'Metro Park is Akkarakazhchakal for a larger audience'
...say the show's creators, Abi Varghese, Ajayan Venugopalan, and Giju John
It's been 11 years since the Malayalam sitcom Akkarakazchakal (AK) came along like a breath of fresh air and turned into an instant favourite of many Keralites living in India and abroad. The show, despite low on production value, stood out on the strength of its memorable characters and witty observations. It also spawned a film, Akkarakazhchakal: The Movie (2011).
The creators, Abi Varghese, and Ajayan Venugopalan are now back with a revamped version, titled Metro Park. A reboot of sorts with a new cast -- Ranvir Shorey, Purbi Joshi, Omi Vaidya, Vega Tamotia, and Pitobash Tripathy -- and better production values, the Hindi series revolves around the hilarious antics of a quirky Gujarati family residing in the US.
In a conversation with Cinema Express, Abi, Ajayan, and producer Giju John talk about its conception.
Why was the series made in Hindi instead of Malayalam?
Ajayan: The NRI life and our daily struggles are the same be it Malayali, Punjabi or Gujarati. So we always knew that the issues discussed in AK would resonate with the pan-Indian community. With the influx of OTT platforms in India, we figured it's the right time to take this story to a larger audience.
Giju, what got you interested in the whole thing?
Giju: I had always been a fan of AK. So when I got a call from Abi and Ajayan asking if I could produce its Hindi version, the prospect really got me excited. I am yet to meet a Malayali NRI who is not a fan of AK. Hardly any other Malayalam show to date had that kind of global reach. And I believe that’s because of the show’s simplicity and its relatability. And with those attributes in place, attempting it in Hindi seemed like the next logical step.
Was doing it as a continuation of AK ever part of the discussion?
Abi: We have always been asked to continue the AK series. However, Ajayan and I had always agreed that we did the right thing by wrapping it up by 50 episodes. It's a series that we never wanted people to be tired of. I think we stopped it at the right point. Although there is always a temptation to go back to it, I really feel that it's best left alone.
Is it tough to come up with fresh content in this age of memes and WhatsApp forwards?
Ajayan: Yeah, I think it has become tougher especially since you are competing with that content. It is important to connect with the audience and get them hooked in the first 10 minutes of the show or else they will move on.
Abi: Also, I think it’s increasingly getting harder to hold the interest of an audience because people are more and more exposed to bite-sized content. Most content is consumed for one or two minutes and then we move on. What we've tried to do with the series is to make the characters and storyline engaging and relatable -- mostly things that have happened in our own lives. We don't worry too much about the freshness of the content because whatever we are creating is based on interesting stuff that we have experienced -- and we just hope that others will find it interesting too.
While writing the jokes, were you cautious with regard to political correctness and stereotypes?
Ajayan: Like AK, Metro Park’s main USP is that it is a family-friendly sitcom. So we have tried to stay away from jokes that are vulgar, political or controversial. But that being said, a lot of politics which is part of our daily life that has been addressed without being partisan. The show also reflects the great respect we have for the Gujarati community and the way they have thrived around the world keeping their culture and values intact.
Abi: We wanted to do the show without any stereotypes and make these characters as authentic as possible. Of course, there are some instances that you have to play up a little for a joke to work. But mostly we wanted to ground the characters. Our best compliments are when people say that they can relate to Kalpesh, Payal, Kannan or Kinjal.
Giju: What I have observed is that there is an element of purity in the process through which Ajayan and Abi conceive the scenes and the characters. There are no forced jokes, no double entendres; it’s just situations or ideas that they're inspired by. And if it doesn’t make them laugh out loud, it doesn’t make the cut.
Ranvir Shorey is brilliant in this. How did you happen to cast him?
Abi: Ranvir was the first person we cast. The entire credit for that goes to our friend Mansi Jain, who suggested we look at Ranvir as an option for the lead.
Giju: When Abi told me that Ranvir is their wish cast for Kalpesh, I was sold! I had seen Titli around that time and was totally floored by his performance. He’s one of the best contemporary Indian actors that we have. So versatile.
How did you come up with the e-pooja gag? Are there people who actually do that?
Ajayan: It just came about organically when we were thinking about the griha-pravesham pooja. Though e-pooja is a far stretch, I feel that it is important we find eco-friendly ways of doing things. Who knows, it’s always that one crazy idea that triggers the next big invention.
Giju, how did you go about the pitching process?
Giju: AK was a proven recipe in terms of content, with universal relatability. That’s why we were confident about proceeding with this series. So confident that we made the entire Season and then approached the platforms, instead of taking the traditional route of doing a pilot first. It was a bit of a ridiculous move when I think about it now, given the financial risk. I was answerable to the investors. But in the end, it all worked out.
Is there going to be a Season 2?
Abi: We are hoping so. Now that the characters are established, we have tons of ideas.