The Enduring Appeal of ‘Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai’

The lockdown has had a strange effect on Indian television.

Since one can no longer shoot new episodes, re-runs have taken over. Among others, shows such as the Mahabharat and Ramayan have made a thunderous return. But in this phase of re-runs, there is one television series that stands out for its repeated re-runs over the last decade – Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai.

This sitcom, set in South Mumbai across two apartments and one family, helped its own channel top TRP charts. The first episode aired in 2004 and the show was telecast every week on Monday. The ratings were low initially but it soon broke records and became a household name.

Usually, with time, many shows vanish into oblivion. But Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai’s humorous one-liners didn’t let that happen. The quotable dialogues and countless gags on class divide are now part of everyday conversations among millennials by virtue of having become a popular meme template.

Also read: What Explains the Enduring Appeal of ‘Ramayan’ and ‘Mahabharat’?

But what is it that makes the show so enduring?

Two words: exceptional writing.

The screenwriter of the show Aatish Kapadia, who was also behind another popular sitcom, Khichdi, creates a menagerie of characters often found around us. We know a friend or a family member like Indravadan, a tattletale man-child. We have all come across a pretentious snob like Maya Sarabhai. There is someone we know who is as lovable as the Momma’s boy, Rosesh. There is the kind hearted yet frugal friend in our lives who can find ingenious ways to save money, like Monisha. And most of us have an agony aunt in our lives like Sahil. We might not know a Madhusudhan Fufa but a partially deaf annoying uncle makes for the drollest running gag. Hein…?

Apart from such relatable characters, Sarabhai tackles one of the prevalent issues in Indian society – the class divide. There are the middle class and the working class and then there’s the higher echelon of the upper class. One travels in buses and trains and the other has probably never traveled without a chauffeur-driven car.

This dichotomy has been in our society since time immemorial and Sarabhai captures it in the best way possible. Maya, a high society artsy Mubi-watching social butterfly, looks down upon a middle-class Monisha who likes watching Uska Pati Sirf Mera Hai – a 1990 Bollywood film – and asks for a free coriander at the supermarket.

We see these characters and stories all around us. Monisha, like many of us, finds comfort in saving five bucks in a tussle with a vendor while, like Maya, many of us prefer calling croissants, crua-san instead of crew-sant at a fancy bakery. This divide is unfortunate, but it is everywhere.

Also read: What Growing up in an Indian Middle-Class Household Taught Me About Sustainability

There is another cultural arc that Sarabhai captures wonderfully, i.e. the treatment of the arts.

Rosesh, a poet and an actor, lands a job at a theatre company to play small roles. Unlike the stories in conventional sitcoms and films, Rosesh’s mother doesn’t ridicule him. In general, theatres and paintings are generally reserved for the upper class, but only as a hobby not a profession. The rosewood frame or Ming vases (even as gifts) are simply boxes and bits to a Monisha, while they are a status symbol for a Maya. The Indravadan in us enjoys bhel puri while the Maya in us finds it appalling.

We are a disconnected people. To our culture. To our fellow human. To an ‘other’ sometimes, even ourselves. Sarabhai V. Sarabhai offers a mirror. A mirror whose reflection might have improved in megapixels but unfortunately the content remains the same. We still find Mayas, we still find Monishas and the other Sarabhais around.

Its relevance is remarkable, and the endurance of the show has a lesson for us – that as long there is an ‘other’, there will always be a fight. A versus. So, we must learn to accept the other despite our differences and create a better society. With bhel puri and Mubi. With croissants and Komolika.

Ekam Singh Sahni is a recent graduate in architecture with a passion for writing, reading and now cooking.

Featured image credit: Reuters