Taj Mahal 1989 review: Netflix India’s Valentine’s Day love letter makes strong case for patch up
Taj Mahal 1989
Director - Pushpendra Nath Misra
Cast - Neeraj Kabi, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Danish Husain, Sheeba Chadha, Anud Singh Dhaka, Anshul Chauhan
Set at a time when Karamchand was on cable and B-Tex was on the billboards, Taj Mahal 1989 is a quietly effective little series from Netflix, about themes as evergreen as the majestic monument it is named after.
Tinder didn’t exist back then, a character says, breaking the fourth wall. This is an exposition-delivery technique that creator Pushpendra Nath Misra deploys on multiple occasions early in the show, only to discard it later on, perhaps recognising that it didn’t quite fit in the first place.
Watch the Taj Mahal 1989 trailer here
In 1989, India was a simpler place, still a few years away from economic liberalisation, and Indians were a more tolerant people, more likely to accept the union of a Muslim man and a Hindu woman than they seem to be now. Back then, love wasn’t disposable, like a poorly taken digital photograph; it required patience, skill, and effort.
These are all virtues that Akhtar Baig, a professor of philosophy at Lucknow University, believes he has. But his marriage to Sarita, who teaches physics at the same school, is withering like the half nimbu inside the refrigerator of every middle-class Indian household.
Akhtar and Sarita represent the central conflict of the show — the clash of pragmatism and romanticism, of knowledge and education. What good will reciting the politically charged poetry of Faiz do when a woman is being attacked by her abusive husband? Is the beauty of the written word obscuring our view of the cruelty that the real world is capable of? These are all questions that Taj Mahal 1989 asks, without having the sure-footedness to arrive at definitive answers.
On paper, Akhtar and Sarita are the polar opposites of each other. While he is partial to attending evening ‘mushairas’, there is nothing that she enjoys more than a good Bollywood masala film. During one of their trips to the theatre, Akhtar endures a mindless potboiler with an expression that reminded me of the time I binged Bard of Blood in a single sitting.
The great Neeraj Kabi, as Akhtar, is the show’s standout performer. He brings an element of believability to a character that could have come across as rather hopelessly out-of-touch with reality, perched on his tower of privilege, oblivious to the pains of his lesser mortals. Aside from a couple of scenes that should have, ideally, been deleted, Taj Mahal 1989 is a wonderful showcase for Kabi’s unparalleled ability to inject subtle ticks — a wave of the hand there, a delicate pause here — and elevate ordinary scenes.
It’s quite understandable for a show as old-fashioned as Taj Mahal 1989 to be more empathetic towards the older characters than it is towards the younger ones. In parallel to Akhtar and Sarita’s love story, the same university campus is the playground for students scouting for sex and love, without the emotional maturity to understand that one can exist independently of the other.
Playing a character that is perhaps meant as a more youthful mirror image to Akhtar, Anud Singh Dhaka as Angad is easily the finest performer of the young cast. He is the only one who doesn’t allow Kabi, and to a certain extent Sheeba Chadha, from completely obliterating the parallel plot line featuring confused college kids who flirt, like the show, with politics without ever committing to it.
Misra, who is also credited as the writer and director of the show’s seven episodes, is far more comfortable handling one tone, specifically the cutesy quirkiness that he douses the opening couple of episodes in, than two. Tragically let down by poor background music that underscores every emotion with the subtlety of a Mughal son scorned, Taj Mahal 1989 in later episodes turns into a misguided melodrama.
The only thing more jarring that the tonal shifts are the scene transitions. At first, the technique comes across as positively avant-garde and very vignetty — loosely structured and temporally fluid scenes that hop from one set of characters to the next like a television channel abruptly changed. But it only takes a few minutes to realise that this effect is, instead, the result of poor editing. I could swear that one character — Akhtar’s old friend Sudhakar — was introduced twice.
But Misra captures the essence of Lucknow rather well. The sets feel lived-in and suitably rustic, from the linoleum on the tables to the Milton water coolers in the kitchens. And the occasional insert shots of motichoor laddoos and tunde kababs perform double duty of smoothing out some of those irregular transitions and adding vital local flavour.
It has now become abundantly clear that the quality of a Netflix India original is inversely proportional to the amount of publicity it gets. Like Little Things, Soni, and the recent Jamtara, Taj Mahal 1989 will require a positive press and vigorous word-of-mouth to be heard among the deafening roar of the Karan Johar and Red Chillies ‘content’ that is given prime real estate on your Netflix homepage. Consider this a solid recommendation. Top marks to whoever struck the deal with Viacom18.