No! God! Please! No!” — regardless of which generation you subscribe to (boomer, millennial, Gen Z, or Gen X), chances are you must have seen an emphatic Michael Scott yelling these words in a widely shared GIF online. The brainchild of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, The Office was adapted and recreated by NBC in the United States with Steve Carell playing the impetuous manager Michael Scott. Unless you are living under a rock, you would not be oblivious to the cult following the television show enjoys across generations, languages, and countries. According to Variety, the former NBC show that went off air eight years ago was one of the most-watched series on Netflix during the coronavirus pandemic, with over 57 billion minutes streamed. And India makes up a large chunk of that surely, considering that it’s in the top-10 on OTT platforms.
In the last two decades, several other ‘workplace-themed’ shows have been conceptualised (Parks and Recreation, Superstore, Ugly Betty, and Silicon Valley, to name a few), giving birth to a dedicated genre. However, even though OTT top-watched lists prove India loves these shows, there has been a dearth of ‘iconic’ office/workplace-centred sitcoms in India. Before you come at me, let me rephrase that claim — there has been a pressing void since the iconic show Office Office (2001). A slew of office-centric web shows have been created and are still being rampantly manufactured on YouTube and other streaming platforms but, barring a handful, none of them have either a sizeable digital footprint or recall value. And let’s face it, most just use Office as their ‘inspiration’.
Legend of Mussaddi Lal
Centred around the fundamental struggles of a common man, Mussaddi Lal Tripathi (played by Pankaj Kapur), in a bureaucratic office, Office Office came into being at the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century. The show premiered on SAB TV in 2001. Twenty one years later, one might struggle to name another show in this genre that could match up to its massive popularity.
The show was a satirical take on the prevalent corruption in administrative offices. Adding to the misery of its protagonist, the employees played by Manoj Pahwa, Eva Grover, Sanjay Mishra, Asawari Joshi, Deven Bhojani, and Hemant Pandey, among others, showcased a realistic representation of an Indian bureaucratic workplace.
Comedy is a cinematic tool that often helps the creator to convey thought-provoking ideas with a pinch of harsh reality and a dollop of satire — a morsel that is easy to digest. Perhaps, director-producer Rajiv Mehra was mindful of the same. As the show drew laughter from its audiences, it also acted as a medium for social commentary on the shortcomings of the Indian bureaucracy.
And unlike many lopsided Bollywood representations, Mussaddi Lal never emerged as a ‘hero’. Instead, Pankaj Kapur mirrored the daily strifes of an average Indian city-dweller at a standard bureaucratic workplace — an experience you and I are far too familiar with.
A few hits and many misses
Official Chukyagiri (2016), Cubicles (2019), and Mr Das (2019) are some of the web shows that have surfaced online in the last couple of years, perhaps hoping to mimic the significant success of TVF Pitchers (2015). The rise of The Viral Fever in the entertainment industry warrants another article, but it all began with back-to-back successes of some of its initial web series. The streaming service tapped into a key demographic — young adults — and the challenges of their increasingly stressful and competitive work life. These YouTube shorts were made in such a way that one could watch them in bed, during commute or even on college staircases – hence their popularity. They weren’t hectic like the saas-bahu soaps on TV and were much more relatable – like a fight with your boss or office romance.
As a recurring theme, many creators jumped on a similar bandwagon, hoping to cash into the tried and tested formulaic trope. Some have mindlessly tried to package the stale narrative with fresh faces — i.e. showcase the common person’s plight — while others have slipped into a regular drama after flirting with the themes of office romance (The 2013 drama Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, a shoddy adaptation of a US TV show Ugly Betty, comes to mind).
But how many of them do you actually remember? Some of them may prove to be a worthy binge-treat or a means to pass time, but most of them are nothing more than a jump-starter for aspiring actors or another creative project for web-show regulars.
Two shows also went the extra mile to lure in fans of the widely popular US sitcom, The Office. While Better Life Foundation (2016), directed by Debbie Rao, did it with a five-episode YouTube web series, Rajesh Devraj’s Hindi adaptation of The Office created 27 episodes peppered with redundant stereotypes. The former managed to garner an 8.3 IMDb rating despite a caricature-ish portrayal of Michael Scott by comedian Naveen Richards, who plays the founder of a struggling NGO. On the other hand, The Hindi version of The Office, which aired in 2019 as part of Hotstar Specials, would probably be remembered as a laughing stock—and for not the right reasons.
Michael Scott became a ‘fun-jabi’ boss, Mukul Chadda (played by Jagdeep Chadda). Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, based in Scranton, US, transformed into Wilkins Chawla from Faridabad. But the show failed to convert the laughs and comical attributes of the original show, thanks to its lazy writing and outdated stereotypes.
Shelf-life of sitcoms/web shows
A true measure of a sitcom or a show’s success can be quantified by its relevance in the succeeding years.
During the course of its 200 episodes, the American adaptation of The Office, created by Greg Daniels with the help of the creators of the UK version, has helped cement some of the most memorable television characters. To put the audience’s wistfulness into perspective, The Office continues to be one of the most-watched shows on Netflix, with over 46 billion minutes being streamed in 2018. There are also two famous podcasts, running successfully on iTunes and Spotify, hosted by former cast members. Many of its characters, besides Carell’s character — viz. Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer), Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), and others — are still known or referred to by their iconic characters. In addition, the show’s merchandise still sells every day in India (just Google it) and is a hit among millennials and Gen Z.
By the same yardstick, Office Office also enjoys a similar fan following among the Indian viewers despite being released in an age devoid of social media, memes, GIFs, and other contemporary pop-culture success metrics. Years later, Mussadi Lal remains one of the most realistic representations of a common man plagued with bureaucratic corruption.
What these two classic shows have managed to get right is realism coated with impeccable comedy and satire brought to the screen by fine actors. The rhythm and tenor of these shows could often appear predictable, but even the miserable and mundane aspects of the characters’ lives appear soothing, real, and remain a guilty pleasure.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.
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(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)