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Before The Kapil Sharma Show, There Was Meera Syal's The Kumars at No. 42

The Kumars – by Meera Syal and her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar – brought a newfangled diasporic humour to the fore.

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A quirky family with a host of idiosyncrasies welcome a celebrity into their home. The witty son – who appears to be the only 'normal' one – interviews the celebrity as his interrupting family tries their best to drive the celebrity away with their over-the-top desi charm.

And all of this is wrapped in good ol' satire. How's that for a TV show?

The premise might sound familiar – for it is awfully similar to that of another TV show, which has consistently overperformed and overstayed its welcome on top as one of Indian television's most successful comedy shows: The Kapil Sharma Show.

But the real credit for the premise – and the idea of the novel talk show – goes to English comedian of Indian origin, Meera Syal, for the British television show from the early 2000s, The Kumars at No. 42.

On Sunday, 14 May, Meera Syal received a BAFTA Fellowship in honour of her "outstanding achievement" in the TV industry – a rare accolade for an Indian-origin person in the United Kingdom. Soon after accepting the recognition on the stage, she placed a bindi on the award – and said it "represents change."
The Kumars – by Meera Syal and her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar – brought a newfangled diasporic humour to the fore.

Meera Syal has received a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement award at BAFTA Television Awards.

But in the early 2000s, Syal and her husband, British actor and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, were responsible for another change that took place on the British television in the form of The Kumars.

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A New Genre of Sitcom Talk Show

The Kumars at No. 42 brought a newfangled diasporic humour to the fore.

Sanjeev Bhaskar played the role of Sanjeev Kumar, a British-Indian man who aspires to become a talk-show host. Sanjeev's family, including his father Ashwin (played by Vincent Ebrahim), his mother Madhuri (played by Indira Joshi), and his grandmother (played by Meera Syal), assist him in entertaining and interviewing celebrities that come to visit their house in London.

The Kumars – by Meera Syal and her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar – brought a newfangled diasporic humour to the fore.

Sanjeev Bhaskar with guest Daniel Radcliffe.

Screenshot/YouTube

The Kumars at No. 42 pushed the envelope when it came to creating its own genre of 'sitcom talk show' and brought in real-life celebrities, including Daniel Radcliffe, Olivia Coleman, and Stephen Fry, to name a few, into the world of The Kumars.

Everyone got a peek into the life of Sanjeev Kumar, a son whose career was propped up by his loving and overenthusiastic family who attached a TV studio to their house so he could live his life-long ambition of being a talk-show host.

Indian stereotypes also play into the script of the show.

Madhuri, the mother, is like every other doting Indian mother, domestic in her life and in her tongue, as she continually expresses her desire to see her son married and settled.

The father, Ashwin, is the perfect picture of the money-minded immigrant dad with an entrepreneurial spirit, always making the best of the opportunities presented to him in the form of high-flying celebrities that can be coerced into advertising his off-beat "inventions."

He also makes it a point to go on about his struggles as a first-generation immigrant in England.

The stand-out character in the show, however, is Ummi, the grandmother, who is played wonderfully by Meera Syal – one of the writers on the show.
The Kumars – by Meera Syal and her husband Sanjeev Bhaskar – brought a newfangled diasporic humour to the fore.

The show attracted many celebrated British personalities.

Her stereotypical dressing style contrasts with her off-the-wall humour. Her age is her armour, as she comes in slyly with commentary that would raise a few brows if it wasn't coming from an old Indian grandmother.

She casually flirts at the expense of the guest's embarrassment, and wanes any awkward pauses with her quips. She shields her subversiveness well, her jokes edge on being offensive. But, well, you wouldn't take offence to jokes made by an actual grandmother, would you?

Ummi's id is balanced out by her grandson Sanjeev's superego. He comes in hot with clever questions and witty remarks, and his family helps him throw the celebrities off, so the conversation never sounds rehearsed. In fact, on the show, Bhaskar would never rehearse with the guests on purpose, so that the conversation would flow naturally.

Sanjeev is a first generation Brit, through and through, right from his suit to his accent, which has lost all touch of Indianness, except in physical appearance. But the family he surrounds himself with is a constant reminder that his Indianness is never too far to be gone.

The celebrities who show up to be interviewed by Sanjeev – and subsequently most of the Kumars – stick out in the setting, the Indianness of the family being the source of their amusement.

A Faithful Adaptation?

Presumably inspired by this, comedian Kapil Sharma's eponymous show tries to mimic the setup of The Kumars, but the voice is essentially Indian.

The characters and the premise might be comparable and might come off as an adaptation of the original, but the show's sensibility is very Indian in nature. Just as The Kumars at No. 42 put Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal on the comedy map of the country, The Kapil Sharma Show did the same for Kapil.

To call The Kapil Sharma Show a faithful adaptation of the original (and far superior) British TV show The Kumars at No. 42 is entirely subjective. Some people can hate it and some people can find solace in it. It can act like an hour of disengaged media consumption that most of us are looking for these days.

But both these shows charted their own course, stemming out of the need for a fresh perspective in comedy, that is aided by the most Indian institution of them all – family.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  BBC   TV   BAFTA 

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