Sarabhai VS Sarabhai-Take 2: An Old Favourite Returns with Aplomb

Humour is a tricky thing. While all storytelling works with tropes and archetypes, in comedy the compulsions of evoking laughter often reduces them to stereotypes which can breed insensitive and politically incorrect humour. Comedies often require one person or several people in the script to be funny with acerbic observations about each other. The way their humour and character are constructed and how they deliver their performances makes a lot of difference in how these comedies turn out. If observations are unevenly balanced in favour of one of the characters more than all others, the point of view of the script becomes that of the dominant character. If the dominant character represents a biased or a bigoted view, then the show is invariably reduced to perpetuating unfair stereotypes and making politically incorrect and insensitive commentaries.

While there are plenty of comedies doing the rounds presently that illustrate this phenomenon, there are very few which do the reverse. In case of television shows this becomes all the more elusive task, since tv is not as immune to falling prey to popular opinions as other forms of storytelling. One comedy show that managed to do so, a decade back was “Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai” a, 76 episodes’ long season that aired between 2005 and 2006 on Star One. Soon after the season ended the channel also went off air.
The show revolved around a bunch of characters belonging to the Sarabhai family based in Mumbai. An acerbic take on the contradictions, hypocrisies and quirks of a family including a snooty matriarch, a slightly immature patriarch, a wannabe actor younger son, a tacky daughter in law and an elder son who usually finds himself in the middle of all the altercations and contradictions that arose due to these differing personalities. Then there were some recurring appearances of characters such as a nagging uncle, an astrologist daughter and an engineering obsessed son in law. In all the show takes a look at the clashes that emerge when the upper middle class identities and personas come in conflict with middle class ones, thus being a play on the beloved trope in Indian cinema and television shows where upper middle class and middle class values are always featured in variety of tussles.
The way the show is kept away from being insensitive is the constant shifting point of view thus casting a sarcastic light at all the characters making their quirks as the butt of jokes. No one character and the values that he or she represents is considered as sacrosanct and thus neither is anyone deified nor is anyone vilified, a tendency that not only most Indian melodramas find hard to resist but also the comedies. Moreover, the sarcastic observations of different characters on the other ones avoid handing over the narrative to one character and thus allow the show to not fall into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes that consolidate traditional filial power structure.
The show when in vogue was a hit. People related not only to the characters, but also their quirks and even their dialogues (which were clearly not catchphrases, a common resort of most comedies). A weekly show, the programme ran for a long time and in order to rejuvenate the show itself, the makers of the show decided to return with a second season after a brief interval. Sadly, the channel went off air and so did its programmes. Daily televised shows became the norm regardless of genres of the show and the entire television landscape changed drastically within these ten years.
However, in present times when television programming has almost become stale to the point of no recovery, the craving for fresh shows and ideas among Hindi speaking audiences has found a new ray of hope which is online broadcasting of programmes. A fresh idea in India, online broadcasting has become the new rage in west already and is fast picking up in India as well with platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hot Star etc. making fast inroads here. This development has allowed to break monopoly of few select production companies and at the same time brought in numerous fresh ideas for shows into play that are appealing to the not so traditional television audiences. Moreover, the flexibility of time and space allows even more freedom for the offbeat audiences to their liking.
But this development has been working with new shows and the return of Sarabhai… on this platform speaks volume about how timeless the show is. The stellar cast, concept, production, scripting and plotting of the show make it an ideal combination in so many ways. That is why for the past decade fans of the show have been lamenting its going off the air and demanding its retrieval. Each character of the show has a somewhat cult following and the show too has managed to develop a cult of its own.
As soon as rumours started to make rounds that the show could make a return, there was palpable excitement among the connoisseurs of the show and the official announcement just sent them into a tizzy. That is why it became so important to see if the show still could carry that old charm of not being so charming and ruthlessly funny at the expense of people’s habits rather than their physical form or identity. The premiere episode of the second season did not disappoint as the show came back with its signature humour and observational panache. Yet again the littlest of quirks of people belonging to different types of socio-economic milieus were picked up and used for deriving humour.
At the same time the point of view shifted between different characters making the observational humour multi-dimensional and multi-chromatic. The show is perhaps one of the rare ones in India which draws upon ordinary people’s behaviours and makes them the object of comedy. None of the behavioural patterns are privileged over the other and at the same time there is no artificiality in the representation of these behaviours, even though there could be some exaggeration for effect. The return of Sarabhai… on internet for now is a good omen for Indian comedy. But reach to the internet is still limited and perhaps its return to television screens can do some good for the tv as well. Where else could one get a stellar cast like Ratna Pathak, Satish Shah, Rupali Ganguly, Sumeet Raghavan, Deven Bhojani and Rajesh Kumar with the direction of  Deven Bhojani and Aatish Kapadia binding all together seamlessly?


If you feel the show has been unnecessarily or unfairly extolled, please write to opinion.tandoor@gmail.comand suggest in what ways do you differ from the observations made in this piece. Commentary is always incomplete without diverse views and perspectives.

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