David Brent and Michael Scott were bosses about whom a lot could be said, but there is now an Indian version of The Office, where we can say the boss is…Punjabi. It premiered on Hotstar last weekend, and while I began watching with trepidation, I eventually found it mostly harmless. The first 13 episodes faithfully mirror the first season-and-a-half of the American version—so faithfully, in fact, that a disgruntled viewer tweeted, “I’m sure they’re using the same subtitle file" as the US version—and this first season emerges as decent, if unspectacular.
In 2001, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant changed comedy with The Office. The BBC series (also available on Hotstar) featured an approval-hungry boss, a man desperate to entertain, ushering in a celebration of social awkwardness and workplace dissonance. It deployed an unusual gaze. The creators, inexplicably and inspiredly, let in a camera crew to chronicle the humdrum lives of characters working at a paper company. Coming at a time when we had just started documenting our lives on the internet and letting status updates know how we were doing, this sprung a revolution.
Characters discovered a crack of escape between feeble jokes and painful colleagues, looking to us for help and empathy. Their candour multiplied and guards dropped as they talked for the camera. Even when they postured, pauses allowed us a look beneath the bluster. The mockumentary format is now too common, but The Office broke ground by training its lens on those ignored by the cameras. Gervais cites This Is Spinal Tap as a reference, but a documentary on a rock band adds up. Why on earth is a camera crew showcasing these unspectacular high jinks? We are never told. The answer, from a storytelling perspective, is elegant as can be: In that bleak world, the high jinks matter. They get these characters through the day.
In 2005, there was an uproar when an American version was announced. This remake (streaming in India on Amazon Prime) was met with stiff opposition, and while the first season was clunky—lacking the tonal mastery of the original, coming across as a feeble knock-off of something special—the show soon found its own stride and approach.
Developed by Greg Daniels and featuring Steve Carrell at his best, the politically incorrect and pathetic boss was given constant moments of redemption and optimism. The tragicomic cringing of Gervais and his mean David Brent was replaced with the vulnerable lovability of Carrell’s Michael Scott. The secondary characters, jaded and cynical lemmings in the original, became quirk-filled fools in the American version. And then came their not-so-secret McSauce: the sentimentalism.
The British show is about a man who genuinely makes others uneasy, while the American show is about a man we constantly feel sorry for. The tart pessimism of the original makes it high art; the hope offered by the remake connects with the world.
What, then, does the Indian edition offer? The boss in a Faridabad paper office, played by Mukul Chadda, is likeable from the very start, a mostly sweet guy with a stupidly WhatsApp sense of humour. Characters take cues slavishly from the US version, from body types to racial and sexual identities, making it impossible to avoid comparisons. Immediate wins come from two of them: the receptionist (and female lead) Pammi—Pam in the US version—who is a down-to-earth Faridabad girl played by Samridhi Dewan, who doesn’t easily use words like “date", and the office idiot, played by Gopal Dutt as a shakha-attending, akhara-loving nutcase. It’s fascinating to see this humanization of a rabid fundamentalist who goes to parks on weekends to scare off couples with sticks. These takes on beloved characters show that the Indian version is unafraid to be uncool.
Created by Rajesh Devraj and directed by Debbie Rao (who also directed Better Life Foundation, an Indian web series influenced by The Office and Parks And Recreation), Rohan Sippy and Vivek Bhushan, the show is strictly okay. The translation and localization are fine, but because the episodes barely explore new material, I can’t tell whether I am actually amused or amiably nodding along to the memory of scenes I have laughed at before. It’s like listening to a mixtape of classic songs—am I enjoying the new groove or is Chura Liya always going to work, synth beats be damned?
Chadda plays the challenging character of the boss—also named Chadda—who is suitably unfunny, but immediately easy to feel sorry for. He’s more amiable than the men before him, and though he is a fine performer (if too self-consciously “Punjabi", oye hoye), his lines aren’t at all memorable. Michael Scott might have made off-colour racist and sexist jokes but he came at us unexpectedly, and laughing with him often meant laughing at things we aren’t supposed to. He made us shake our heads at him and ourselves. We now enjoy Scott as an antic of a less-aware time, and may not be able to celebrate him the same way were we to meet him on a new television show.
Why are we replicating Michael, then, instead of creating our own nightmare boss? Even his catchphrase, “That’s What She Said," has been unimaginatively translated into the weird “Baby bhi yehi boli". That’s a shame, because the imagination—and the targets—exist. Last week on a flight, I watched two old episodes of Ashwini Dhir’s classic SAB TV sitcom Office Office and couldn’t stop grinning at Everyman Pankaj Kapur harangued by a paan-spitting Sanjay Mishra and an ever-famished Manoj Pahwa, terrific actors who stayed in character even as they swapped roles in each episode. What a joy.
Our own bosses provide enough to laugh at. This is an inoffensive remake, but this show will only be admirable when it starts telling its own stories. It can’t possibly be that hard, can it? <Insert Michael Scott GIF>
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen