Why is Bollywood obsessed with the 90s?

Gadar 2's humongous success has gone beyond Bollywood’s imagination

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Still from 'Gadar 2'
Still from 'Gadar 2'

By Yasser Usman

Published: Thu 31 Aug 2023, 6:23 PM

Why has our popular culture become so fixated on the 1990s and early 2000s? Before I delve into this, let's take a glance at a few updates from the film industry over the past month. Sunny Deol has delivered the most successful film of the decade. Gadar 2's humongous success has gone beyond Bollywood’s imagination. I am not reviewing the film for its quality but its triumph is being attributed to its honest portrayal of the core family unit, nationalistic sentiments and Sunny Deol (Do you even remember his last hit film before Gadar 2 blew everyone’s mind away?)

Then Guns & Gulaabs, Prime Video’s recent series directed by Raj & DK, is a flamboyant ode to mid-90s Bollywood action-crime films. The 90s nostalgia hits its peak in the series with a villain named Chaar-Cut Atmaram with a Sanjay Dutt’s mullet hairstyle from the nineties. It boasts of rotary landline phones, cassette players and cassettes with ‘jhankar beats’, students playing book cricket (remember this?) and north Indian gangsters indulging in good old dialoguebazi and pulpy violence.

Still from 'Jawan'
Still from 'Jawan'

Another news from B’town suggests one of the most adored onscreen pairs of nineties, Akshay Kumar and Raveena Tandon (who had also got engaged but didn’t marry) are going to reunite after 19 years in Welcome To The Jungle (a sequel to 2007 film Welcome). There will of course be references to their romance and their signature song Tip Tip Barsa Paani (Mohra, 1994). And ofcourse, the king of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan will be back this week with a massy, nineties-style, revenge-vigilante action movie Jawan. The hysteria over the advance booking suggests it’s going to be a massive film.

Still from 'Guns & Gulaabs'
Still from 'Guns & Gulaabs'

There has to be a reason behind this sudden love for the past. Conversations in living rooms are abuzz with discussions about the Tara-Sakina love story, the nineties’ chartbuster Main Nikla Gaddi Leke and and the excitement surrounding a potential Border 2. We are witnessing the resurgence of unadulterated nostalgia not just in small town single screen theatres but also among the most expensive multiplexes. It's a rare “universal hit” that the film industry had been yearning for. It’s intriguing that something that was deemed outdated a few months ago has gained renewed ‘retro’ appeal. Individuals, particularly from the millennial generation seem highly inclined towards these nostalgic feelings.These are the decades encompassing their childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood. Incidentally, it's this particular age group that you see in viral videos grooving to the tunes of Gadar 2 in theatres.

So, why is re-immersing ourselves in the characters, narratives, and atmospheres we cherished in days gone-by, such a prevalent and reassuring trend at this moment? If we go by the basic psychological explanation, nostalgia tends to intensify during transitional phases or periods marked by significant personal, social or cultural transformations. Perhaps, this surge of nostalgia finds its roots in the exceedingly turbulent times we have experienced in the recent years: Covid-19, recession, personal and social turmoil. In this context, it seems as though nostalgia is being used as a means of seeking refuge in stories from the nineties.

If you remember, when the lockdown was imposed, the old television classic Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1987) was retelecasted, followed by BR Chopra’s Mahabharat (1988) on Doordarshan. Ramayan broke the records and became the most watched show in the world with over 77 million impressions. In the same time frame, the popular American sitcom Friends (1994-2004) consistently trended in Netflix's top 10 list for several days, seven years after its addition to the streaming platform. Confined within their homes, families rekindled memories, embracing a period of shared reminiscence, mainly the nineties.

In Bollywood, the 1990s marked a phase when popular culture soared to new heights. Established superstars were succeeded by a fresh wave of younger stars—The Khan trio, Akshay Kumar, and Ajay Devgn — while stars like Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol acted as a bridge between the generations, maintaining a strong fanbase. Despite over two decades of sweeping changes, we still have the same superstars. This fact speaks volumes about our inclination towards nostalgia and the significance it holds for us. There’s a certain gratification in witnessing ‘Tara Singh’ single-handedly taking on an entire nation (Pakistan) or listening to Kumar Sanu's unmistakably ’90s voice crooning a romantic ballad while Rajkummar Rao takes a romantic bike ride with his girlfriend in Guns & Gulaabs.

Revisiting the 90s might offer a moment of relief inspiring the filmmakers to proceed with renewed insight. But constantly being caught up in nostalgia can seriously backfire like it has in the past. In his every recent interview, Sunny Deol confirms that there will be a Gadar 3. It’s clear that his statement is purely driven by the enormous success while there’s no story or script in sight, yet. Shah Rukh, Sunny and Akshay are steering towards large-scale, high-budget entertainers. While I’m all for massy films, I do believe our cinema should reflect the contemporary context and milieu instead of solely relying on nostalgia. But Pathaan and Gadar 2's monstrous success suggests that our audiences may not share my perspective.


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