The British (and for that matter, most non-U.S. Western audiences) watch TV fare that is often frowned upon by the powerful media mavens in the United States. Rather than risking being slashed-and-burned at the hands of American TV network censors, the edgiest, funniest, and often the best shows from “over there” instead first test American waters by going to cable networks “over here.” While “free” TV guarantees a mass audience (and advertising lucre) upfront, the cult following and media buzz those shows generate often result in eventual successful syndication (Absolutely Fabulous) or slightly watered-down American remakes (Queer as Folk). On DVD, those shows ultimately reach a wider audience.
That brings us to The Kumars at No. 42, a delightful desi-Brit comedy import that first tickled U.K. funny bones in 2001 and is now being released on DVD stateside. The Kumars, a loud, upper-middle-income desi family, has for its spokesperson Sanjeev (Bhaskar), a 30-something virginal “host” of a fictitious show-within-a-titular-show the family stages from their north London backyard, much to the chagrin of some neighbors. In addition to Bhaskar, the Kumars are made up of the hyper-capitalist father Ashwin (Ebrahim), culinary-expert mother Madhuri (Joshi), and the cantankerously sex-obsessed grandmother Ummi (Syal, a perennial scene-stealer).
As a series of British (and not-so-British) celebs make the Kumars’ circuit, the audience is treated to some sidesplitting glimpses of daily Brit life experienced by one desi family. The fact that some of the “guests” on the show are relative unknowns outside the United Kingdom (although their popularity in the United Kingdom helped boost the show’s ratings there) matters little. What comes across is a vastly oft-kilter view of a worldview shaped by a son who has trouble meeting women (“He has not been near any women since he visited the (female) doctor.”) and a granny taking more than a casual interest in most male guests (“I was the Ms. Wet Salvar-Kameez for 1947.”). While the characters are exaggerated caricatures, the Kumars succeed in part because they represent a cross-section of social strata.
The “guests,” for their part, play themselves and are usually an absolute hoot. The first batch of episodes features long-time British TV talk show host Michael Parkinson and actors Minnie Driver and Ray Winstone. The guests answer real-life questions (often ad-libbed by either Madhuri or Ummi) that frequently reveal unexpectedly genuine insights. Co-written by Bhaskar (along with Richard Pinto and Sharat Sardana), the Kumars succeed in universalizing everything from the fear of professional failure to sexual inadequacies.
The success of The Kumars has already landed remakes in Germany (with a Turkish family), Australia (a Greek family), the Netherlands (Surinamese), and Israel (Moroccan Jewish). In America, Fox briefly flirted with a series titled The Ortegas. With this much clout, including winning a prestigious Peabody Award in 2004, The Kumars has jumped to the forefront of cutting-edge comedy that only happens to be desi. This DVD pack, with extra features that include commentary and deleted scenes (just as humorous) will delight anyone looking for sharp wit, a refreshing peek at non-U.S. celeb culture that actively seeks out references to Hindi films, or just heartfelt laughter. The Kumars scores on all counts.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.