The early Eighties. It was the time of safari suits and Gold Spot, typewriters and turntables, when traffic jams were unheard of and children still played hopscotch in the colony park. But it was also a time of change.
From left, standing: Rajesh Puri (Lalloo), Renuka Israni (Usha Rani), Vinod Nagpal (Basesar Ram), P Kumar Vasudev (director), Joyshree Arora (Bhagwanti), Seema Bhargava (Badki). From left, sitting: Divya Seth (Majhli), Sushma Seth (Dadi), Abhinav Chaturvedi (Nanhe), Lahiri Singh (Dadaji), Lovleen Misra (Chutki) (HT Photo Archives)
The Maruti 800 car had been introduced in 1983, colour TV sets were selling like hot cakes, and discos had begun dotting the big cities. In 1982, Doordarshan, India's only television channel, had introduced the National Programme — a two-hour news-entertainment package for the entire nation, which covered 50 per cent of the population by 1984.
The stage was set for the country's first home-grown, long-running TV serial to make its appearance. Hum Log, which began on July 7, 1984 and ended after 156 episodes on December 17, 1985, was the pioneering ancestor of today's soaps.
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But this was pre-liberalised India and for the government broadcaster, entertainment had to be 'educational entertainment,' with social messages embedded deep within it. Inspiration came from Mexican writer-producer-director Miguel Sabido who had made a telenovella called Simplemente Maria, which followed the life of a hard-working young woman. The story goes that Sabido came to India and proposed a similar idea for Doordarshan.
Accomplished journalist and author Manohar Shyam Joshi created a compelling portrait of a lower middle-class joint family. There was the alcoholic Basesar Ram, his self-sacrificing wife Bhagwanti and their five children. The eldest son Lalloo is unemployed, while the younger son, Nanhe, dreams of becoming a cricketer.
Of the three daughters, Badki is rejected by suitors because of the family's inability to pay dowry, Majhli, desperate to become an actor, runs away from home but comes back chastened after facing exploitation, while Chutki yearns to see herself as a doctor one day. The family is completed by dadaji (a retired military man) and the old-fashioned dadi.
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Audiences immediately identified with the family. Film actor Ashok Kumar's sage, homespun advice at the end of every episode put everything in perspective for viewers. But Hum Log had been made to address social issues like family planning, alcoholism and women's education, which it succeeded in doing. When the show ended with dadi's death, a defining chapter in the history of India's popular culture came to an end. But another chapter opened as well — and it's still unfolding.
Basesar Ram, the father
Doordarshan and Shobha Doctor, one of the producers of Hum Log, wanted someone who didn't look like a star. "The idea was to cast actors whom the masses could relate to," said Vinod Nagpal (75), who played the alcoholic father of five children. He believes the serial was a massive hit because of its strong and timeless content. "However, every time there is a repeat telecast, people still get hooked on to it," he said.
Nagpal currently produces light and sound shows. His last two films were Luv Shuv Te Chicken Khurana and Aaja Nachle.
Dadi, the grandmother
For Sushma Seth, taking on the role of the feisty dadi meant not just rehearsing the dialogues in a Haryanvi accent, but also designing and sourcing the costumes and the wig. Seth says she loved the role of the matriarch who was manipulative, but also "humourous, childlike and very believable".
"Everyone had a character like that in their family," says the Delhi-based actor who played memorable characters in films such as Prem Rog, Kalyug and Silsila, aside from being actively involved in theatre, particularly children's theatre.
Lalloo, elder son
"The character became so famous that my reel and real life got mixed up!," Rajesh Puri remembers fondly.
"People thought I was married to Usha Rani (Lalloo's screen wife played by Renuka Israni). They even believed that I was an IAS officer, and had an MA in English just because my character could manage a few English sentences."
Puri was part of a theatre group in Mumbai when P Kumar Vasudev, the director of the show, discovered him. Everyone in the cast "instantly clicked, just like a real family would". After Hum Log, Puri, now an actor-producer-director, was seen in Buniyaad and several films. He is currently acting in Zee TV's Bandhan.
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Bhagwanti, the mother
Joyshree Arora says playing a submissive mother was the role of a "lifetime". But it wasn't easy: a young, middle class woman in her 20s, Arora was the antithesis of the submissive 40-something Bhagwanti, mother to five adults in a lower-middle class family. "I locked myself in a room for a few days to rehearse the lines. I stopped growing my nails, and started doing the dishes at home so that my hands looked rough for the part," she recalls. Post Hum Log, Arora has worked in over 160 projects including Buniyaad, Sapne Suhane Ladakpan Ke, and the film, Chak De India.
Nanhe, the younger son
"Even off the sets, we continued to be a family. Rajeshji (Lalloo) is still like my elder brother; I am crazy about this family," says Chaturvedi. He recalls how he was an aspiring test cricketer at the time, but writer Manohar Shyam Joshi's son suggested his name for the role. "It was the first show which broke linguistic barriers and took up various social issues," he says. After Nanhe became famous, Chaturvedi says he was surrounded by fans, won several accolades and worked in many films including Saudagar. Now, he runs a production company in Delhi.
Chutki, the youngest daughter
In a lower middle-class family, in which none of the kids' dreams were taking off, Chutki wanted to be a doctor. "I was focused on academics, and if I could, so could everybody — that was the message," says Lovleen Misra, who played Chutki, the youngest daughter. "The mother was submissive but none of us three daughters in the serial was expected to be." Post-Hum Log, Misra conducts theatre workshops in Mumbai. She was one of the dialogue writers for the tele-hit Jassi, and also acted in a Nasseruddin Shah production based on Ismat Chughtai's stories.
Badki, the eldest daughter
Seema Bhargava had done a few weekly shows on DD and was working with the Sri Ram Centre repertory when she was offered a small part in Hum Log. She declined. But after P Kumar Vasudev, the director, told her that she would be playing Badki, one of the main characters, she agreed. Shooting at that time was different: actors would interact with the director via a floor manager, she says. Now, she divides her time between her own theatre group, Kopal, and Motley, Naseeruddin Shah's troupe, and films.