Taj Mahal 1989 is a classic example of how in a TV series, less can often be more

Depicting a pre-Tinder age, the series traces the lives of multiple characters who believe in different notions of love
Updated 29 May, 2020

As is oft acknowledged, the lockdown struck the “pause” key, forcing us to halt in ways that were difficult to imagine before the pandemic took over.

By slowing us down, it has gradually begun invoking opportunities for reflection and nostalgia; to remove the elaborate and pretence from our lives.

Netflix, with its assortment of shows and movies, is responsible in part for whetting our appetite towards the evocative and wistful yearning for simpler times.

Some months ago, the Hindi series Taj Mahal 1989 quietly dropped on Netflix. And with its rare sensitivity and restraint, the series stands out from the clutter; the authenticity and potency of its performances have compelled audiences to sit up and take notice.

Rarely flaky or contrived, it explores contestations in love as they unfold in reality, rather than through photoshopped social media images. By embracing the messiness of the human condition and offering slices of life in their original, uncensored form, it never tries hard to fit it into a template.

Instead, much like the times we are currently living in, it signals a return to simplicity.

Assessing the plot

Set in the Lucknow of three decades ago, the series journeys back to a time when India was a more facile country, sheltered from flagrant neo-liberalism and corporate politics and when secularism was purported as a brand of Indian national identity.

Depicting a pre-Tinder age, when interpretations of love weren’t paper-thin, and Hindu-Muslim romances were less likely to evoke frightening roadside rage, the seven-episode series traces the lives of multiple characters across various ages and settings, each of whom believes in vastly different notions of love.

Movie poster for the film
Movie poster for the film

Akhtar Baig (played by Neeraj Kabi), represents a classically fervent intellectual, a philosophy professor at Lucknow University who seems far more deeply connected to the poets and thinkers who inspire him, than to the family residing inside his home. Sarita, Akhtar’s wife (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni), occupies the other end of the spectrum; a die-hard empiricist and physics professor.

The series succeeds largely due to the spontaneity of its performances, both in terms of dialogues and acting. The pressure to conform to celebrity status is not there. None of the characters appear glorified or larger than life.

While Akhtar revels in Faiz’s poetry and attends mushairas, there is nothing Sarita savours more than a commercial, Bollywood potboiler. The contradictions in their love story broker the fundamental tension that the series represents — the politics of love, especially when idealism encounters common-sense and pragmatism under the same roof.

On the same university campus where Akhtar and Sarita teach, we simultaneously get a peek into the brimming lives of college students experiencing their first outing with communism, political parties, intimacy, violence, friendship and love.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that Angad Trivedi, a politically inclined university-goer (played by Anud Singh Dhaka), offers a quiet tribute to what a younger version of Akhtar might have been like.

At its essence, Taj Mahal 1989 is a triumph of substance over style

The series succeeds largely due to the spontaneity of its performances, both in terms of dialogues and acting. The pressure to conform to celebrity status is not there. None of the characters appear glorified or larger than life.

Sets and props, dialogues, its sepia-toned cinematography, indicate that nothing is being staged to create an impression. The show instead thrives on discreet provocation and restrained effect.

Whilst the parallel, intertwined storylines keep you hooked, the series is not subservient to its plot either; in fact, the narrative, compelling as it is, appears secondary to character development.

It doesn’t flinch from showcasing grey spaces and chaos, in fact, freely depicts the contradictions within each character and their internal struggles for reconciliation.

Through the course of the show, we find gratifying and deeply disturbing development in the young male actors, both college students, Angad and Dharam (played by Paras Priyadarshan), and a realistic depiction of how life is at the cross-roads during those formative university days.

The well fleshed out and often unassuming characters of younger and older protagonists alike, underline the fact that substantive roles and honest acting rarely require superfluous embellishments; their charm lies in executing that very realism and minimalism.

Through its real, reticent form, Taj Mahal 1989 achieves what most modern-day entertainment isn’t always able to master: a production that is sublimely comfortable in its own skin.

In its sincere, homespun way, it also dispels much wisdom without masquerading as intelligent or cerebral. Akhtar’s friend Sudarkar (played by Dan Hussain) is profound and empathetic and seems to experience life at a deeper level than most, without, of course, having all the answers. Some of his dialogues, whilst short on drama, are long on wisdom and will stay with you long after the show ends.

Similarly, each time Akhtar quotes a verse from Faiz or a young communist firebrand stands up for his politics at college, they never descend into preachy, sermonized delivery. Throughout the show, we find tiny, unobtrusive moments of dynamism, nuggets which are best explored in the context of the show, rather than being listed out of context here.

Promotional artwork for the film.
Promotional artwork for the film.

Without obvious rhetorical overtones, the series poses questions that are fundamental to human existence; how does one strike the balance between life’s ambiguities and the yearning for sure-footed answers?

We find that watching the series was a great way to rekindle the nostalgia of the years and times gone by, much like exploring a bunch of hitherto unseen photographs that one has stumbled upon in the attic.

Through its real, reticent form, Taj Mahal 1989 achieves what most modern-day entertainment isn’t always able to master: a production that is sublimely comfortable in its own skin.

By surrendering to the powerful yet effortless rhythm of Taj Mahal 1989, soaking in its silences and allowing yourself to indulge in the long-buried nostalgia that it evokes, you may come to realize that in TV shows and films, less can often offer more.

Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi

Farrukh Karim Khan works in Pakistan’s capital markets as a portfolio manager


Kashif May 26, 2020 10:55am
But Pakistan has been mandated to watch only Turkish shows!
Chrís Dăn May 26, 2020 11:10am
Thank you. I will watch it.
Junaid Ali May 26, 2020 12:59pm
Indians don’t have any Hindu cultural sites of their own that’s way they’re making movies about architecture built by Muslim Rulers of Subcontinent even Modi give his Independence day speech at Red fort which was again built by a Muslim
Science to it May 26, 2020 01:02pm
Thank you for the report, will try and see the series
Karachi May 26, 2020 04:21pm
I'll prefer Turkish series.
Omar May 26, 2020 04:54pm
Does not look promising with bad YouTube style acting.
Guest May 26, 2020 04:55pm
Nice try junaid beta
AA May 26, 2020 05:06pm
Amazing drama, strong performances and beautiful Urdu spoken. Loved this show.
A May 26, 2020 10:50pm
Hate I can understand, downright foolishness I cant ...
neutral man May 27, 2020 12:53am
Ever heard of forts of Jaipur, Chittorgarh, bikaner, jaisalmer ? Heard of Gwalior's royal palace ? Heard of Ajanta Elora caves ?
Reader May 27, 2020 04:43am
Shahjehan was emperor of Hindostan. So it is natural for Indians to make a film depicting his gift to the world, Taj Mahal.
Irtiza Rizvi May 27, 2020 06:43am
I watched this on Netflix, amazing dialogues. However, the end was very predictable. I would still recommend this for amazing acting and screenplay.
Irtiza Rizvi May 27, 2020 06:45am
It has got nothing to do with the architecture. Watch the series first, don't just comment on the basis of the title
Tony Soprano May 27, 2020 09:40am
Indian shows & movies are ruling Netflix & Amazom Prime.
Kishore Nair May 27, 2020 03:48pm
Good review Dan Hussain character was really deep and haunting
AbdulHaque Shaikh May 27, 2020 09:29pm
Yes, Both Muslims and Hindu culture sprang from soil of Hindustan. People from subcontinent deserve to take pride in whatever originated from its soil unlike RSS who has spread hate and divided the people