T he 1980s in India is often called the Doordarshan era, since it was the sole national television channel in the country. The government-owned channel broadcast sponsored content alongside middle-class family dramas like Hum Log and mythological series like Ramayana and Mahabharata. And if the ’80s exemplified a time of realistic, socially conscious television, then Saeed Mirza’s Nukkad was its poster child. The show which aired from 1986 to ’87, explored characters and storylines of unconventional protagonists — paan vendors, sweepers, beggars, chai vendors, alcoholics, cycle repairman, domestic staff — the people who are often relegated to being invisible.
But instead of making a serious, heavy show that focused on the hardships of the poor, Mirza and his collaborators, brother Aziz and director Kundan Shah, created a series that explored the everyday life of a literal nukkad (street corner), with nuance as well as a generous dose of levity.
Set in the city of Bombay, the show, consisting of 40-odd episodes, broke the usual format of a four or five-member cast, showcasing instead an ensemble of more than 20 characters who represented different faiths, walks of life and points of view. Nothing summarised it better than the show’s upbeat opening track whose lyrics, written by Imtiaz Hussain and supported with music by Kuldip Singh, focused on exactly this complex yet peaceful co-existence — “Alag alag takdeer hain sabki, alag alag hain boli” (We have different fates, we speak different tongues)
But the most self-deprecating lines, also the most celebratory, perhaps describe the show mostly aptly.
“Ajab tamasha hain yeh nagri
Sab dukh sukh mein haste gaate
Apni barbaadi ka ye toh jashn manaate hain”
(The strange parody of this land
Through sorrow and joy, we laugh and sing
We even celebrate our ruin)
As production coordinator for the show and Mirza’s wife Jennifer Mirza tells ThePrint, Nukkad made people “look at television differently”, and perhaps, also look at the lives of the underprivileged in a new light.
A Leftist show with a powerful message
Writer Aakar Patel once wrote that Saeed Mirza “invests the lower middle class with nobility, as in his movies. He invests the poor with real character, as in Nukkad.”
A former advertising professional who had come to be known for his work in parallel cinema with titles like Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984) and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980), Mirza had for long dabbled in documentary film-making and cinema. But the opportunity to make Nukkad first came about when Mirza’s erstwhile assistant director Kundan Shah met the Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting S.S. Gill in New Delhi. After Mirza and Shah pitched the idea for Nukkad, it was Gill who insisted it be kept light-hearted, as the poor may not want to see their own suffering on TV, but would instead like to smile and laugh.
However, the show was not instantly embraced by audiences, Jennifer tells ThePrint. She remembers her brother’s colleagues, who worked at the Mumbai Port Trust, asking why Saeed was making such an odd show set in the streets, with characters who spoke vernacular Bambaikar Hindi. They claimed to be worried that their children would pick up this language.
Slowly, but surely, the show’s larger message was unfurled. Each episode followed the interesting inner dynamics of the nukkad’s inhabitants — the shop keeper’s dismissal of the sweeper, the loafer bantering with the maid, the cheerful beggar scamming temple-goers, the cycle-repair guy flirting with the shopkeeper’s daughter who was way out of his league. But when conflict arose is when the real crux of the show came through — class tensions of a metropolitan city and the worker’s fight for dignity. Coming together in solidarity against the glare of higher caste and class folk, people of the nukkad refused to be exploited, accused wrongfully of things because they looked a certain way, bullied or abused by any Seth or Babu. Arm in arm in their camaraderie, they displayed pride, never shame, and didn’t bow down to anyone in shiny boots or a fancy car.
A long time believer of Leftist ideology, Mirza designed the set of the street corner in such a way that on the left-most side existed the poorest characters, the beggars, the mechanic, the sweeper. In the middle was the teacher, the chail-wallah, while on the right-hand side stood the baniya, the well-to-do shopkeeper, the snooty neighbour. The show went on to become such a huge hit, recalls Jennifer, that the same family who had complained to her brother were now asking to be invited over for a drink to watch the show together!
A family unit
From the very beginning, running the show was a tight-knit home-run operation, with Mirza’s apartment functioning as the office. When Shah, who later on went onto make the classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), initially came on board he needed a salary at the earliest to support himself. It was the cameraman, not Mirza, who at once pitched in to keep him on board. “That’s the kind of camaraderie that the team shared,” explains Jennifer.
Mirza and Shah pulled in Aziz and many of their close friends and collaborators to join what became the Nukkad family. Mirza’s old production assistant Pawan Malhotra starred as Hari, the cycle repairman, who later went on to be the lead in Mirza’s national award-winning Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). Jennifer and Saeed’s niece Nayantara Kalgutkar became the costume designer, and their family friend’s daughter Raju Bulchandani, now a producer in her own right, became the properties manager. Their sons even appeared as extras in some episodes, earning the eldest one the nickname Nukkad Mirza in school.
For most of the cast, theatre actors from either the National School of Drama or Prithvi Theatre, the show became their first full-time job. It was shot for 20 days of the month and Shah was categorical about handing over cheques to the actors right on the day shooting ended, says Mirza.
Khopdi, Kaderbhai and Ghanshu Bhikari, all went on to become household names, just as the cast which included Dilip Dhawan, Rama Vij, Sangeeta Naik and Avtar Gill, became part of Mirza’s universe. Many of them appeared again in the show’s sequel, Naya Nukkad in 1993. The series catapulted most of its actors into stardom, but even for the Mirzas, it became a “passport to good things,” says Jennifer. Mirza had earlier been a successful filmmaker in his own right, but with a nationally broadcast show like Nukkad, he became a household name. Wherever they travelled, whether to Dhanbad for a documentary shoot or Goa for a trip, they were welcomed instantly as those behind the beloved Nukkad.
Years later, when one of their sons was studying at UC Berkeley in California, he wrote a letter to his father admitting how embarrassed he and brothers used to be of his father’s long hair, long kurta, long jhola and long film titles. “But only later we realised, you were doing your own thing,” he wrote.