Nostalgia is like cinnamon powder of the emotional realm. It’s present in everything sweet and saleable today—from resto-bar decors to photo filters to memes (“Aao kabhi haveli pe" is the latest in the same series in which Alok Nath’s Sanskaari Babuji was once a rage) to every second Hindi film remixing yet another song from the 1990s. In all this sepia-tinted violence of marketing buzzwords, is there any space or need even to talk about that seemingly unremarkable chunk of time in the history of our cinema and television?

Still—this is a question I am tired of asking myself—what is it about the 1990s that refuses to leave us, the children of that era? (By children of that era, I broadly mean those born post-Emergency but pre-liberalization; boys and girls who gained the visceral sense of body, mind, and the world in the 1990s.) Of course, it was the time of coloured TV, DD Metro, cable channels, a new sensibility in cinema, and it was the time when Baba Sehgal entered our lives. But is that enough? And isn’t that what every generation believes—that they have lived through the most turbulent or sexy or peaceful or meaningful childhoods? So why do I still dream of Alisha Chinai, Anaida, Jackie Shroff (he was singing a qawwali in a dream I had last month, something he has not done in a Hindi film yet, I think), Varsha Usgaonkar (Toh Saathi Koi Bhoola Yaad Aaya fame), and Kya Banoge Munna (serious DD fans will remember this morning-show gem)? It’s a probe, this piece, which may take me into places bittersweet.

I was a TV addict right from the day the first set came into our home in 1987. Beltek black and white, with a fan-regulator-like channel changer. There were 12 channels on the regulator but only one in our TV sets and hearts. The Doordarshan telecast was limited to a few hours daily and I would happily watch Krishi Darshan (at 7.30pm)—the studio chat show on farming life and techniques—just because it sometimes showed stock footage of farms. “Outdoor" footage was a visual candy in those times of claustrophobia-inducing floral-print indoors and cardboard backdrops. Though we were making lots of films for theatrical release, the TV telecast was rationed as if in wartime, as if we would run out of films soon. The doctors running the government hospital of TV had prescribed us only one Hindi film a week (with a single commercial break to remind us of national integration via Mile Sur Mera Tumhara) in addition to a weekly programme of film songs—Chitrahaar. By 1991, owing to our good behaviour, the quota was increased to two films and two Chitrahaars a week. When the news of this doubling of our feed first came, it was so unbelievable that almost everybody rejected it as a rumour. Somebody even claimed that it was to distract us from the Mandal and Mandir protests happening all over.

1990s was the time of coloured TV, DD Metro, cable channels,
1990s was the time of coloured TV, DD Metro, cable channels,

So imagine when, in 1994, there was a thick black cable coming straight into our homes from the sci-fi-style dish antenna of the shady but enterprising office of the local “cable operator" (a term uttered with much reverence in those early days)— bringing in the latest films and songs and trendy game shows and much credible BBC and much sexy Santa Barbara—how might a normal Indian kid otherwise addicted to sarkaari deprivation have reacted?

The fact that this uncensored, unlimited, and hitherto unimaginable technological wonder coincided with my entry into puberty made it all the more life-changing.

I think the first gem we discovered on cable TV was Andaz Apna Apna (1994), a film that didn’t create much of a buzz when it released in theatres. I immediately put it on top in the “film suggestion card" given by the operator that we were supposed to submit at the end of every month. As it turned out, a majority of the subscribers asked for the same film and it played daily in the afternoon for a month. Other notable films that we made the cable guy put on repeat were happy-weepy Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), Naam (1986), and for some strange reason (possibly action) the Sanjay Dutt-starrer Kroadh (1990). Though after every action film, especially those with a couple of “adult scenes" in them, the cable guy would purify the network by screening a mythological TV serial (rerun of Mahabharat, 1988, or Jai Santoshi Maa, 1975). I didn’t mind the serials—as long as they showed outdoorsy stuff. Gulshan Kumar made hay as his mythological shows on VHS tapes unspooled on our afternoons.

It was also the time that I started going to the cinema with friends, unaccompanied by parents. Though males in India don’t have to struggle much for this, it was still liberating to buy our own tickets and watch a film without the fog of discomfort that surrounded us when an intimate scene played on screen. When Titanic (1997) came in theatres, riding on the buzz about Kate Winslet’s nude scene, my parents went to watch it first like a bespoke two-member Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) committee and deemed it fit to be watched by us—me and my younger brother (17 and 15, respectively). The nude scene was still there, possibly shortened for the India cut, and that fog of discomfort still gripped many in the hall—one family even walked out at interval, missing the real morbid fun of the sinking. I watched the film again, missing the first day of my Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) coaching, with a friend who hadn’t seen it yet. I cried at the ending both times.

On another occasion, watching Hero No.1 (1997), two friends and I won a lucky draw announced during the interval. One of our seat numbers (M-9) had won a newly launched T-Series ceiling fan. We requested the cinema hall manager (Pratibha Cinema, Lucknow) to keep the fan and give us some money in return. He gave us Rs300 and with my share of Rs100, I took my younger brother for dinner at a Chinese restaurant—our first-ever Chinese meal in a proper restaurant with dim lights and dark doors. We finished the meal quickly—my brother fearing we would be thrown out for lack of manners and I fearing the theatre manager would magically appear from somewhere and take the money back.

The film that defined the decade for me, the one that took me by storm was Rangeela (1995). We didn’t understand the basics of cinematic language then but the primal energy bursting through the screen was enough to elevate it to the status of a contemporary masterpiece. My friends and I saw it in a theatre and later on many reruns on cable. It was probably the first time I looked at a film not just as entertainment or a sensorial catalyst but also as a thing of beauty, as art.

Though we were making lots of films for theatrical release, the TV telecast was rationed as if in wartime, as if we would run out of films soon. The doctors running the government hospital of TV had prescribed us only one Hindi film a week.-

I read somewhere that most of our life-long active memories are derived from experiences we have had between the ages of 12 and 18. Our teenage years, good or bad, remain a part of our subconscious lives forever. At least anecdotally I can confirm it to be true. The Lucknow house we lived in and moved out of in 2001, still makes regular appearances in my dreams.

I recently went back to the city after a long gap and dropped by at the Gomti Nagar house of my subconscious. It had changed completely—the outer wall, the open terrace, the front yard—all had mutated into another teenager’s youth. I still rang the bell and explained my situation. The current residents let me in—to allow me to find some speck of resemblance and peace with the time I had spent there. I entered the living room with a TV playing ads, looked at the walls, imagined my mother here, brother there, us playing table tennis on the floor during one happy summer break. I strained to catch a moment from 20 years ago but it was gone. It was time to leave. But just then the ad break on the TV ended, a music channel played Chura Ke Dil Mera Goriya Chali from Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment, and I was there. It was that easy.

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