By Anupama Kumar
Who exactly does the Indian media think is the “regular” Indian? The second season of the Indian show Sarabhai v. Sarabhai might provide some clue. The show first aired between 2004 and 2006, and revolved around the everyday lives of a South Bombay family. Indravadhan is the family’s patriarch who likes television and vada pav, while his wife Maya is busy being a socialite. They live with their older son Saahil, a doctor, their daughter-in-law Monisha, and their younger son Rosesh. Like the 1980s show Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (YJHZ), the show’s protagonists were an urban, middle-class family with very middle-class problems – finding domestic help, switching jobs and new hairstyles for the women. It’s no surprise that both shows were hugely popular, and that both YJHZ and Sarabhai have found their place in collective memory.
But much as Monisha would like to believe otherwise, she is hardly representative of the average Indian. 27.5 percent of India lives below the poverty line, and 53 percent of Indians earn less than the median income of Rs. 5000 per month.
I was born in 1990, and grew up in post-liberalisation India. To many Indians like me, Sarabhai was a show about “regular” people, with habits and quirks that belong to “all of us.” Like many middle-class Indians in post-liberalisation India, the Sarabhais have plenty of money, and plenty of opportunity to spend it. Unlike Renu and Ranjit’s modest flat in YJHZ, the Sarabhai residence comprises two apartments an upmarket high rise in South Bombay. The Sarabhais have not one, but two full-time domestic help. Their well-furnished flats contain widescreen televisions and large refrigerators, with luxury cars parked downstairs. Maya casually drops brand names and organises cocktail parties with imported alcohol, and dines at restaurants with names like Zodiac Bistro. Even Saahil’s specialisation – cosmetic dermatology – is something that only really entered middle class imagination in 1991.
Despite their wealth, the Sarabhais – particularly Monisha Sarabhai – display some comfortably middle-class habits. Unlike her mother-in-law, Monisha is anything but posh. She does not shop at designer labels, but buys her colourful skirts and kurtas at Mumbai’s Linking Road market and her agarbattis from roadside vendors. She chops vegetables in the living room, while watching television soaps, and has no qualms about being seen eating bhel puri or vada pav on the street. Crucially, Monisha is, well, cheap, looking out for sales and shopping in bulk at stores such as Big Bazaar. Many of the show’s best-remembered one-liners relate to Monisha’s thrifty habits – her constant bargain hunting, her inability to throw anything away in case it ever comes in handy and her lack of command over the English language. For many middle-class Indians, Monisha is a regular person, someone with an urban upbringing and college education, who cannot quite comprehend why the posh exchange air kisses and buy modern art, or think that it’s fine to swear in English but not in Hindi. Monisha might even define the lines of what is acceptable behaviour for middle class Indians. She is by no means poor, but not as wealthy as, say, the Ambanis or the protagonists of a Karan Johar romance. It is, therefore, acceptable, even laudable, to save money by selling off old newspapers and clothes to the raddiwala, even as we visit fine dining establishments and take holidays to Europe. In some ways, we are all Monisha Sarabhai.
But much as Monisha would like to believe otherwise, she is hardly representative of the average Indian. 27.5 percent of India lives below the poverty line, and 53 percent of Indians earn less than the median income of Rs. 5000 per month. Fewer than three percent of Indians own a TV, computer, motor vehicle, AC and refrigerator – appliances that the Sarabhais certainly take for granted. As for higher education, only about eight percent of Indians are graduates, let alone highly specialized professionals like Saahil Sarabhai, while some estimates place the number of English speakers in India at only a little more than a tenth of the population. A great many of the plot points in Sarabhai – holidays abroad, damaged cars, cocktail party charity fundraisers, flats in South Mumbai and protagonists who casually throw in English phrases while speaking Hindi – are out of the reach of close to 900 million Indians.
The Sarabhais are not an exception to the portrayal of the every person on Indian media. Mainstream films and television about “ordinary people” have always centred on middle class problems. The protagonists of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s gentle comedies and Basu Chatterjee’s simple romances are by no means obscenely rich, but own cars and houses, and work as professors and accountants. Films like Queen, about a woman who leaves her sheltered life in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden for a solo honeymoon in Europe, and Band Baaja Baarat, about two friends who begin a wedding planning business, are praised for being relatable. Movies about poor people, such as Kaaka Muttai or the critically acclaimed City Lights, are “arthouse” or alternative films. Popular Indian soap operas frequently revolve around large joint families in huge houses, with plenty of material possessions. The “regular folk” of the Indian screen is really not quite so regular after all.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Sarabhai v. Sarabhai Take 2. The Sarabhais now live in a Mumbai penthouse, as their flats are being renovated. Saahil and Monisha’s son attends a posh private school and Indravadan hosts an exhibition of priceless antiques in his living room to impress the Sarabhais’ friends. Even access to the show is limited – the show does not air on cable television, but only on the webstreaming service Hotstar, even though only seven percent of Indians have access to broadband internet. Perhaps, when we decide that Monisha Sarabhai is all of us, it is time to reconsider who we really are.
Anupama Kumar is a lawyer based in Chennai, India. She has graduated from the National Law School of India University and Oxford University and is interested in how private law affects everyday lives. Photo Credit: CC by Ordinary Indian/Flickr