A barbed look at babudom

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Will the typically British humour of 'Yes Minister' work if transplanted to an Indian setting? Viewers of a Hindi satellite channel have a chance to find out.

BUREAUCRACY knows no bounds - or so those who have tangled with it in some form say. And particularly so - when two nations like Britain and India, share a common heritage of how their government works. Which is why it made perfect sense when BBC decided that a television serial that it had first aired two decades ago to its domestic audience - to widespread acclaim - could do with a reworking; in Hindi.

For four months now, viewers of Star Plus, Star TV's entertainment channel, which went all-Hindi earlier this year, have been regaled with a weekly half hour comedy which tries to show how the sarkar works ( or on occasion does not). "Ji Mantriji" is based on BBC's "Yes Minister", which was first carried in the United Kingdom in over 22 episodes between 1980 and 1984. Written by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, the series was a razor-sharp, if hilarious recreation of the wheeling and dealing that went on in the corridors of power. It followed the fortunes of a Junior Minister in the British government, Jim Hacker, played by a veteran comic actor of the small screen, Paul Eddington, and his daily interaction with his wily Permanent Secretary in the Department of Administrative Affairs, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) and his personal secretary Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds).

The series was so close to the bone that BBC went on to air another 16 episodes under the title "Yes Prime Minister", which followed the fortunes of the trio after Hacker lands the top job. Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, enjoyed the digs - many of them at her own style of government - so much, that during her tenure, Eddington was made Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He died in 1995. The episodes were seen on television in India a few years ago.

In recreating the series in Hindi, print and TV journalist Alok Tomar has skillfully 'indianised' the situations, without losing the irreverent flavour of the original. He is helped by an inspired choice of actors to play the three central roles. Screen and stage actor Farooque Sheikh, who made his mark in a number of "New Wave" films in the 1970s, plays the role of Minister Suryaprakash Singh. Like Hacker, he is perpetually insecure about his position in the cabinet. He is putty in the hands of his senior bureaucrat, Rajnath Mathur, a role that is a comeback vehicle for Jayant Kripalani - who distinguished himself in Doordarshan's answer to "Dynasty", in the 1980s soap, "Khandaan". The part of the Minister's harassed private secretary Kaul, constantly torn between loyalty to his boss and the need to keep on the right side of the Civil Service establishment, is essayed well by the relatively unknown Paritosh Sand, an alumnus of the National School of Drama.

The early episodes have seen the trio tackle crises that ranged from the Minister's short-lived flirtation with Open Government (Khuli sarkar) to his abortive attempts to effect an economy drive (Bachat Abhiyan) in the government. Viewers affronted by the ostentatious flaunting of "Z Category" security by many a politician, felt instant empathy with the episode where Surya Prakash is, albeit briefly, on some nameless terrorist's hit-list. The wonder is, of course, that the episode is different only in local colour and some minor detail, from what audiences in the U.K. saw 15 years ago. Tomar's talent lies in retaining the satiric nuances of the original while translating it into 'babuspeak' that is familiar and seems entirely natural, to harried Indian citizens.

This is the first time that BBC has remade any of its English language serials in its entirety in an Indian language. The series is being produced for BBC by NDTV and all the original 38 episodes are planned - first as "Ji Mantriji" and later as "Ji Pradhan Mantriji". Early in August, the positive audience response persuaded the channel to shift the mid-week slot to a prime Sunday 8 p.m. slot.

August also saw the publication of the first volume of the print version: Ji Mantriji: The diaries of Shri Suryaprakash Singh (BBC/Penguin; Rs.195), which contains the first seven episodes. Cartoonist R.K. Laxman, whose art work is also used in the serial's titles, has contributed half a dozen evocative colour sketches to the book. The English language text is the work of London-based Monisha Shah who works for BBC and helped develop the project, which resulted in the Hindi version. Unlike the Hindi transcripts of the ongoing serial, the book takes the easy way out and retains whole chunks of text from the book versions the BBC published to accompany "Yes Minister" and its sequel (India Book House has reprinted them as The Complete Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister; 14.99) .

Shah sticks to the format of the original books, which purported to be the diaries of the minister, complete with facsimiles of memos, inter-office notes and press clippings. While the spoken words in Hindi feel right, this diary format often ends up sounding quite bizarre - and unlike anything an Indian "babu" would put down in writing. But for those who have not sampled the original books, this volume, like the weekly instalments on the small screen, remains a delightful and wholly recognisable portrayal of the self serving bakwas of netas and their flunkies as they grapple with the intricacies of sarkar.

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