If you’ve been active on Twitter lately, you’ll have noticed a video clip from something called Hello Friends that went viral. The surprising thing is that Hello Friends was a show that aired on Zee TV back in 1999, and it sank without a trace after one season.
While most of the chatter around the viral clip from 21 years ago is focused on how it was a blatant, not very well-made ripoff of the super-successful, now cult American sitcom Friends, the fact remains that for some, the desi version was actually a window into a world they had no access to.
Directed by Ajit Pal Mangat, Hello Friends told the story of six 20-somethings navigating the business of life, love, career growth and adulthood in general. It starred a host of well-known names from the ’90s television world, including models and popular MTV VJs.
Cyrus Broacha played Cyrus (based on Chandler Bing), Nikhil Chinapa was Vikram (Ross Geller), Simone Singh’s Sanjana was based on Monica Geller, Maria Goretti played Penny (Phoebe Buffay), Aparna Banerjee starred as Nisha (based on Rachel Green) and Anil Dimbri played Rahul (Joey Tribbiani). The group would hang out at Uncle Sam’s Cafe, whose proprietor was Uncle Sam (Kunal Vijaykar). But unlike the original’s Gunther, Uncle Sam was a friend of the group.
There was, obviously, some tweaking to fit Indian sensibilities, not just in terms of the setting and language, but the jokes, situations and characters’ circumstances. Cyrus, unlike Chandler, wasn’t what Rachel called a ‘transponster’ (a statistical analysis and data reconfiguration executive) who later takes up advertising; he was cast as an advertising professional from the beginning. Vikram was computer geek and not a palaeontologist like Ross. His ex-wife was also not shown as a lesbian — she simply left him for another man.
Brickbats from many, but also some sweet memories
One reason the show didn’t do well is that the original Friends was already being telecast on Indian TV and was a hit among the urban youth who had instantly joined its global cult following.
That the show was such an obvious lift from the NBC sitcom is something Maria Goretti didn’t know before she started working on it. “I thought it’d be a fun show about friends living in Mumbai, but when we reached the set, read the screenplay et cetera, we realised what we had signed up for. To be honest, that was actually a little heartbreaking,” she tells ThePrint.
The show aired only for 26 episodes as none of the actors were keen on reprising their roles for a second run. “The good thing was almost all of us had stable gigs going on for us so we didn’t have to return,” Goretti says.
Cyrus Broacha is more blunt, jokingly telling ThePrint that his parents divorced him after the show aired and that “I hid in an abandoned warehouse for over three months”.
Mumbai-based filmmaker Akanksha Dhakrey started binge-watching the show on YouTube out of curiosity after the video clip went viral. “The audience wouldn’t buy the idea of six youngsters chilling at a hip coffee place all the time, having an active dating life, being ‘just friends’ with the opposite gender and nobody really questioning it — in 1999! It could have been aspirational for the Indian viewers, but not when the characters were so cringey,” she tells ThePrint.
Of course, watching it now, 21 years later, it is unrelatable for many, especially those who loved the original. But there are those for whom the original, with its fast-paced American accents and banter, was equally unrelatable, and they quite enjoyed this “watered down” version, as Jaipur-based Uday Sharma puts it. “For me and many of my friends, this version was our kind of cool, as we didn’t really have the kind of urban upbringing that maybe those our age in Delhi or Mumbai had, and we could relate somewhat to the Indian serial. Maybe now we would not like it, but back then, it was something we looked forward to.”
With internet and social media now as ubiquitous as it is, perhaps the show feels incredibly out of date, but back in the late 1990s, email had only just taken off in India and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram did not exist. In that context, says Chandigarh-based Imrat Chadha, a show like Hello Friends was a window into a world that she was unfamiliar with. “Of course, when I saw the clip that went viral a few days ago, I laughed, but somewhere I also felt like this was part of my childhood,” she tells ThePrint.
Goretti also watched a couple of episodes recently and the performances make her laugh, she says. “As my friend Nikhil (Chinapa) put it, we were so bad that it was good!”
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“Ross Chinapa” 😂 Not to be confused with the delectable Goan dish Ross Omelette, which I love. The only reason I didn’t officially change my name to Ross Chinapa was I figured I’d never get a girl to marry me with a name like that! 🤷♂️ Also, 21 years? It took 21 years for the internet to dig this up? What were you busy with? 😂🎉 In retrospect, I wouldn’t change this for the world. It was stupid, it was fun and in my opinion, it was so bad, it was brilliant (in a mildly psychotic way). 🤪 I also loved working with the cast. Most people don’t know this but us VJs barely hung out together – we were constantly travelling to various cities. This was a fantastic opportunity to hang out, eat samosas and ruin our beautiful Hindi language (thanks Cyrus!) 😄
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