Falling into a nineties' cinema rabbit hole, and getting a reality check

Topics Television | Netflix

In the midst of having too much frivolous fun, it helps to think of Arthur Schopenhauer. He is the face of piercing disapproval and informed dejection. I pictured the pessimist philosopher often over the last two weekends while streaming television of the dangerously nostalgic and strictly average variety. I was able to stop when his sage words — “to gain anything we have longed for is only to discover how vain and empty it is” — began to hit home but not before I had fallen considerably down a nineties’ rabbit hole.

A few things had led me in that general direction. Among them Taj Mahal 1989, the flawed but engrossing series written and directed by debutant Pushpendra Nath Misra, which resurrected with decent success some paraphernalia of the period. Contrasty clothes, biscuit jingles and bad furniture. Soon the OTT algorithm coughed up another series suggestion, this time from another world and from the actual nineties. I clicked, eager to access a past that wasn’t even mine.

Kopitiam, Malaysia’s first English sitcom from 1998, became available on Netflix not long ago. Its protagonist is Maya, a British-Malaysian woman, who inherits an old coffee shop, along with its goofy regular customers, after her father’s passing. The choice of making a show in English back then looks to have been intentional rather than incidental. The release was contemporaneous with the rise of the Petronas Towers, then the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in Kuala Lumpur, once a tin-mining town. As such, the premise, of modernising a traditional kopitiam (street side coffee shop), seems in keeping with the capital’s advance into the 21st century.

Mirroring the city’s storied cultural pluralism, the cast of characters was of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean origin. Like many sitcoms of that era, actors walk words-first into rooms. Except in Kopitiam, they also finish their sentences with a jovial or condescending “lah”. And like many sitcoms of that era, the makers wrote in some amount of homophobia and mainly roped in women who were supermodels or part-white. To its credit, the script didn’t suffer from any misogyny at least. Sadly, the jokes, so admirably constructed in the first two seasons, devolved into an insufferable mess later on.

A still from Kopitiam (1998)
That is when I moved on, somewhat misguidedly, to the first Indian television series in English. My memory had been kinder than required to A Mouthful of Sky (1995). Growing up with Doordarshan in that decade, English-language entertainment was limited to a few American shows and reruns of the much older Tandoori Nights, a top-notch British-Indian sitcom about a rivalry between two curry restaurants in London. Farrukh Dhondy wrote the latter show, the first Asian comedy series in the UK for Channel 4 in 1985. He spoke to me about it once, over a meal of naan, “anglicised” (mellow) dal and palak paneer in Brick Lane’s Lahore Kebab House, which was also where the idea had been conceived. Dhondy, Mala Sen, and fellow activists would gather for meals in the restaurant, amid a movement to win housing in that locality for Bangladeshi immigrants. Beyond curry, his comedy became about echoing the conflicts and dreams of different generations within immigrant families.

Naturally, India’s first tryst with making English television had felt epochal too. But when it came to colonising the coloniser’s language, the Indian drama didn’t do nearly as well as the Malaysian sitcom. Where Kopitiam threw in dozens of colourful colloquialisms (“kiasu”, “lepak”, “gila”), in retrospect there is little that is  truly local about A Mouthful of Sky. Its rich, urban and unhappy protagonists appear plainly influenced by The Bold and the Beautiful instead. Their sculpted faces, beeping pagers and chunky laptops do convey something about what would have been regarded as aspirational in that liberalised, IT boom period. Still, there is no excuse for cringeworthy lines and hilariously bad acting. All 220-something episodes are up on MX Player. I made it through five, and then called Schopenhauer to mind.

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