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Maya and Rosesh Sarabhai in a still from ‘Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai’.
Maya and Rosesh Sarabhai in a still from ‘Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai’.

Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai Take 2: Everybody loves Rosesh

Over a dozen years since the show last aired, 'Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai' is back. The cast is back, the bonhomie remains, and the show feels less artificially assembled than anything else on Indian TV

At first glance, Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai looked like any assembly-line Indian sitcom. It featured a mother-in-law warring with a daughter-in-law, canned laughter, a jarring background score, too many audio clips acting as verbal rimshots, with voices saying things like “Oh my my!" to underscore one-liners. But then that booming voice belonged to Usha Uthup, the coolest singer ever, and it saying “Oh my" instead of, say, “Oye hoye". This show always stood out from the lowest-common-denominator TV landscape.

Over a dozen years since the show last aired, Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai Take 2 is back on Hotstar, with new episodes every Monday. Many, including my parents and I, are elated. I believe what makes this show special is that it is a comedy of manners. The narrative framework—mother and father living across from son and daughter-in-law, resulting in snark and silliness—may resemble, say, Everybody Loves Raymond, but this show, where women find themselves possessed and grown men sell off their sneakers to buy chaat, has never been about plot. It is, instead, about sophistication. About the idea of elitism, about public perception and posturing, about the deeply Indian struggle to shake off the onerous “middle-class" tag—while showing, always, that the characters comfortable with being themselves have the best time, not to mention the loudest laugh.

Condescending matriarch Maya Sarabhai is unbearably haughty, yet cool and clever enough to charm us all. Indravadan, her genial husband, plays dumb but knows he must balance Maya out and level the playing field. Monisha, the terrifically tight-fisted daughter-in-law, finds herself ridiculed from every angle yet stubbornly holds her own. Sahil, her husband, is the frequently confounded straight guy. And then there’s Rosesh, Maya’s mother-worshipping younger son, a peculiarly named poet who uses too much onomatopoeia in poems about subjects like his mother’s purse.

Creators Deven Bhojani and Aatish Kapadia hand these characters to an absurdly strong cast, headlined by Ratna Pathak Shah, one of the finest actresses in the country, and legendary funnyman Satish Shah, who do a smashing job as the parents. Rupali Ganguly is delightful as the scene-stealing Monisha, and Rajesh Kumar’s Rosesh is impossible to forget. Equally memorable are Indravadan’s hard-of-hearing cousin Madhusudan (Arvind Vaidya), and the Sarabhai family’s son-in-law Dushyant, played by Bhojani himself, a spectacularly oblivious young man who behaves like a tech-support helpline. In a new scene, we see Dushyant mourn for a dead toaster, which struck me as daft till I realized I’d do the same for my iPad. All this farce comes from truth—and from family.

It is a self-assured comedy that does its own thing, uses English that may (mistakenly) be considered too highbrow for our television, and marches to its own goofy tune. It’s hard not to hum along. There’s nuance everywhere—Maya’s obvious affection for Indravadan (and sometimes even for Monisha) shines through in her Lockhorns-style barbs; Monisha and Rosesh share what might be the best devar-bhabhi relationship on TV, with a fondness that overcomes familial allegiances—and marvellous lines in every other scene. That classic quote where Maya accused Monisha of asking for free coriander even at the supermarket, for example, or a new one from Episode 2 where Maya, with unerring accuracy, singles out Monisha as the kind of woman who would send the cheesiest “good morning" forwards on WhatsApp.

WhatsApp didn’t exist when we first met the Sarabhais in 2004. Ratings dwindled next to Star One’s numerous reality shows, and the plug was pulled relatively soon. However, after many a listicle and tremendous cult adoration, it has been reinstated on popular demand. The two episodes out so far aren’t great: a child who promises to grate on the nerves has been added to the mix, the storyline—involving the clan teetering precariously on a bus at the edge of a cliff, à la the end of The Italian Job—is tedious, and nobody seems to have told the make-up folk that programmes are now broadcast in HD, making this show (and faces therein) appear very dated indeed.

Yet the cast is back, the bonhomie remains, and the show feels less artificially assembled than anything else on Indian TV. This bunch appears genuinely fond of one another—or so I stubbornly choose to believe. Watching this Take 2 incarnation is a bit like watching Friends after Season 5; you can predict the jokes (and Chandler isn’t funny any more, if you’re being honest) but you watch because you’ve already been won over, more cheerleader than critic.

I smiled nostalgically at the new stuff, with one big laugh courtesy of Dushyant. His number is saved as “I’ll Explain" on Indravadan’s phone, due to his all-consuming need to elaborate on how stuff-works—something that has, in the past, made him pretend Rosesh was a refrigerator—and he calls up at an ungodly hour to warn his father-in-law about buying a certain German brand of ballistic missile submarine.

As one may reasonably expect, there is little danger of a south Bombay man—whose biggest issues are evading glassfuls of milk and his son’s nutty poems—actually shopping for the aforementioned submarine, but that’s not the point. The point is that this family, one which sarcastically discusses its own show recap during a post-dinner board game, is back on our screens. This is a big win for the Indian consumer. And despite undeniable rust, there is definite warmth and trust. Ooh, that rhymes. Rosesh, a poet who approves of any and every rhyme, might even say “Whoopee".

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.

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