“In a comedy show, what matters the most is the content and the actors,” says Rajiv Mehra, the producer-director of the hit sitcom Zabaan Sambhalke (ZS), which first aired on DD Metro in 1993. Rajiv feels that even when something is lacking in a show, if the content and the chemistry between the actors hit the bullseye, the series can work. “ZS was one of my favourite experiences, especially because it gave me the chance to work with such a talented bunch of actors,” he says.
There are many similarities between ZS and the British comedy television series, Mind Your Language (MYL). Rajiv admits to being inspired by the latter. He says, “MYL definitely played on our minds. But, while we took the show’s format, we turned the content on its head and made it our own. You will draw parallels between the two shows, which I can’t deny. But while the British show had 24 episodes, we had 106 episodes. That was a great time to be making TV shows.”
The sitcom was about an institute where grown-ups learnt how to speak Hindi. Pankaj Kapur played the lead role of the teacher, and various other actors – Viju Khote, Tom Alter, Bhavana Balsavar, Asawari Joshi, Tanaaz Irani, Vivek Vaswani, Anant Mahadevan, among others – essayed the characters of students who hailed from different places. Shubha Khote portrayed the principal. “We had a Sindhi, a Parsi, a Russian, an Arab, a British man, a Tamilian and a Gujarati, among others,” says Rajiv.
The director had considered actor Farooque Shaikh for the lead role. But, “fortunately, Pankaj came on board and it worked out well”. “We didn’t know each other. I had heard he was not easy to work with. Pankaj was known to be a serious actor. But he was keen on doing this role, even though he wasn’t sure if he was up to it. I respect him tremendously, and we became good friends while making the show,” he adds.
Rajiv gives credit to Vivek for bringing in some of the cast members that he “wouldn’t have thought of” otherwise. “Vivek roped in gems like Tanaz and Shubhaji, who is a wonderful person and is so talented. She was the most easy-going person on the show. She made the shooting process easier for the entire cast,” says Rajiv.
Shubha, too, enjoyed playing the role of the strict principal, as she is also “strict in real life”. She says, “It wasn’t difficult for me to identify with the role as I was hardly acting.” The senior actor was surprised that Pankaj’s comic timing was as good as any other comedian. Shooting for the series, therefore, was a picnic for Shubha. She adds that she often looked forward to lunch time, as “everyone was assigned one day to bring food for the team”.
Bhavana felt working on the show was like “one big party”. “I never felt any pressure. We shot from 10am to 6pm, which was unheard of at that time, as TV show shoots usually lasted longer. I had taken on this show post Dekh Bhai Dekh. I was also working with my mother (Shubha) on this project. So, that made me feel at home,” she says. Bhavana would often run lines with Pankaj, since they had several scenes together. “We had heard that Pankajii was a reserved and an aloof person. But halfway through the schedule, we urged him to join us for lunch every day. Soon, he became part of the gang,” adds the actor.