Somewhere in between making socio-political dramas for the big screen and buying a shopping mall in Patna, Prakash Jha created a 13-episode series for Doordarshan about the original Muffler Man, right down to the green sweater and the muffler.
Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne (1989), inspired by James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, was about an aam aadmi from 1980s India. A lowly clerk who has migrated from North Bihar to Delhi, Mungerilal is the butt of ridicule in his office and his boss’s favourite punching bag. At home, his wife and in-laws contribute to his precariously low self-worth, while everyone else makes him feel worse about his wretched life. He is the kind of man who could be sitting right in front of you all day and you would not notice.
The only time Mungerilal escapes his mundane and oppressive reality is in his daydreams. They arrive frequently and at the most inopportune moments at times, accompanied by a peculiar tic that became the rage at that time – one of his eyes begins to uncontrollably twitch.
Written by acclaimed novelist and television writer Manohar Shyam Joshi, Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne combined slapstick and situational humour with social satire while making a case for the power of imagination. Mungerilal escapes from the humdrum into a fantastical world of secret crushes (including an English-speaking colleague who exploits his weakness), heroic exploits and talent (he dreams of being a popular singer, a Hindi film villain, a police officer, and his boss.)
Raghuvir Yadav, who had given stellar performances as a colonial-era clerk in Massey Sahib (1985) and a drug pusher in Salaam Bombay! (1987), was acting in plays when Joshi approached him with Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne. Joshi had by then established himself as a prolific writer for Doordarshan, with such blockbuster shows as Hum Log and Buniyaad to his credit.
The triumph of Jha’s show was its perfect choice of the lead actor. Yadav was slight, looked perpetually vexed, and wore his rootedness like a second skin. He sported a Chaplinesque moustache that was a nod to the legendary comic as well as his spoofy portrayal of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator. However, unlike Hitler, Mungerilal has absolutely no control over his life or his runaway dreams. His is a fight for everything – identity, dignity and even the right to sleep in his bed. A fine little touch is his bicycle and perpetually empty shopping bag – a comment on the endless errands run by a householder on a shoe-string budget.
“Most of how Mungerilal appeared on camera was conceptualised by Joshiji and Prakash Jha,” Yadav told Scroll.in in an interview. “I did have my misgivings about the twitching eye, but once we started shooting, I got it under control.”
The show was shot in Delhi, mostly at the Aga Khan Hall, on a lean budget. “What was special about the series was the way it was written and shot,” Yadav said. “People devoted time to what they did and it showed.” The crew managed to pack in several episodes in a single schedule. Yadav sometimes lost track of the story lines, making it tough for him to recall some of the more standout experiences.
Once the show went on air, Yadav became an overnight star. “I remember I was shooting for a film somewhere in Himachal Pradesh and as usual wandered off on my own after the shoot,” he recalled. “Once the locals spotted me, it was very difficult for me to get out of there. It made my life difficult.”
While Yadav basked in the love that came his way, he was certainly not happy with the roles that followed the show. “Everyone wanted me to do comic roles, and I had to keep saying no, keep turning down offers for both television and films,” Yadav said. “I was adamant on letting people know that I am a serious actor intent on doing only serious roles.”
Despite his misgivings, Yadav did headline shows such as Mulla Nasruddin, based on the legendary folk hero from Turkey, and the children’s comic character Chacha Chaudhary. Such was the impact of Mungerilal that throughout his long and fruitful career, Yadav would always be known as the humble daydreamer with the uncontrollable twitching eye.