A disenfranchised bunch of people, a nondescript street corner in Bombay and a story of luckless (but not love-less) lives. Nukkad, telecast on Doordarshan between 1986 and 1987, had all the makings of a non-starter. But thanks to the earnest writing, direction and acting, the serial from Aziz and Saeed Mirza’s stable went on to become one of the most loved shows during Indian television’s golden run. It also happened to feature in the late Kundan Shah’s repertoire. Shah joined the team in the later stages of production, bringing his signature passion and energy to the show.
Every episode, starting with the first one that was centred on Diwali, explored the little-big problems of residents of the nukkad, or street corner, in the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. In their bumbling, seemingly naive way, the multi-faith characters deal with problems that are at times commonplace and often contentious – from settling disputes between neighbours and organising a cricket match to coming to terms with death and confronting trade unionism.
Series director Saeed Mirza credits the broadcast to the vision of SS Gill, the Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting at the time. Gill went against conventional wisdom and greenlit a series that used humour and sarcasm to talk about social, moral, ethical and cultural issues – something that even the mightiest production houses these days will not touch.
“The 26 characters [in the show] were really the dregs of society,” said Mirza, who credits his team of exceptional writers, for etching out each of them, such as Khopri (Sameer Khakhar), the lovable alcoholic, Guru (Dilip Dhawan), the de facto ring leader who runs an electrical shop, Maria (Rama Vij), the teacher whom Guru loves, Kaderbhai (Avtar Gill), the owner of the local restaurant hangout and cycle repairer Hari (Pavan Malhotra).
For instance, the third episode, about a politician’s visit to the neighbourhood, is a biting commentary on the ruling class. A cobbler, a beggar and an unemployed man are paid a princely two rupees to chant flattering slogans and ask the politician the right questions to make for a good media story.
The response to such envelope-pushing television was initially mixed. “When the serial was first aired, a college friend called me up to ask me what was wrong with me and why was I hell bent on destroying my career,” Mirza said. “Fifteen episodes later the same guy called me up to say, I had improved. I told him I had not changed. He had improved.”
A few associates warned Mirza about the risks of making such a subversive show, but he stuck to his guns. “It is about the Constitution,” he said. “It is inclusive. It is about the dispossessed. And the Constitution is not subversive.”
For Mirza, the responses to Nukkad worked as barometer to judge people. “We realised people would accept something if it touches them,” he said. “It was kind of a call, about secularism, inclusiveness that is outdated prehistoric today.”
Nukkad started out without any sponsors since it had no dream to sell, no aspiration to peddle. Despite the overall feel-good vibe, episodes often began or ended on a note of desperation. Eventually, the toothpaste brand Colgate found some value in the show’s premise, and other brands joined in later.
Even as they dealt with gloomy themes, the actors had a blast on the set. Actor Rama Vij, whoplays the teacher Maria, spoke of how the cast would spend hours before every episode rehearsing their lines, suggesting changes and sharing inputs. “It was mostly a grim show, but even when we were dealing with some of the toughest, most serious scenes, someone or the other would be cracking a joke or doing something behind your back, to make it impossible for you to say your lines with a sad face,” she said. “Such was the camaraderie on the set.”
Kundan Shah joined the team after his own Doordarshan series Police Station was taken off air. Police Station, produced by Aziz Mirza, was set in a typical Indian police station. “He worked like a man possessed, in a frenzy,” Saeed Mirza said about Shah. “He was a brother. He has left behind a huge, huge hole in my life.”
Would a show about sweepers, beggars, alcoholics, unemployed youngsters, cycle repairers, and tea sellers resonate with audiences today? Could we revisit Nukkad for its message of inclusiveness, humanity, equal rights and empathy for fellow human beings?
“I don’t know,” Mirza said. “We have forgotten what our Constitution stands for. Maybe we need this amnesia to function. We are so frightened of today that we cannot see the yesterday and the future is full of anxiety. How else can you explain all that is going wrong in our world?”