Article Hindi

Manohar Shyam Joshi's writing is relevant even today: Seema Pahwa

On Joshi's 85th birth anniversary, the actress gives an insight into his socially conscious and magical writing of India's first and most iconic soap opera, Hum Log.

Suparna Thombare

More than 15 years before Ekta Kapoor's show Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (2000) kick-started the trend of daily soap operas on satellite television, Doordarshan aired Hum Log, the story of a middle-class joint family, in 1984.

The man at the helm of the weekly serial was Manohar Shyam Joshi, acclaimed Hindi writer of cult classic novels like the political satire, Netaji Kahin, and the socially conscious Kuru Kuru Swaahaa.

While he went on to write the script and screenplay of other shows like Ramesh Sippy's television serial Buniyaad (1987), there are many things that make Manohar Shyam Joshi's work on Hum Log an important moment in India's small-screen history.

Joshi brought his understanding of the social and political developments in India in the early 1980s and their impact on the Indian middle class, which was so prominent in his books, to the small screen when he collaborated with director P Kumar Vasudev for Hum Log.

The idea of creating India's first sopa opera as a show with a message came from the country's then information and broadcasting minister, Vasant Sathe, who had seen episodes of the education-cum-entertainment-based series Ven Conmigo (1975) on a visit to Mexico. In keeping with the theme of the show, Joshi created a family that represented India's rising middle class. 

The writer beautifully wove in the social problems of the time into the five children of the alcoholic Basesar Ram (Vinod Nagpal) and his suppressed housewife Bhagwanti (Jayshree Arora).

Lallu (Rajesh Puri), the elder son, cannot speak English well but aspires to find work abroad. The oldest daughter Badki (Seema Pahwa nee Bhargav) is someone whose marriage is the family's single biggest worry, which was a reality of middle-class life then and continues to be so for large sections of Indian society.

Majli (Divya Seth) represented the girls from small-town India of the 1980s who ran away to Mumbai in the hope of becoming a star and got exploited by unsavoury characters. Nanhe (Abhinav Chaturvedi) has big dreams and gets involved in smuggling, which was a fairly common crime back then as the Indian economy had not been opened up to the world.

The youngest member of the family, Chutki (Loveleen Mishra), is a girl who wants to become a doctor, but the family does not have the money required to fund her education.

On how Manohar Shyam Joshi developed her character, Seema Pahwa, or Badki, recalled, "At the time parents were concerned mainly with getting their daughters married. They did not think about her education or making her independent. They would think it enough for her to probably learn knitting and cooking.

"Badki was dealing with that problem. She wasn’t very attractive either. Her marriage was getting cancelled repeatedly. So the problem they dealt with was about making your daughter financially independent.

"Later, he made the character independent. She stands on her feet, becomes a social worker, and fights for women and becomes a strong character." 

The Hum Log family

Interestingly, the storyline of Hum Log and the plot and subplots remain relevant even today. While Indian television today is plagued by serials with convoluted subplots and random twists and turns, back then Joshi focused on effecting positive change through his writing. 

"Writers like him were so talented that whatever they wrote then is relevant even today," said Pahwa. "It’s a shame that we are still dealing with some of the same problems and haven’t progressed the way we should have."

Pahwa remembers Joshi as a sweet person and a talented, hands-on writer. In times where TV episodes are written at breakneck speed with commercial breaks in mind, Joshi was a professional who had it all planned out.

"One of his best qualities was that he used to give us the synopsis of every episode in advance," she recalled. "This happens very rarely in TV soaps. Every character’s synopsis used to be in their hands before the shoot.

"Another strength of his was that he used to come on the sets and talk to the actors. Since it was the first soap opera [on Indian television], he used to write based on whatever the audience reaction [to the characters and plot points] was, and many a time make additions on the sets. Though we had the synopsis beforehand, he would rewrite the episodes based on the response. And that way he used to update it."

While there were no TRPs and no marketing research to bank on back then, Joshi used to make changes based on fan mail received by the artistes and by Doordarshan.

Unlike the over-the-top soap operas being mostly created today, the writing of Hum Log was realistic and the topics it dealt with were issues viewers struggled with on a personal level.

The serial connected with audiences so well that many believed the characters were real people and the plot developments were true. People grew so attached to the show over the year and a half it ran on TV that when Badki was getting married in the 100th episode, Pahwa received steel utensils, bedsheets and bed covers from viewers as gifts or dowry!

"It was realistic writing," she said, laughing. "In fact, when me and Dr Ashwini were looking for a house [in one of the episodes], a woman approached me on the street and asked if I would like to buy her apartment as it was on the market."

Of course, there were more serious issues as well on which the serial connected with audiences. "When I was fighting on screen and being a social worker, cases started coming to me in real life," Pahwa recalled. "Women were coming to me with their problems and I was even getting death threats from men who felt I was influencing their wives!

"I asked Manohar what should I do, I can’t really help them. Do something about this. People are leaving their homes for me.

"He said we should take this positively, as it is the biggest success of the character. That people actually feel this is real. He made the character really strong as we felt it should represent our society. Girls got inspired by the character." Little wonder, then, that Pahwa feels elated even now, three decades on, when someone recognizes her as Badki.

One of the interesting elements Joshi added to the show was Ashok Kumar's address to the audience at the end of every episode. The veteran star would discuss the situations in the on-screen family's life and give a message using Hindi couplets and limericks written by Joshi. 

In fact, when Pahwa was receiving death threats, Joshi decided to use Ashok Kumar to help people understand the difference between reel and real. "Manohar wrote a special part where Ashok Kumarji had to tell the audience that I am just an actress doing my job. If you have any problem please approach the right organization instead of troubling the artiste," she recalled.

The show ran for a year and a half, and when it ended, viewers protested, asking for more. But there was no more.

"In the beginning itself he [Manohar Shyam Joshi] had written synopses for most episodes," Seema Pahwa said. "And like a novel he followed it. This is the story and that’s it!

"At that time the greed to sell products wasn’t there. The greed was to make our story reach the audience. In today’s times people keep stretching a serial only because of greed."

Manohar Shyam Joshi went on to write for films like Appu Raja (1989), Bhrashtachar (1989), Papa Kahte Hain (1996) and Hey Ram (2000). But Hum Log will remain the place where the magic began.