Long Reads

The Classic(s) Retro-Spective

Lekha Menon
Filed on September 11, 2021

The familiar pops of comforts that pop culture of a bygone era accord you are way more ‘consumable’ for not just fans of a certain vintage, but for the younger generation as well

A peek into my post-work (from home) routine on most days: settle into a couch with a blank look, fingers automatically keying ‘Netflix’ (or ‘Amazon’ or ‘Disney’) on the browser. I need not even finish typing. In a matter of nano-seconds, Chrome leads me to the colourful home page that opens with a fancy new recommendation panel. I glance at the bunch of new movies, shows, web-series and documentaries that have dropped in, each more tempting than the other, the algorithms carefully curating a list based on my interests and past viewing sessions.

Now, it’s time for important decisions to be made: what should I begin with? The new season of Money Heist (need to watch it or there will be major FOMO) or the last season of The Bold Type (which Netflix kindly orders to “continue watching for Lekha Menon”)? Should I finally catch up on The Family Man (Amazon) or check out The Empire on Disney? Naah, since Afghanistan is in the news, I might as well watch The Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror so that I can comment intelligibly when the topic comes up during a conversation!

Unable to make up my mind, I scroll down further only to be bombarded with more alluring choices of Oscar-winning movies, trending stuff, originals… the list is long and exhausting. I then choose a movie but pause when it doesn’t hold my attention beyond 15 minutes.

By this time, nearly half an hour has elapsed and I finally give up, returning to a fail-safe show that I know will never let me down — Friends. The company of Ross, Rachel, Monica & Co makes up for all the confusion of having to zero in on the perfect movie or series to binge while Netflix-ing (or Amazon-ing) and chilling.

Call it nostalgia, indecisiveness or sheer laziness but despite the plethora of cutting-edge shows, music, books and games screaming for our attention, there is tremendous comfort in clinging to the past for a dose of entertainment. Of course, you feel terribly out of place when you can’t chime in with inputs even as your better updated friends discuss Bridgerton or analyse the merits and demerits of Sex/Life but fact is that the more stuff there is to watch, the more some of us are likely to get childhood flashbacks.

As it turns out, I am not the only one who yo-yos between the latest and the oldest. Trisha Gunawardene, a recruiter with a leading multi-national firm, experiences similar OTT fatigue while deciding what to watch. “There have been countless times where I have at least 10 movies on my watch-list, but for some unknown reason I decide to re-watch Pride & Prejudice for the 23rd time!” says Trisha. “Partly because it’s one of my favourite movies of all time, but also because the excess amount and the pressure of choosing to view something new is outweighed by the comfort and familiarity brought by a movie I have seen before.”

Cinema goes retro

Is it this comfort and familiarity factor that has led to a renewed interest in shows and music from the past, particularly the ‘80s and ‘90s? Going by trends, it certainly seems so. One of the biggest news from the entertainment world in recent times was the Friends Reunion — in the UK alone, it amassed a viewership of over 5 million. ‘90s poster-child Britney Spears’ woes captured the imagination of celebrity headline hunters the world over while the ‘R’ words — revive, reboot, remake and reimagine — seem to underline Hollywood and Bollywood content with creators frantically reworking old movies, music and shows in brand new avatars.

“It’s because the films and music of the 80s and 90s were phenomenal. They don’t make movies like Sleepless in Seattle or The Breakfast Club and shows like Dawson’s Creek anymore,” reasons Nathalie Shariat, a Dubai-based radio presenter and a classics fan who admits to binge-watching 10 seasons of Friends last year when she wanted to snap out of the lockdown-induced drudgery of bad news.

Bollywood, of course, appears to be going retro with a vengeance, especially in the music industry. The response predictably, has been rather critical from those with discerning tastes. “In the 90s, we had remixes of (music composer) RD Burman and others from the 70s, now it’s the 90s and the noughties being remixed,” observes playwright Gaggan Mudgal emphasising that film and music makers, short on creativity, find it easy to tap into the nostalgia-loving generation since it offers a readymade fan base.

Therefore, in the last two years, as in Bollywood, in the West too you had countless cover versions of some of the ‘90s biggest hits, improved and modernised. Examples include musicians like Dua Lipa, Weeknd, John Mayer among others who experimented by putting the 80s’ feel to their new albums to great success.

For a crowd that was finding it hard to keep up with new-age offerings, these numbers offered some wonderfully cherished memories to lap up. For instance, Nathalie says that the pandemic and the resultant disruption to life fuelled and reinforced her love for the past, especially in music. A few months ago, she bought herself a boom-box that had a tape player, a CD player and a radio for her to listen to old CDs and mix tapes for hours. Nathalie has a particular fondness for mix tapes. “They are like an art form. There is something beautiful about making a mix tape for someone, figuring out what song goes where, how to fit them on one side and so on. It was really so interesting to go back, date and label them reliving old times,” she says, adding that in the last year alone, her playlist compilation topped over 450 songs.

Interestingly, Nathalie also notes a slow but steadily rising trend of listening to music on vinyl. “A lot of people are buying music on vinyl and record players because music sounds so much better with the crackle of a vinyl player,” she says.

Why the past beckons

Clearly, there is an increasing interest in bringing the past back to life, bypassing the present. Radio presenter of City 1016 Lokesh Dharmani, an ardent movie buff, credits Netflix and Amazon for helping him discover some beautiful movies and documentaries but prefers to go back in time when it comes to music. “Personally, I am not much of a watcher. My reading habits have been reduced from books to tweets. The only interesting change that happened was during my evening routine. Since my mom and I couldn’t go for a walk, we prepared a playlist that comprised songs from ‘70s and ‘80s. We would make chai, plonk ourselves in the balcony and listen to singers like Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and others back to back for hours,” he says.

A quintessential ‘90s child, Lokesh has a theory about why the decade is back with a bang; for many, be believes, they symbolise a period of good quality in pop culture. “It was a period when pop culture in India had a bit of intellect with original music, smart documentary shows (like Surabhi) and witty VJs, RJs and film reviewers shaping opinion. Comparatively, who do we have now? Self-proclaimed critics and social media trolls? I wonder if people would seek solace in these kind of videos 20 years from now during another pandemic!” he shudders.

With a gloomy present and uncertain future, for many fans like Lokesh it is perhaps but natural to look back at a happier, classier past. And OTT platforms have only made it easier with a neatly curated list of classics in varied genres sitting comfortably with new-age gifts. The other day, I watched a documentary on the making of Pretty Woman and it brought back so many memories that I instantly gave into the temptation of watching the Julia Roberts-starrer one more time. Nathalie speaks for a lot of us when she describes the sheer joy of re-watching Ally McBeal. “I am on to Season 2, it has aged so well!” she says. Gaggan recalls stumbling upon Forrest Gump and ending up watching over an hour of the Tom Hanks Oscar-winner. “I would think twice before investing six or eight hours on a binge-watch session for a new show. On the other hand, classics come with a guarantee that you will enjoy it,” he says.

Gen Z loves them too

It’s not just us over 40s who are on a retro trip. Much to my surprise, even Gen Z (admittedly a very tiny group), seems to be enamoured by classics. Take the young and sprightly 15-year-old Shakinah Dawson for instance. The grade 10 student was in the third grade when her teacher called her mother up over her viewing preferences. The reason: Shakinah had written about her favourite movie — Blue Lagoon! “I don’t remember what was it about the movie that captivated me, I think it was the innocence with which the love story played out on screen,” says Shakinah. (We don’t know if the teacher shared her views!)

The teen’s book choices are also perhaps unusual for her generation — she grew up on a diet of Ramona Qwimby and the Wimpy Kid series. And when it comes to movies, while she digs K-dramas, Shakinah’s real love is classics. She claims to have watched Pride & Prejudice and Emma approximately 15 times (each), with her dinner table conversations often centering around scenes from these movies. “I have a bias for them because of their enticing plots and settings. In films like You’ve Got Mail, the characters have more on-screen chemistry than the ones in The Sun Is Also A Star (a 2019 teen flick),” she says. And while her friends discuss news from the Avengers’ universe, Shakinah brushes it off. “I was never interested in it anyway,” she shrugs, “I am more likely to watch my regular shows than something new.”

The past is trending, but…

Indeed, even a cursory glance at any OTT platform’s offerings appears to be a sheer blast from the past. Some of the most anticipated shows and movies this year and the next are remakes of the golden oldies. Rom-com fans can look forward to Gossip Girl, Avatar: The Last Airbender, High School Musical etc that have all been reignited with mostly new cast members. Re-imaginations using familiar names have been seen recently as in the case of Fate: The Winx Saga or Riverdale, that use characters we know from our childhood, converting them to adult versions with darker back stories. The 1995 hit Clueless, a gender-swapped reboot of Doogie Houser MD and Frasier are some of the other films and series that will be seen in a new avatar.

How successful are they likely to be? The verdict is mixed. “When done right, I appreciate remakes, but, honestly, so far I’m not a huge fan. Leave the classic TV shows/movies as they are, because when recreated, everything is critiqued and scrutinised and there are always those who are never pleased. Being original is hard to come by,” says Trisha.

Nathalie would like to give them a chance, but with a dose of scepticism. “I am not excited about reboots if it has new character of actors I am not attached to. But, say, if Friends made an announcement that the actors were returning, I’d be so insanely excited about it. These are shows that sound-tracked our childhood and taught us about love and friendship,” she adds.

With pop culture turning the clock back, the flip side is that it has increased viewing pressure. As I narrated my confusion earlier — just how much content can you consume? Just how do you strike a balance between relishing an old movie, giving into the temptation of watching the remake of an old movie and bingeing on a new one that is making headlines? Too much choice has resulted in too much stress. As Trisha explains, “Think about it. When you reach a certain age, you are expected to have read all the Game of Thrones books, watch the corresponding series and know everything about the actors... you can’t watch something new without watching the 50 other movies/shows that precede them. Now, imagine a person who is born 20 years from now, they will have to watch at least 50 years’ worth of content to be fully articulate about pop culture! That is mind-boggling,” she says.

I empathise. No wonder we all need a breather from the viewing, listening and reading frenzy. The social media chatter on the latest show can wait. As can answers to the quintessential ice-breaker during a conversation: “What are you watching now?” Well, I will be watching an episode of Seinfeld or re-reading Jane Austen — in their pure form, sans any reboot or reimagination. It’s just the antidote I need from the relentless ‘content attack’ on my retro-loving senses.

(Lekha is a journalist and editor based in India)

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