opposed to compulsive ‘connecting’ through WhatsApp or Facebook, and when summer vacation was still that much-anticipated time of the year for children to spend frolicking with cousins and grandparents. Growing up in ‘that era’, just before the effects of a rapidly globalising world converted the species of human beings into unabashed, pompous consumers, when the relatively unpretentious lifestyle of the Indian middle classes enabled more contentment in less. That era forms the backdrop of a well-crafted, hugely acclaimed mini- web series of 2018 – Yeh Meri Family – made by TVF Originals.

Acclaimed director Sameer Saxena, an IIT-Mumbai alumnus and chief content officer of TVF Originals at ‘The Viral Fever’ (TVF), initially found no buyers for this kind of family-based content that had no sex or violence to appeal to the ‘unintelligent’ youth. This prompted the team to produce their own material, eventually launch their own online channels, and write their own success stories with a stroke of luck, or divine providence, whatever you might like to call it.

Megastar Shah Rukh Khan, who was recently in news for the denial of an honorary doctorate by the Union HRD ministry, endorsed TVF’s work in their initial struggling period. He agreed to be their first guest on the rib-tickling web show: ‘Barely Speaking with Arnub’. This garnered the group instant visibility, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A host of other public figures like Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, also an IITian, celebrities like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anil Kapoor and Sunny Leone, among others, also appeared on the same show subsequently lending its content further credibility. There is a whole bunch of other very successful video-on-demand (VOD) content made by the same group – The Permanent Roommates, (India’s first web series), Pitchers (the only Indian show to be rated higher than Friends and House of Cards) and Tripling, to name a few.

Coming back to TVF’s Yeh Meri Family, this particular web series caught my attention because it took me back to a time when life moved at a much slower pace compared to today’s vacuous jet-set-go age. When it was possible to be hard-working, successful and still live restfully at home without any need to repeatedly escape to meditation retreats. There was sufficient mental space to relish all kinds of experiences as a family, mostly of the uplifting variety, as far as this series is concerned. Like gorging on whole mangoes and making a cheerful mess out of it during peak summers, or taking turns to fill the desert cooler and watering the plants.      

The 1990s was a time when some siblings still played with each other and not with smartphones. Parents still sat together in the evening, leisurely chatting over a cup of tea with sweet ghazals playing on a tape recorder in the background; something that reminds me of the low-key evenings at JNU dhabas where young adults could choose to share a warm human vibe over tea, including informed agreements and disagreements.

Coming back to the web series, interestingly, the younger sister of the main protagonist – 12-year-old Harshu -- gets nicknamed ‘Chitthi’ because their father loves the ghazal ‘Chitthi aayi hai’ by Pankaj Udhas. He believes that his daughter is like a chitthi (letter) that got delivered late in their lives (literally!). Various episodes of this series depict life largely through the eyes of pre-teen Harshu – brilliantly portrayed by Vishesh Bansal – and his partner-in-crime, Shanky, his ‘topper’ classmate who offers him advice beyond his age some times, for instance, when he quotes examples from the Gita or tries to inspire Harshu by using Bryan Adam’s reflections about the ‘Summer of 69’. From detailed suggestions about impressing girls in class – hum Whigfield songs in their presence as opposed to Devang Patel’s music, ‘pattyban desi pakoda mat ban’ – or ways to win back the coveted Hulk Hogan trump card from dominating elder brother Dabbu, the character of Shanky is always brimming with ideas.

Once he also helped Harshu in secretly planning his 13th birthday celebration by arranging movie tickets for him and his friends. It is a different matter that a sulking Harshu ended up dancing awkwardly to disco numbers by Bappi Lahiri to entertain guests at home that day, on his parent’s insistence (‘chalo, uncle ko nach ke dikhao’). His mother – played by seasoned actress Mona Singh – unaware of Harshu’s secret movie plan, organises an elaborate birthday party at home with balloon and crape paper decorations, mouth-watering home-made snacks and a simple cake (possibly pineapple). She invites the entire neighbourhood to celebrate. Even though his personal movie plan had failed, Harshu ends up having an exceptionally satisfying birthday experience when Vidhya – the girl he has a massive crush on – also turns out to be one of the invitees. Wonder if his parents would have pampered Chitthi like that as a teenager, egging her on to dance with a boy of her choice in front of the entire neighbourhood.

On a different note, it is rather heart-warming to see the children listen to music on a good old walkman through the episodes, or refer to games like Ludo, Saanp Sidi, and Mario, in their daily banter. It is equally appealing to see Chitthi mimic her favourite class teacher or when she hides in ‘her cave’ under the bed with Harshu. That is their favourite spot in the house where they blissfully enact scenes from TV serial Shaktiman using stuffed animals. Chitthi remains the undefeated Bournvita-milk champion of the family because she always empties her glass first. The series is rich with such relatable and precious moments that ordinary middle-class households could afford in the 1990s.

While the younger siblings are mostly occupied with light and fun activities, older brother Dabbu is shown exploring his sexuality when he clandestinely purchases adult magazines with his pocket money or watches Fashion TV at midnight, probably the maximum he could push himself to view at the time. The pressure of coaching and clearing engineering exams in his context is also touched upon but not pursued in detail, considering it is a burning concern for the urban youth today.

The fact that the boys try to find patterns and some predictable parental behavior is comical at times and also triggers nostalgia. For instance, in one episode, Harshu is quite upset after his parents pick up a shrill fight on a Sunday morning, especially during his favourite hour of Tailspin and Duck Tales, effectively ruining his telly time. As the gloomy parents walk away into different rooms, all the household chores remain undone, including cooking, making way for mango pickle, Hajmola, bread-jam and ‘extreme’ hunger. Finally, Chitthi brings them together using her endearing ways. Overall, all the actors in the series pack quite a punch, episode after episode, keeping the viewers honestly engaged and candidly amused.

The makers have gone into painful details to create the 1990s feel in today’s age of branded products, obsessive WhatsApp and virtual, isolating online addiction. For instance, all the actors wear modest, non-branded clothes at home – either a simple white vest paired with old-style pants or loose t-shirts and jeans for the males (hand-me-downs for Harshu), while the mother wears nice saris sans much jewelry inside or outside home. Oddly, she wore an average-looking suit to a wedding with dark lipstick to show she came prepared, while the father wore a nice kurta pyjama matched with an expensive, silken red jacket; slight mismatch there.

The day when the children are trying to appease their parents, particularly their mother, the boys draw out a detailed list of all the exhausting chores that she uncomplainingly and unfailingly performs every day, and, yet, when it comes to choosing a role model, somehow, only the father-figure appears to be in the race for ‘coolness’

Anyway, overall, minute details have been considered while filming the series to bring on the right feel. Like the Parle Kismi bar that Chitthi nibbles on as opposed to say Lotte Choco Pie, the typical green-coloured landline phone, frequent power cuts, the steel water filter inside the kitchen instead of the modern day Eureka Forbes water purifier, an old-style cathode ray tube television set, a bulky desktop and so on. The eatery the family frequents for dinner is no big restaurant, but a decent dhaba run by the Pritams, and not by MNCs like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut or Dominoes. The dialogue and music refer to films like DDLJ, 1942:A Love Story, Raja Hindustani, Ram Lakhan etc. At one point Harshu refers to an old Dhara oil ad in Chitthi’s context as she also runs away like the boy in the ad, and upon her safe return (thanks to benevolent acquaintances), everyone gets treated to Maggi and tasty samosas on the same Sunday, when no food has been made at home.

Having admired the web series for bringing back the naiveté of childhood days experienced in ordinary yet privileged middle class homes of the ’90s, one is also compelled to observe the subtle reinforcement of patriarchal moors and gender stereotypes in the family. For instance, the day when the children are trying to appease their parents, particularly their mother, the boys draw out a detailed list of all the exhausting chores that she uncomplainingly and unfailingly performs every day, and, yet, when it comes to choosing a role model, somehow, only the father-figure appears to be in the race for ‘coolness’.

This, when he seems casual in approach towards family life, in comparison to the mother for whom family-care is more than a full-time job. For instance, he often forgets to bring home the right vegetables, or comes home late despite promising otherwise, forgets Harshu is in class 8 (not 6), confuses the names of the boys’ friends (addresses Dabbu’s friend as Shanky), calls Chitthi ‘bewakoof’ and ‘ma pe gayi hai’ etc. The series casually reinforces stereotypical notions about ‘mom roles’ and ‘dad roles’ by not offering critical questioning of disrespect for women’s intellect that usually starts in the private domain of the home. For instance, Harshu predicts his mother’s pet dialogues when she is feeling let down and angry, copying her and making her lows sound frivolous, or, at best, entertaining.

Intriguingly, the makers have firmly stuck to Harshu’s worldview as it steers away from giving any political commentary on all the serious events that the country was immersed in throughout the 1990s – the time period Yeh Meri Family represents and not just the summer of 1998. Most of the other media-related material referred to in the series – ads, TV serials, films, music etc., fall within this decade. Due to deliberate focus on the pre-teen’s supposed IQ, the makers isolate this family and keep it emotionally indulged inwards, as if it is an apolitical unit living in a cocoon.

This includes the father who reads the newspaper, while the radio gives only cricket commentaries, even though it marks a decade of the rise of the BJP post the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the nation-wide bloodshed followed by the Ayodhya riots. The violence had sharply polarised Indian society and left deep, unhealed scars for the politicians to play upon for decades afterwards. There is indeed a murmur in the series about ‘moderate’ prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, but, he still carried out the nuclear tests as a boastful, chest-thumping, war-mongering hyperbole that was subsequently followed by the Kargil war with Pakistan.

As my final take, although the series leaves one feeling very upbeat about the life that was (or was possible) during the yesteryears, still, in the heart of hearts, it feels that some important content is missing, even if a twelve-year-old is the main protagonist. For instance, an episode exploring social dynamics with the labourer whitewashing their walls (hypothetically Muslim or Dalit), or an episode with neighbours from different religions and castes after they are invited to the birthday party at home, might have provided the perfect excuse to explore these real social issues and how these things could impact children growing up in that age.

The 1990s was a time when siblings still played with each other and not with smart phones. Parents still sat together, leisurely chatting over a cup of tea with sweet ghazals playing on a tape recorder; something that reminds me of the low-key evenings at JNU dhabas where students could share a warm human vibe over tea, including informed agreements and disagreements

This point needs emphasis because whether we like it or not, besides the good things of life, teenage children also internalise messages of fear and hatred towards ‘the other’ during these formative years, unless they are made to deconstruct these messages and internalise qualities of brotherhood and oneness instead. The 1990s was a time of great political upheaval in this country and this aspect remains largely untouched in the web series, as if the external environment did not impinge upon this family at all. In my view, this is a fair expectation from the makers of this series as they come across as refreshingly creative, sensitive and open-hearted when it comes to sketching their characters. After all, this was not just the time when Harshu, Dabbu and Chitthi were growing up in the Gupta household, it was also the same time when the seniors of late Rohith Vemula were trying to figure out right from wrong, or wise from the unwise.