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The changing world of Wagle

'Wagle Ki Duniya' was the quintessential Doordarshan show about the middle-class common man. Does the reboot capture the same spirit?

(from left) Bharati Achrekar, Aanjjan Srivastav and Sheehan Kapahi in 'Wagle Ki Duniya: Nayi Peedhi Naye Kisse'
(from left) Bharati Achrekar, Aanjjan Srivastav and Sheehan Kapahi in 'Wagle Ki Duniya: Nayi Peedhi Naye Kisse'

Before the time of mobiles, internet and social media, everything moved at its own sweet pace,” goes the opening voice-over of the acclaimed web series Scam 1992. In its first scene, a man enters a newspaper office with a scoop. Seeing an elderly gent who looks like a senior editor, he offers to give him the news. “No, no,” says the old man, who turns out to be the legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman, “I am just a common man.” It is a witty beginning to a show about the rise and fall of stockbroker Harshad Mehta, who started off as a “common man” too, but finished his career and life in very uncommon circumstances.

A few years before the 1992 Mehta scam, an R.K. Laxman-scripted TV show featuring another—much less ambitious— common man was staple viewing on Doordarshan: Wagle Ki Duniya (1988-90), about the sweet little middle-class world of Srinivas Wagle (played by Aanjjan Srivastav and his sometimes-exasperated wife, Radhika (Bharati Achrekar). Director Kundan Shah, who helmed many of the early episodes, told me once about the experience of working with Laxman. “He was a tough nut—like a snake, always ready to strike with hard-hitting humour.”

It’s easy to romanticise the past, the “golden age” when the whole family watched TV together (with just one channel, there was no choice; if you didn’t like your family, you had to sit around waiting for the internet to be invented—or for satellite TV to arrive). Revisiting Wagle Ki Duniya, there isn’t much of the sharp-edged, “cobra-strike” comedy that Shah alluded to (or the caustic satire of his own film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro). What you have instead is a quietly absorbing show, gentle but firm in its humour, deriving most of its pleasures from the chemistry between the two very likable leads.

It was about everyday things that worried middle-class Indians. The stress of buying a second-hand car or a TV set. Giving a bribe for the first time. Averting a crisis when a date was printed wrong on invitation cards for an event. Running an office without an assistant (Wagle works for a company called Ambica Suppliers, and he and his colleague Mr Bhalla help each other out with chores).

In this setting, high drama could reside in the quotidian: Superhero music played in a scene where Wagle brought home a large plastic drum for water-storing (packed atop a taxi). When his neighbours learnt his was the only house getting regular water supply, the soundtrack turned menacing and there were murmurs of “This is corruption”. There was Wagle’s own catchphrase, “See the fun!”, which could be used in any context, to express annoyance or amusement. And once in a while, there were traces of the zaniness you would associate with Shah, as in a scene where a TV salesman recites a list of improbable Japanese brands (“Fujiyama! Kabuki! Haiku 11! Karate 13! Kobe 122!”) to the perplexity of the Wagle family.

We sometimes overstress the differences between the soft-socialist “then” and the consumerist “now”, but shows like Wagle Ki Duniya are a reminder that there were fewer things competing for attention then. How strange it is, with our experience of smartphone multitasking, to see an office-goer feeling harried when the phone on his desk rings as he is heading out to post a letter. Or to hear Wagle worry about his children’s posture when they watch TV. Or to see Mr Bhalla, brows furrowed, tapping away at a small rectangular object in his hand—and to realise, after a few seconds, that he is holding nothing more lethal than a pocket calculator.

In the moments when Wagle Ki Duniya departed from its laid-back tone, it was only to reaffirm the “slow and steady” rule. Take the police station episode in which Shah Rukh Khan, years before movie stardom, plays a youngster who scrapes against Wagle with his car. The YouTube video has comments about Khan’s “over-acting” but his nervous energy, swagger and whines of “Come on, old man!” offer an enjoyable contrast to the show’s overall zeitgeist. Something similar occurs during another episode, with Salim Ghouse as a smooth-talking job applicant whose behaviour is seen as rude and inappropriate. This builds up to one of Wagle’s funnier lines, delivered by Srivastav in his trademark preoccupied, deadpan style. “Waise woh bura nahin tha (He wasn’t bad),” he tells Radhika, quickly correcting himself: “Bura tha. But he was qualified.” It is bura to be anything other than self-effacing. But with economic liberalisation just around the corner, one might say these impatient youngsters were trying to drag Wagle into a faster-paced world.

Which brings us to Wagle Ki Duniya: Nayi Peedhi Naye Kisse (on Sony SAB), in which Srivastav and Achrekar reprise their roles, this time as supporting characters, while the focus shifts to their son Rajesh, his wife Vandana and their children. One might initially be cynical about this sequel-cum-rebooting: Its bright saturated colours are worlds removed from the reassuringly dull palettes of 1980s Doordarshan, and the devotional opening scene—with a well-scrubbed family praying and looking gooey-eyed—set off alarm bells for me, suggesting the onset of a standard-issue soap opera promoting sanskaari “values”.

And yet, if you settle in and watch enough episodes (I watched five), you may find that despite the patches of sentimentality—of the sort one didn’t associate with the first Wagle Ki Duniya, Laxman or Shah—and at least one grating character, a doggerel-spouting society secretary, the new show replicates something of the good-natured charm of the original.

This is partly because the interactions between the next-generation couple (pleasantly played by Sumeet Raghvan and Pariva Pranati) feel natural and lived-in. But also because there are enough reminders that some middle-class problems, challenges and sensibilities don’t go away—notwithstanding the cosmetic changes in Indian society since, or the manicured glossiness of the show’s set design. In one episode where Rajesh and family make a very rare outing to a “posh” restaurant and end up with a bill no one anticipated—leading to imagined panic about having to wash plates (“veg and non-veg dishes!”)—both their embarrassment and the small waves of humour around it feel authentic and relatable.

The original Wagle couple, in their first scene, appear on a video call, immediately setting up a contrast from the old days. But it is also made clear that there isn’t such a big difference between ancient voice recordings on a dusty audio cassette and a family video being recorded on a modern phone; the technology has changed, the texture of the nostalgia is the same. When Rajesh speaks about the sacrifices his parents made for him, it harks back directly to scenes from the 1980s show, such as Wagle going out of his way to entertain his children with a picnic outing.

Dadar ki aapki saari purani cheezon ko use kar ke yeh naya mahaul banaaya hai humne (We have used all the things from your old flat to create a new environment),” Rajesh tells his parents after moving them to his building—for instance, he has turned their box TV into a retro-table for the flat-screen TV. It’s a goofy but oddly moving scene about taking the old and outdated and situating it in a new context.

This is also what the new Wagle Ki Duniya is trying to do with our memories of the older show, and with Srivastav and Achrekar around, it may well work. So what if Senior Wagle has turned into a version of the uncle who fumblingly sends motivational messages on WhatsApp at 5am? The essence of the man remains, and in his hesitant efforts to make sense of a new duniya you can still “see the fun”.

'Wagle Ki Duniya: Nayi Peedhi Naye Kisse' can be viewed on Sony SAB or the SonyLIV platform.

Jai Arjun Singh is a writer and critic.

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