Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
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The nationwide lockdown turned out to be a blessing for Doordarshan as its ratings skyrocketed for the first time in years. With popular shows from the 1980s and ’90s, such as Ramayan, Mahabharat and  Fauji aired once again on TV, lockdown became a return to the age of innocence and pre-globalisation fun. It also led to demands from audiences for many more of their favourite golden oldies, and ever since Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi returned to screens, it has been winning hearts all over again.

First aired in 1984, the comedy was based on noted Hindi writer Sharad Joshi’s stories and was jointly directed by FTII alumni Kundan Shah, Manjul Sinha and Raman Kumar. The plot revolved around the trials and tribulations of the middle-class Verma family — Ranjit Verma (Shafi Inamdar), the typical working husband who would forget his wedding anniversary, his working wife Renu Verma (Swaroop Sampat) and her irritating, unemployed single younger brother Raja (Rakesh Bedi). The showstealer, though, was Satish Shah, who adopted a different avatar in every episode.

Jodhpur based 53-year-old advocate Sanjay Kapoor tells ThePrint he was elated when he got to know that his favourite show from the ’80s was making a comeback. “It felt I was taken back to the days of my youth. The situational comedy of the show was very relatable. It felt as if it was happening with me, and the characters were my next-door neighbours,” he rhapsodises.

“All these artists were noted theatre actors, but Satish Shah’s character was the most interesting. It used to be a matter of suspense what new character he’d do in each episode,” Kapoor says.

Director Raman Kumar, who later gave India shows like Tara, Agnichakra and Sansaar, agrees that Shah’s character in every episode became the highlight of the show. “It was difficult to come up with a new nuanced character every time, and even more difficult for him to act like it, but he did it with such ease and perfection”, he tells ThePrint.

“If a Sindhi arrived from Hong Kong in the show, he was different from a Sindhi from Ulhasnagar. And Shah played both Sindhis differently and brought these small nuances to his performances. He was already very popular in FTII for mimicking people,” he recalls.

For Kapoor, the supporting cast of neighbours, with cameos by noted actors like Farida Jalal, Tiku Talsania and Avtar Gill, was another highlight. “The show brought about diversity through these characters, the Bengali babu, the South Indian friend — all of them represented the diverse culture of India.” In one episode, for example, the Verma family turns their household into a Tamil one to welcome their neighbour’s Tamil guests.

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The 67-episode show, which aired every Friday at 9 pm, became so popular that even people living in foreign countries were willing to pay a premium price to get the tapes in advance. One of the lead actors of the show, now an educator and Miss India 1979 winner Swaroop Sampat, tells ThePrint that her cousin living in Leicester, UK, would tell her that the store would run out of its video tapes of the show almost as soon as they arrived.

Also read: Bharat Ek Khoj: Shyam Benegal’s adaption of Nehru’s Discovery of India was a Sunday staple

Learning on the job

Kumar recalls how the show was a first of its kind. “People had seen a few comedy shows from foreign countries, but this was the first experiment in India,” he says, adding that the whole experience of working on the show was challenging yet fulfilling. Since it was the first project for most of the team, many did not even know how to handle a professional video camera. “The one we learnt using in FTII was the 35mm film camera. We grew with every episode and learnt to handle things on our own,” he reminisces.

For Kumar, the show’s stupendous success was beyond his wildest dreams. “I never imagined it…I have done 25 serials including Tara, but the popularity Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi achieved was on another level,” he says. “We were totally flabbergasted and pleasantly shocked,” he says, adding, “It created pressure. Now every single episode was important and we could not get away with a weaker episode. We would reshoot if something did not feel perfect”.

And with such added perfection, came hectic shoot schedules. Sampat says the team never really got the time to enjoy the success that followed. “We used to work 16 hours a day. The situation was such that if somebody touched the shoulder by mistake, we would request them to massage it because we were always tired,” she laughs.

Also read: Hum Log, India’s first soap opera and DD’s experiment with foreign cinema

The middle-class sensibility that audiences could relate to

The show’s biggest strength was the situational comedy that centred around the lives, loves and limitations of the middle class. “The struggles of having a single telephone in the house, savings of Rs 2, celebrating small joys, asking your neighbours for one potato or a bowl of sugar — all of it was shown in a simple manner,” Kapoor recalls.

The show became a favourite in middle-class households. Such was its impact that the saris Sampat wore in every episode became a hit among North Indian women. “All the saris that I wore were mine, and I used to get so many requests about where to get them from,” she laughs.

This was a clean comedy and thus brought the whole family under one roof. Says Sampat, “A woman in Banaras once thanked me as her husband started coming home early on Fridays just to watch Ye Jo Hai Zindagi.” And once at a party, actor Jeetendra went up to the cast of the show and said, “What are you guys doing? You’re spoiling the release of our films!”

That was the popularity of this simple, sweet show about the regular lives of regular people.

Also read: Trishna, the popular 1985 Doordarshan adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, is now on YouTube


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