New Delhi: “Sapno ke daam nahi, Sapno ke naam nahi, Sapno ke ghodo pad kisi ki lagam nahi (Dreams don’t have a price, dreams don’t have a name, dreams cannot be tamed with a horse’s reins).”
The memorable opening credit lyrics of Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne (Mungerilal’s beautiful dreams), a hugely popular television series on the Doordarshan network that began in 1989, perfectly encapsulate the wondrous yet simple show it was.
The 13-episode social satire, created by director Prakash Jha and acclaimed writer Manohar Shyam Joshi, starred actor Raghubir Yadav as the ordinary Mungerilal from the Munger district of Bihar, who habitually indulged in rather extraordinary daydreams.
In each episode, Mungerilal — harangued equally by his boss and family members — would escape from his mundane life into an imaginary alternative world in which he transformed into a heartthrob, a hero, a film star, his own boss, and sometimes even a villain. In this parallel universe, all his deepest hopes and desires would become his reality.
With his Chaplin-meets-Hitler moustache, battered bicycle and signature twitch of the eye that signalled the daydreaming was about to commence, the show catapulted actor Yadav into stardom.
Its writer, Joshi, meanwhile, is famously known as the Sahitya Akademi Award winner behind India’s first soap opera Hum Log (1984) and the classic Buniyaad (1986).
The idea of Mungerilal was actually inspired by American writer James Thurber’s famous short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was first published in The New Yorker on 18 March 1939. The story has been adapted to several feature films, Broadway musicals, radio plays and, more recently, the eponymous 2013 Hollywood film starring and directed by Ben Stiller.
But the Indian adaptation of the “mouse who roars only in his daydreams” archetype was unique and instantly resonated with the pre-globalisaton audience of the DD era.
A break from mediocre life
The hit series followed the life of Mungerilal, a simple man who made his way from northern Bihar to New Delhi. Despite completing an impressive triple master’s degree in Sanskrit, literature and philosophy, Mungerilal was not street smart and could not wrap his head around the crude realities of life.
Nobody seemed to value the intellectual capabilities of Munger. So his police-officer-father-in-law, Bajrangi, pulled some strings and got him a menial job as a clerk in the accounts department of a Delhi-based company called Vaanar Vanaspati.
Reduced to an overqualified clerk, Mungerilal faced the perennial wrath of his grumpy boss, Mr Rathod, and was made to feel practically invisible — a sight that hurt particularly when it was in front of the beautiful office secretary Miss Malkani.
At home, he tried his best to fulfil his wife Gunvanti’s wishes but always felt insecure in front of her wealthy family and her powerful father.
To deal with the frustrations of his mediocre life, he sought refuge in his “kalpanasheel mann (creative mind)” and with just the twitch of an eye, he would be transported to a parallel universe in which he was no longer an ordinary clerk, but a respected lawyer, a suave naval officer, brilliant surgeon performing his magic in an operating room, and sometimes Miss Malkani’s love interest.
A Mungerilal state of mind
The huge cultural influence of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gave way to the coinage of the informal word ‘Mittyesque’ — a term used for a fanciful daydreamer. But Walter Mitty’s Indian counterpart also inspired a popular catchphrase.
Mumbai-based architect Parul Kumtha remembers the show as funny and thought-provoking. But her most vivid remembrance was the first time that she heard its usage in common parlance. “My [now] husband Anand had gone home to tell his family that we were planning to get married, and they jokingly responded ‘Is this really true or is it a Mungerilal Ka Haseen Sapna?” she tells ThePrint.
Hemant Adarkar, who was a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai in the late 80s, remembers the phrase being used to call out anyone who was “talking big”. His peers would often use it on their fellow researchers to tell them they were being too ambitious, or to dismiss someone making elaborate claims.
And in recent years, the phrase has become a popular slur in the Indian political landscape. In March 2018, BJP leader Nitin Gadkari dismissed Sonia Gandhi’s claims that the Congress would win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as “Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne“. He used the phrase again earlier this year in March to dismiss rumours that he himself might be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
In August 2018, Congress leader Randeep Surjewala responded to a statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi by saying, “The Prime Minister’s statement on breakdown of Opposition unity is like ‘Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne‘.”
More recently, in 2019, Smriti Irani took a dig at former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s posters in Amethi which promoted him as the new potential PM. She dismissed them by saying they were — you guessed it — “Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne”.
Twitter, of course, soon followed suit.
Who is the #Mungerilal of Indian politics watching Haseen sapne ?
— Ashoke Pandit (@ashokepandit) March 13, 2019
— #SaveWater (@Kuhoo2014) November 20, 2013
— Naresh Nambisan 🇮🇳 (@nareshbahrain) February 28, 2019
Quality television which had integrity
From the moment this show aired on TV, it was evident that the series was a special project because of the people associated with it.
“A large number of people used to call it Mungerilal Ke Anokhe Sapne. We had great hopes from director Jha, because he had made good movies like the 1985 film Damul,” Adarkar tells ThePrint.
Jha, who is now famous for directing films like Gangaajal and Rajneeti, was a popular filmmaker even then. But his real masterstroke was bringing on board Yadav, who was more known in the art cinema and theatre circuits. Yadav later went on to become a very successful Hindi film actor, and was part of a number of movies that were India’s entry to Oscars, including Lagaan (2002), Peepli Live (2011) and Newton (2017).
But Mungerilal was his first mainstream role that made him a household name. “What was special about the series was the way it was written and shot,” Yadav had said in a 2016 interview. “People devoted time to what they did and it showed.”
Although it was a hit, the show was made on a tight budget. “The crew managed to pack in several episodes in a single schedule,” he said.
This was characteristic of the many shows on DD in the 1980s like Nukkad (1986), Wagle ki Duniya (1988), Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984) that highlighted middle class idealism of the times.
“People used to work hard on every Doordarshan serial. Each series was meticulous and featured good writers, actors and directors from the film or theatre industry. This was the time before 24×7 TV, nothing was written in a hurry. So the production value, scripts and characters were all extremely sharp,” Adarkar tells ThePrint.
Years later, a spin-off called Mungeri Ke Bhai Naurangilal was made. The show was a launchpad for comedy actor Rajpal Yadav, and also featured the comedian Raju Srivastava. But the slapstick comedy lacked the charm and restraint of the original show, which remains a forever classic.