Mona Lisa, Cliff Richard, John Travolta, Superman, Christianity – everything (except musician Apache Indian) is from India, asserted a curmudgeonly, brown suit-wearing man 20 years ago in the hit comedy Goodness Gracious Me.
The ground-breaking sketch show premiered on BBC Two in January 1998 and featured an ensemble of British-Indian actors including Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and Nina Wadia. The series began as an audio show for BBC Radio and went on to get a television adaptation that was on air till 2001, with the cast returning for special episodes in 2014 and 2015.
Created by Bhaskar, Syal and Anil Gupta, Goodness Gracious Me highlighted the experience of the Indian expatriate community by simultaneously playing up and debunking common stereotypes about South Asians.
One such double-edged sword was Mr Everything Comes from India, played by Bhaskar. The recurring character, presumably a first-generation immigrant, would assert the Indian origins of everything from Hollywood actors to Italian renaissance art, much to the despair of his Westernised son.
The character presented his observations with bulletproof illogicality. For instance, he argued in one sketch that the British Royal Family is Indian because they live as a joint family, work in the same business and have arranged marriages.
In another episode, Superman’s roots to the subcontinent are proven by his bad haircut, the fact that he works two jobs, never takes a day off work and picks cheap flights.
Santa, meanwhile, is from Jalandhar, and his reindeer, Rudolph, is actually Ranjeet. Any doubts about Father Christmas’s roots are dispelled when he says, “Think about it yaar...Big beard, huge belly, terrible suit. Indian!”
As for Hollywood stars, Robert Redford was originally Robert Red Fort, Tom Cruise was Om Cruise, Nicole Kidman was Nicole Kidda, Roger Moore was Raja More and Cindy Crawford was Hindi Crawford. “You’re just making it all up,” remarks his frustrated son in this sketch. “Then how do you explain Shirley Temple?” Mr Everything Comes From India retorts.
His reasoning is best displayed in the video (top) where he explains that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was in fact based on Meena Losa, a Gujarati washerwoman from Bhavnagar. The painter himself was not from Florence but Faridabad. To understand this connection, one needs to look no further than The Last Supper, he explains: “Twelve men sitting around the table for dinner. Where are the women? They’re in the kitchen!”
In a BBC documentary that was aired in the United Kingdom on Saturday to mark the 20-year anniversary of Goodness Gracious Me, Bhaskar said that they started the sketch with things that actually originated from India, like the words “bungalow”, “verandah”, “shampoo” and “jungle”, and went on to stretch the concept to silly and hilarious lengths.
As Syal explained in the documentary, titled 20 Years Innit!, the character, beyond its farcical elements, was a way to reclaim India’s place in the world before it was colonised by the British, a counter-narrative of sorts to the dominant Western history and education.
The character was going strong even in a Goodness Gracious Me Reunion Special episode, aired in May 2014. This time, it was the turn of internationally renowned television detectives to discover their Indian roots. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is Indian because he’s not just a detective but also a consultant, lives above a shop, and is best friends with a doctor. “He’s even played by a Bengali, Bonojeet Cumberband,” he signs off.