Aditya Hasan-directed web series is a delectable package of bitter-sweet moments of middle-class life in the 90s
Chandrashekhar is a mathematics teacher at a government school in Wanaparthy who leads a hand-to-mouth existence with his wife Shoba and three kids - Raghu, Divya and Aditya. While Raghu and Divya are responsible for their age, Aditya is a brat. Despite their day-to-day challenges, the middle-class family finds happiness within their mundaneness, little pleasures and petty fights.
Watching 90s is therapeutic. A nostalgic account of life in the post-liberalisation era in a sleepy small town, it has the warmth of a quilt during harsh winters. It is effortlessly earnest with a fable-like quality, is much more than a syrupy collage of pop-culture references of the 90s/2000s. It’s a tale of school diaries, teenage crushes, slam books, bet-matches, Sunday dinners spent watching Amrutham.
The setup is lively, rooted and instantly strikes a chord. A grumpy yet likeable mathematics teacher is the patriarch, his homemaker wife does the handholding while running the household and their three happy-go-lucky kids - two boys, one girl - on the cusp of adulthood, complete their existence. All have their share of tantrums, but still find joy in their oneness.
A timid Raghu is a smart student, but lacks the courage to admit his liking for Sucheta, wonders why his father doesn’t put an arm around him while he talks. The world of books, marks and report cards doesn’t make any sense to a film enthusiast Aditya (perhaps named after the director?). Divya is perturbed by how her mother doesn’t allow her to go to school alone.
Through Chandrasekhar’s government teacher-act, there’s an obvious debate between private and government schooling. Upma, the staple-breakfast item, is a tool to understand the mundaneness in his wife Shoba’s life. There’s fine effort to decode the psyche of its five pivotal characters of various age groups without taking sides. The classroom humour is a riot and so are the domestic squabbles.
Even within its niceties, director Aditya Hasan isn’t carried away by the nostalgia. While he doesn’t subvert norms, the story isn’t merely about the man leading the show in the household either. You see a girl’s frustration about the boys getting to eat the mutton curry first, how the family occasionally fails to look at a woman beyond motherhood and it doesn’t romanticise a homemaker’s challenges.
While the feather-light treatment of the bitter-sweet moments leaves little scope for complaint, the director is hellbent on cramming too much material into one show. It seeks to tell why girls need to be physically resilient, how small-town parents needn’t always be conservative, why rote learning isn’t advisable, showcases hypocrisy among relatives and the larger picture beyond academics.
The spark isn’t only in the writing - the storytelling is largely aided by the visual metaphors, props and the dreamy music score. From the school gates to the tiffin boxes to the bags, cycles, used clothes, the cable wires, steelware and torn slippers - the imagery, complemented by the emotion, ensures its recall value.
With 90s, the Telugu digital space can finally boast of a goofy, native, slice-of-life drama that’s similar in its vibe to TVF’s Gullak and Yeh Meri Family. Shivaji is a hoot as the middle-aged teacher who feels the pinch of being the breadwinner of a family. He looks every bit the orthodox disciplinarian who still means well. Vasuki is in roaring form as a mom overwhelmed by her domestic routines.
Among the children, Mouli, undoubtedly, is the pick of the lot, perhaps because of the conflicts and the drama within Raghu’s character and how he brings them alive with relative ease. Vasanthika is charming as Divya, the doting sister to her brothers. Roshan plays the live wire to perfection, while Snehal Kamat excels as Suchita, continuing to cement her authority in the OTT space.
90s is a perfect example of exploring the joys of a bygone era through a modern-day lens, while highlighting its problems and still retaining its jolly-good vibe. Aditya Hasan makes a commendable debut as a writer-director with a show that’s sweet, compact and boasts of terrific performances.