When Mukul Chadda landed the lead role in the Indian adaptation of The Office, he knew he had big shoes to fill. Chadda plays Jagdeep Chaddha, the overbearing branch manager of a small paper company in Haryana’s Faridabad neighbourhood. The role was immortalised by comedy giants Ricky Gervais in the British original and Steve Carell in its American version.
“I don’t know whether it was naivete, but the idea of taking on this role didn’t daunt me at all,” Chadda told Scroll.in “Maybe that was partly because I hadn’t seen the show till I had been called for the audition. I wasn’t thinking about the pressures of comparison – that seemed a long way off and the first task was to just do the job.”
The original British series was created by Gervais and Stephen Merchant and aired between 2001 to 2003. It spawned an Emmy award-winning American adaptation that concluded a nine-season run in 2015. The Indian adaptation is modelled on the latter, Chadda said. “We’ve borrowed similar plotlines and character sketches, but of course it’s been coloured with an Indian touch, to Indianise the dialogue, the jokes and the context,” he said. “And the characters also have a different feel to it for our context.”
Produced by BBC Studios for Applause Entertainment, The Office will be released on the Hotstar streamer on June 28. The 13-episode series has been directed by Rohan Sippy and Debbie Rao. The cast includes Gauahar Khan, Ranvir Shorey, Gopal Dutt, Sayandeep Sengupta and Samridhi Dewan.
The British satire about corporate culture follows a group of employees at a paper company (named Wilkins Chawla in the Indian version) who are being tailed by a documentary crew. The show mastered the art of cringe comedy, which derives laughs from awkward situations, with a hint of deadpan humour. In India, where broad comedy is the norm, were there apprehensions about whether this style of humour would work?
“I commend the makers because they stayed away from the boilerplate slapstick template,” Chadda said. “They were very clear that they wanted an official adaptation of The Office, retaining that comedic style. I do believe that if something is well made, it will work. So I hope for the best.”
The Office is Applause Entertainment’s fourth adapted web series after Criminal Justice, based on the British crime drama of the same name, Hostages, a remake of the Israeli thriller Bnei Aruba and Mind the Malhotras, based on Israel’s La Famiglia.The Office has a large and loyal fanbase in India. The release of the trailer led to a flurry of jokes and jibes on social media, with many declaring the series dead before arrival.
Chadda is unfazed by the social media fury. “To be honest, I found it very funny. A lot of the jokes and tweets were actually very witty,” he admitted. “But I didn’t take it personally, because nobody’s seen the show yet. Most of the messages were along the lines of, we don’t think you should make this show, the show is so pure it shouldn’t be touched. I know comparisons are inevitable, but I hope people watch it with an open mind and like the show and my performance.”
Like Gervais’s David Brent and Carell’s Michael Scott, Jagdeep Chaddha too is delusional, obnoxious and immature, with a penchant for inappropriate remarks. “Jagdeep is somebody who deeply desires to be loved,” the actor said. “He treats the office as his family. The mix between personal and professional, the boundary isn’t there for him. Which is also very sad because everybody doesn’t see it that way. He is loveable, but also very annoying and very politically incorrect.”
The character’s offensive comments – which include sexism, homophobia and body shaming – and the resultant amusement and horror were the source of much of the mirth in the British and American versions. At a time when workplace sexual harassment has come into sharp focus with the #MeToo and movement there’s growing pressure on mass media to colour within the lines of political correctness, has it become harder to play with such humour?
“While shooting it, a lot of us were conscious to strike a balance,” Chadda said. “That is not easy, because while the joke is often on the boss, he’s also a loveable character. So the tough part was to push the line, but not too far. The balance for us was, a character can be politically incorrect, but the show shouldn’t come across as that.”
Jagdeep Chaddha, the actor said, was by a long shot the most interesting role of his career. “When I watched the US show, one of the things that struck me about the performance of Steve Carrell was how he was saying all crazy and nonsensical things with great conviction,” he elaborated. “That’s hard to pull off. The other thing that was challenging was getting the character of Jagdeep right. I grew up in a metro, and capturing the Faridabad-raised Jagdeep’s socio-economic milieu was a challenge.”
Among his other memorable projects, Chadda counts his portrayal of a lonely lingerie salesman in the short film Butnama (2014), an awkward man who strikes up a conversation with a stranger in Ek Bahut Choti Si Love Story (2012), and the plays Chairs (2005) and Much Ado About Nothing (2006).
Chadda graduated from the Indian Institute of Ahmedabad and worked at the Lehman Brothers firm in New York before becoming an actor. His credits include small roles in films including Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), I, Me aur Main (2013) and Gurgaon (2016). “I had always been interested in acting and did it in school and college, but I never thought of it as a potential career,” he said. “When I moved back to India in 2004, I took a sabbatical to do theatre in Mumbai and write. But I enjoyed it and ended up becoming a full-time actor.”
Off screen, Chadda is active in Mumbai’s improvised comedy scene since 2009, and is part of the Improv Comedy Mumbai group. Improv is gaining some traction in India, but there’s a long way to go, he said. “We’ve seen many frustrating years of improvement and then decline, but we’ve continued with it because we really love doing it,” he said. “Now, there are a lot more groups and people doing improv. But the community is still very small and really needs to grow.”
His upcoming projects include Karan Gour’s Fairy Folk, which co-stars his wife, Rasika Dugal. The experimental film has a dialogue-free screenplay, and the lines were improvised on set by the actors, Chadda said. “Karan Gour comes up with very interesting ideas on not just films but the filmmaking process as well,” Chadda said. “He would let us take very long takes and then distill the scenes from those. I’m excited to see how that turns out.”