Time travelling with the movies

A feared food critic is skeptical of the dish placed before him. It looks too ordinary, too simple. Notepad by his side, he is ready to destroy the restaurant on paper. He casually shovels a forkful of the ‘country grub’ into his mouth. Suddenly, his eyes glaze over. Something explodes on his tongue, and in his head. The taste instantly takes him back to that sunny summer morning. The morning when his mother’s cooking – full of love and flavour and comfort – soothed his teenaged moodiness. A tangible memory tucked away within an analytical mind. The pen slips out of his fingers and falls dramatically to the floor. Today, he is that child again.

This iconic scene from Brad Bird’s animated
, featuring a humbled Anton Ego, holds some of life’s deepest truths. Most of all, it depicts modern culture’s most crystalline form of nostalgia. The joy of an old experience dances with the sadness of its age. It represents time as a feeling – one that slices past rationality and reasoning. It’s important to remember here that food engages all five senses.

Cinema is an audiovisual medium. You can’t touch, smell or taste the movies. Which is why it’s normal for filmmakers to “incite” nostalgia by using it as a narrative device. Movies have no choice but to be deliberate in their pursuit of wistfulness. Therefore, you see the actual depiction of a time rather than the suggestion of it. The first case is when the characters within a film get nostalgic – flashbacks and music are the weapons of choice.

The second case is more interactive, and explores the sacred relationship between a film and its viewer.

The film uses a backdrop from a bygone era or song (or style) from a past decade, and it’s the viewer who must feel nostalgic.

The wonder years

For instance, I had my own little Anton Ego moment recently while watching the latest TVF web-series,
Yeh Meri Family
. Midway through the seven episodes, I had dismissed it for overdosing on ‘90s nostalgia in lieu of slice-of-life storytelling. But then came a scene that made me drop my metaphorical pen. The setting: a cricket match in a middle-class colony garden. The 13-year-old protagonist, whose aimless summer holidays form the crux of the show, is embarrassed to see his obese father instruct his team from the sidelines. The man is then redeemed in his son’s eyes when, during the change-up, he shocks everyone by smashing the fastest bowler into orbit. The scene immediately teleported me back to the summer of 1996. To the humid May evening when my father, too, went from dad to dude. Still in office wear, he displayed the classical technique of a purist – after which I spent all vacation pestering him to hone by batting skills in our drawing room.

For a few seconds, I could smell the cigarette smoke cascading in from his bedroom, taste the hardness of the water I’d drink between sessions, and feel the decaying grip of my SG bat handle. It’s akin to the complete feeling Kumar Sanu’s voice elicits from the bylanes of 1990s Haridwar, in Sharat Kataria’s charming
Dum Laga Ke Haisha

In these moments, movies transcend their form and engage all our five senses. They become impressions, rather than expressions.

Those were the days

This in no way means that such cinema, or even the ratatouille, is flawless. But it’s personal – and, except for the industry of ‘remixed’ art, a business born out of sheltering time rather than exploiting it. Filmmakers employ nostalgia to cater to specific sections of the audience, but differently from the way they use item songs or lowbrow comedies to do the same. You’d rather have them draw from a world that has already existed than bastardise the concept of a world they think the audience wants to see exist.

Nostalgia is also, by default, a therapeutic medium of escapism – a positive recollection of history to suppress the negative undertones of the future.

For example, adults who perpetually reminisce about “the good old days” tend to be subconsciously reflecting upon an unfulfilled existence or bleak future. In this context, I wonder if TVF’s current shows are a subliminal reaction to last year’s controversies that plagued the company. Or if
Dum Laga Ke Haisha
might have been Yash Raj Films’ knee-jerk escape from its own slate of self-reverential unoriginality.

It certainly explains why Remy, the rat of
, chooses to cook something rustic and old-school, minutes after surviving a crisis. And perhaps also why I’m here writing about nostalgia in a year dominated by tired sequels and opportunistic remakes.

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