Not that Sameer Nair needed a sign, but it portended well when Anurag Pandey’s was the lone hand to shoot up during a headcount of The Office fans in his team. “I was horrified that the rest hadn’t seen it,” the CEO of Applause Entertainment, a venture of the Aditya Birla Group, says, a trace of amused outrage still intact.
But the one kid who had was an aspiring writer from a small town outside Bhopal. A longtime The Office fan himself, Nair had just got further proof that the premise of the show would appeal to unexpected geographic segments.
For young Pandey, meanwhile, this was a game-changer. Nair asked him to transliterate an episode of his choice into Hindi and do an in-house narration. The team was convinced and a local The Office began its journey to our screen of choice (the first season, 13 episodes, dropped on Friday).
Now, the conventional wisdom around cult brands is “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Or remake it, in this case. The risk of alienating a loyal fandom is real, as was evident when the teaser of the show was released a couple of weeks ago by Hotstar, the host OTT platform. The television show often doesn’t have a sell-by date in terms of audience affinity. Remember the petition to remake the last season of Game of Thrones? The intensity is real. In fact, let’s not forget that when The Office was being adapted for American television, there was a befitting outcry. No one can better Ricky Gervais’s masterpiece and all that. Similarly, the Indian adaptation’s teaser led to scattered rumblings and grumblings on social media.
A lack of indignation would have been strange. Unnerving even.
Nair and his team don’t want to “let down the cult”, of which he is firmly a member. “But beyond that this [The Office India] is for a newer audience,” he says. Also, no more than five million Indians would have seen the American version, he says. That gives Nair, what he calls, the 100-million gap between Narcos and Naagin, to tap into. “People are watching television differently. We are going into a mass of niches. Each niche is about 30 million in India, and that gives a great opportunity to tell stories,” he says. “The daily soap moved to other languages [beyond Hindi], and that’ll happen here [with premium television content] too.”
The transferability of concepts across mediums is not in doubt. Podcasts are becoming TV shows. Books have always been made into movies. Movies are lending themselves to series. Even TV series are becoming movies (Downton Abbey, coming soon to a theatre near you). A greater proliferation of language and format adaptations, in the age of booming content demand, is not just inevitable. It makes for a clever business strategy.
Unfortunately, “most people don’t get adaptations,” says Nair, who is also the brain behind India’s longest-running big-format adaptation, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). Then the CEO of Star TV, Nair had brought Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (of British origin) to Indian television, “never straying from the format to the last detail” but still giving it its own identity. (Many non-fiction shows on Indian television are adaptations: Bigg Boss from Big Brother, Nach Baliye from Dancing with the Stars to name a few.) “I’ve been trying to explain to people for 20 years that you’re paying good money [for the license] to adapt content,” he says, but they still like to consider it “loosely, a rip-off or [at best] inspired by.”
Fiction adaptations, meanwhile, haven’t had as much success in India. Here the story’s universality holds the key, says Nair. Recently, Applause’s Hostages (a remake of the Israeli original) and Criminal Justice (based on HBO’s The Night of) have found audiences. “If the story can travel, you can remake it with Indian actors and settings, so that it reaches more people. How many people will watch an Israeli show, in Hebrew, dubbed into Hindi? We have to tell stories in our context.”
Which has been the attempt with The Office, that has moved from small-town America (Scranton, Pennsylvania) to small-town India (Faridabad, NCR). Everyone’s office has the socio-cultural subtext that made both the American and British versions popular, says Nair. So they gave the show a local relevance and built it up with relatable characters, rather than familiar stars.
That explains their choice of actor Mukul Chadda to headline as Jagdeep Chaddha, India’s Michael Scott. “Mukul goes beyond acting,” says Nair. To play that character, “you’ve got to be that guy… delusional.” And Chadda, an IIM Ahmedabad grad, former investment banker and a regular on the improv scene, had walked in with no baggage. “I actually did not realise how big it was until after I started shooting and told friends who’d been fans of the show,” says Chadda, who started watching the American Office only after getting called for the audition. “Once I got the role, I stopped watching. I know comparisons will be made, and it’s a tough comparison, but I’m not daunted by that pressure. I’m just overwhelmed by the excitement of that character.”
That excitement led Nair to shoot 28 episodes of the show at one go, and work has already begun on writing Season 3, he says. His conviction should reassure the rest of the stakeholders. Nair was part of television’s big revolution in the early 2000s, ushering the saas-bahu daily episodic era. “In the process, while TV became massy, we missed our HBO-Showtime moment,” he says. (He adds laughing, “I created it so I take full credit and responsibility for my actions.”)
Almost two decades later, Nair is part of another revolution triggered by the arrival of OTT. As a distribution format, it removes the linearity of television. “Creators are no longer restricted by time slots like they are with television,” fuelling creativity, minimising risks and making room for all ideas—and their homemade adaptions.
The writer is a freelance journalist.