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Sarabhai vs Sarabhai: Resurrecting a beloved TV comedy for the digital age
May 16, 2017 / 11:14 AM / 3 months ago

Sarabhai vs Sarabhai: Resurrecting a beloved TV comedy for the digital age

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Aatish Kapadia cannot stand the Indian middle class. The television writer says his “wolverine-like claws” come out when he sees people litter the street or haggle for a few rupees with a roadside vendor, traits he see as synonymous with the subject of his ire.

That loathing was evident in “Sarabhai vs Sarabhai”, a sharp comedy Kapadia wrote 13 years ago. The show revolved around a rich family in South Mumbai and their bumbling, middle-class daughter-in-law who is unable to keep up with her mother-in-law’s high standards and expectations. It aired on the Star network between 2004 and 2006.

“When it first aired, the audience was intimidated by the show. I was bashing the middle class, and saying it is not the utopian way of life. I stand by that,” Kapadia told Reuters.

The bashing took place through the character of Maya Sarabhai, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, who can barely contain her contempt for her daughter-in-law Monisha (Rupali Ganguli) and her unkempt ways. A polished, suave woman who enjoys the good life, Maya is shocked by Monisha’s loud and uncouth mannerisms. Most of the comedy comes from the barbs she throws at the younger woman.

“Sarabhai vs Sarabhai” didn’t garner much attention when it first aired and wasn’t even renewed for a second season. But over the years, it has acquired somewhat of a cult status, thanks to its acerbic humour and strong performances. The show returns on Tuesday with a 10-episode season on Star India’s streaming platform Hotstar.

After the video announcement of the new season on Facebook, fans posted ecstatic comments, and it was viewed more than a million times. “I am crying with joy. I love this show eternally,” one fan wrote.

But reinventing a show like ‘Sarabhai’ in a television landscape populated with crass, slapstick humour was not an easy task. Kapadia, who produced the show with partner J.D. Majethia, tried reviving the show several times without success – sometimes due to reluctant networks, other times because the cast couldn’t spare dates for the show or because the script wasn’t good enough.

“We knew we would have to make a lot of sacrifices to bring this show back – both personal and financial. We didn’t take on any other show, focused on getting this right for the last six months or more. We cannot afford to mess up this show,” Majethia said.

That determination was obvious on a recent afternoon in a suburb of Mumbai. Director Deven Bhojani, who plays a minor character in the series, asked actor Rupali Ganguli to change the tone of her voice because it doesn’t go with her character. “Monisha would say it differently,” Bhojani tells the actor several times between takes on the sets.

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A lot has changed since “Sarabhai vs Sarabhai” last aired in 2006. Indian television is more heavily censored - profanity and sexual innuendo are heavily cut to sanitise shows according to the country’s censorship laws. Comedy is reduced to stand-up shows that rely on racist or sexist humour and appearances by Bollywood actors promoting their movies.

“Where is the humour? Comedy on television has not evolved at all, and all the good writers have run away to films. Why should they come to TV anyway? Some channel executive is bound to tell them how to write their show,” Kapadia said.

Online content is not yet censored in India, and over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Hotstar (which has almost 100 million users) are an ideal platform for shows like “Sarabhai”.

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“There is zero interference. It is no-holds-barred. I guess that is why you see all the stand-up guys moving to the web,” said veteran actor Sumeet Raghavan, who plays Maya’s son Sahil on the show. Raghavan also hosted one of India’s first web talk shows called “Jai Hind!” based loosely on late-night U.S. talk shows.

Hotstar CEO Ajit Mohan said the quality and recall value of “Sarabhai vs Sarabhai” convinced him that the show should come out with a second season on the streaming platform.

“It is an experiment for us. We are trying to see if, apart from its followers, can we introduce a whole new digital audience to Sarabhai?” Mohan said.

The pressure to get it right does not affect Kapadia, he said.

“My job is to make a good show. The rest is up to the audience. And my fate.”

 Editing by David Lalmalsawma and Robert MacMillan

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