Once Upon a Time… In a Pandemic

11 Dec,2020


By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh Kapoor

2020 been an unusual year, if ever there was one. Amid the pandemic and the socio-economic disruption it has brought in, there have been shifts in tastes and preferences too, some more enduring than others. The rise of digital consumption is perhaps the most enduring of these shifts. It may take some more time to accurately ascertain on how many new users were initiated into the world of e-commerce and online consumption of content, ranging from social media to long-format content, as a result of the pandemic. But all early estimates suggest the numbers in India are very sizeable, with some categories seeing upward of 40% growth in their active user base.


A less dominant, but more nuanced, trend that has emerged is the apparent rise in the importance attached to the idea of nostalgia, especially in the realm of entertainment. The success of Ramayan on Doordarshan was the first strong indicator, but certainly not the only one. Television in 2020 has seen immense success via old content, including more recent shows like Saath Nibhaana Saathiya (S1) reruns rating higher than most popular new shows.


In the streaming space too, Panchayat’s old-world charm fascinated the audience, and the more-recent Scam 1992 has been appreciated for, among other things, its authentic recreation of the 90s. Appreciation of the latter kind is not new, being a factor in films like Special 26 and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai. But it’s more persuasive and dominant in Scam 1992, perhaps because the importance attached to nostalgia is peaking in 2020.


Ludo King has emerged as the most popular online game of 2019-20, with its nostalgic value driving its success in no small measure. Even as modern-era games like PUB G (till its ban in India) and its variants fascinate the teenagers and the youth, the older (30+) population is enamored by the idea of being able to play Ludo online with friends and family members across the globe.


Nostalgia has the potential of being a strong hot button in films too, though it can be argued that so far, it has been a bit of a wasted opportunity. Many old songs have been recreated over the last decade. But more than evoking nostalgia, these remixes have made many question if remixing old songs is a way of legitimizing creative bankruptcy in the music world, where original creations are taking a backseat. But there have been some smart ones too, like the recent use of the Albela (1951) song O Beta Ji in Anurag Basu’s Netflix film Ludo.


The signs are clear. Yes, nostalgia is in. But nostalgia does not equal recreations. Remaking a film from the 90s (e.g. Coolie No. 1) is arguably ‘anti-nostalgia’ as an idea, because the underlying message here is that the old-world charm should make way for a modern interpretation. Audience are beginning to question if they need modern interpretations at all, or would they rather visit the old world as it was, without any gloss and packaging added to make it “relevant”. Referring back to television, one of Sony’s more compelling fiction shows in recent times (Yeh Unn Dino Ki Baat Hai) was one such authentic tribute to the old world, without any adulteration to cater to the smartphone mindset.


This is a complex trend, and a very new one too. How does one revisit the old and keep it relevant to the 2020s? How does one balance the authenticity with relatability? It may be easier for true stories like Scam 1992, but when it comes to more fictional work like Panchayat and Yeh Unn Dino Ki Baat Hai, the execution needs to be pitch perfect to resonate.


The added complication is the doubt whether this trending is enduring or ephemeral. Will the love for nostalgia fade away in the post-vaccine world? A short answer to that is: No. After all, the term’s definition itself is so emotionally rich and textured. Nostalgia is defined as a feeling of pleasure, mixed with sadness, when you think of happy times in the past. Nostalgia has emerged as one of the most compelling content lenses in recent years, and it is unlikely to lose its footing anytime soon.


How the entertainment (and the advertising) industry uses it to their advantage will be a story one is very keen to follow, in 2021 and beyond.



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