Known for its ‘hatke’ boldness, political awareness and progressive ideas, Gen Z is more than frivolous TikToks and Instagram Reels. Born between the late 1990s and early 2000s, these digital natives have come to define modernity as we know it. Yet, in India, there is simply a dearth of quality content that caters to them—either on TV or OTT. And no, half-hearted attempts like Heropanti 2, Liger, or even Student of the Year 2 don’t count.
Isn’t that strange? India has a population of 47.2 crore Gen Zs, but none of the content boom that millennials got.
Be it films, TV shows, or even YouTube mini-series, millennials were lucky to have entire industries cater to their entertainment needs.
Despite slanted depictions, millennials did get their choice of shows and range too, be it through Filter Copy shorts or the (in) famous AIB roasts or even the meet cute show, Dil Mil Gaye.
But there is an eerie blindsiding of Gen Z issues in Indian pop culture. Even before Covid brought everything—including the entertainment industry—to a grinding halt, shows about this generation’s aspirations, hopes and quirks were absent.
From Korean dramas like Itaewon Class to offbeat shows like Sex Education, Covid just ensured that India’s Gen Z looked West and East. These young denizens have given up on creators to make content that resonates with them.
Ironically, this is when Gen Z appears to have consumed more OTT content than their millennial counterparts. As per a 2020 Live Mint report, at 4.45 hours of consumption daily, Gen Z beat millennials, who managed to binge only 3.66 hours of web content that year.
No space for Gen Z
The gap is glaring, but a few shows are attempting to change the script. College Romance, created by The Viral Fever (TVF) and streaming on SonyLIV, is one of the few popular ones that have managed to look at college life and its many challenges through a light-hearted yet nuanced lens.
“I have done my masters through correspondence and for me, this show was like my college life,” says Apoorva Arora, who plays Naira in the show. Niya Solanki, 21, who is a final year student at Delhi University says the show was a reality check: “I am from Lucknow, and I spent two years of my college life in lockdown. For me, the show was a glimpse of what to expect when and if college life finally resumed on campus.”
As much as it tries, College Romance does not quite make the cut. To some extent, it does fulfil the existing famine of Gen Z shows, but it needs to grow more. Gen Z is more aware and accepting of its differences, which does not really come through in the show. A video of Deepika and Raavi, the sister of one of the protagonists Bagga, creates ‘lesbo’ cries among students. Such reactions are reflective of a dated millennial discourse on identity. The idea of LGBTQIA representation has now moved ahead, and “it’s cool as long no one in my family is gay” is not exactly something that Gen Z can make peace with. Gen Z knows its pronouns and is fairly politically correct, at least in this area.
Despite a very relatable cast, College Romance, much like Dostana, veers more towards the stereotypical millennial approach,
With its focus on young love and relationships, Netflix’s Mismatched tried to pull a Sex Education in India. It didn’t quite land, but the Rohit Saraf-Prajakta Koli starrer was somewhat enough for those starved for Gen Z-centric content. “I just wanted some representation. Mismatched is flawed, but at least I felt partly seen,” says Chavi Sareen, an 18-year-old fashion student from Delhi’s Pearl Academy.
The show tries to bring in questions of ambition, queer love and even disability but flounders in its writing— it attempts to cover everything in one season. For instance, the queer character (Namrata) becomes a crutch for the heterosexual protagonist’s (Rishi) growing-up moment. Likewise, the disabled character’s (Anmol) angst is so laced with problematic behaviour that one feels hesitant to relate or empathise with them.
TVF’s top-rated show, Kota Factory, regurgitates the same tropes. Centred around IIT aspirants in the coaching hub of Kota, Rajasthan, the Raghav Subbu directorial was supposed to be a sincere look at coaching centre politics, mental health and young aspiration. But instead, the two-season Netflix web series manages only to scratch the surface while skimming through important issues. “For some reason — perhaps because its title includes the word ‘factory’ — I had expected this show to be more critical, or at least a little self-aware of the ridiculousness of this entire scenario,” writes Rohan Naahar in an article for The Hindustan Times.
Search for Indian-centric Gen Z content from the West, and there isn’t much. Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever is too woefully NRI to be relatable. Despite good writing and characters, it is not quintessentially ‘desi.’ Can small-town Indians connect to it like they connected to Filter Copy shorts?
Euphoria, loosely based on an Israeli show of the same name, and Derry Girls, set in 1990s Ireland, have scored well when it comes to representation, looking at often very contrasting and yet strangely similar worlds. If Derry Girls celebrates female friendship, Euphoria looks at those who break the sanctity of friendship. The spectrum of teenage emotion comes alive in these shows set in different time periods.
Perhaps, modern filmmakers and content creators in India need lessons from their millennial past.
The glorious millennial era
Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai is a unanimous choice when it comes to showing the pangs of becoming adults. Three college friends, love, conflict and a Goa trip–it perfectly encapsulated the aspirations of millennials. Its songs, too, remain iconic to date. Akhtar also created Lakshya in 2004, which beautifully portrayed a ‘confused’ man trying to prove himself by joining the Indian Army. His journey from being an undisciplined, privileged boy to a decorated Army officer resonated with those struggling to chart a path in life. Main Aisa Kyun Hu personified the dilemmas of an entire generation.
“Take me for example, I didn’t do anything for two years after college, I didn’t have a purpose. It became a serious bone of contention at home,” Akhtar told Filmfare in a 2001 interview celebrating the success of Dil Chahta Hai.
Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) made a political statement while creating a revolution. It taught an entire generation to not be ‘apolitical’ and be proud and aware of India’s past and present. The film became a war cry against rampant corruption.
In 2009, Three Idiots stormed its way to look at the issue of India’s choicest job engineering. At a time when student suicides were making headlines and Chetan Bhagat was almost a mandatory reading choice among teens and adults alike, the film again highlighted the millennial pangs of bowing to the pressures of the education industry and Indian parents’ expectations. Give Me Some Sunshine was hummed almost involuntarily by every Indian student, especially those on the brink of board exams.
It was not just films that personified millennial angst. There were numerous TV shows too. Star One’s Remix (2004) was a show that focused on everything from the desire to form music bands, to wanting girlfriends/boyfriends to bullying and even teen pregnancy.
Then there were romances like Dil Mill Gayye (2007). This show, centred around a group of doctors and their entangled love lives took inspiration from its equally popular prequel, Sanjivani (2002) and hit the right spot for most lovelorn teens of that era. Sony Sab’s Left Right Left, about a group of misfits joining the Army, was a smash hit the moment it was showcased. With an IMDB rating of 8.1 and featuring some of the biggest names of the Indian television industry—from Rajeev Khandelwal to then newcomers Harshad Chopra, Arjun Bijlani and Priyanka Bassi—its title song was wildly popular.
When interest started waning in TV, there was TVF and YouTube. From Baked to Permanent Roommates, TVF brought forth the confusion and heartburn of the ‘old school caught in internet revolution’ dilemma of millennials. And from startup culture to dating woes, it made content about everything in between.
But writing to acting, India hasn’t shown major interest in honest portrayals of Gen Z. Even basics like gender pronouns seem to be an alien concept for most Indian filmmakers. The entertainment industry is doing a great disservice to itself and a whole generation by refusing to get to know it better. The challenges are many, especially because there is a generation gap every five years now, even within the broad category of Gen Z. But if anything, it should serve as inspiration for new content that does justice to them. There is a goldmine of content waiting to be discovered if only people in charge of the world’s biggest entertainment industry decide to stop burying their heads in the sand.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)