June 28th sees the release of the official Indian adaptation of hit US comedy series The Office – itself a remake of the British original created by Ricky Gervais, the show that first shot him to success.
Arguably one of the most beloved US comedies of recent times, it starred Steve Carell as the boss Michael Scott and went on for 9 seasons. The multi-award-winning series followed the everyday lives of the employees of Dunder Mifflin a paper company facing downsizing. The show follows a mockumentary-style format.
In the Indian adaptation from Applause Entertainment, Michael Scott is Jagdeep Chaddha (played by Mukul Chadda), the location is Noida, and the company is Wilkins Chawla paper company. The initial announcement of the Indian version and its trailer met with much outrage on social media from the dedicated Indian fans of the US show. The test of this adaptation ultimately remains both in how fans of the Steve Carell show will receive it – something Chadda is well aware of – and equally how non-Office fans will be able to connect to this distinct brand of humour.
When we meet Mukul Chadda, he is visibly excited about his first lead role in a show of this scale. He spoke to me about the pressures of creating the Indian Michael Scott, his thoughts on the criticism on social media and his relationship with the original show.
What is your relationship with the US show? Are you a fan?
I had heard of it, but I’d never seen The Office before I got called by the casting director. He called me and said they’re casting for The Office and that they were considering me for the lead. He asked if I’d seen it and I said no, so he told me to watch Season 2 of the US one. I’m not sure why that particular season, but I’m sure he had a reason. So I watched a few episodes before I went in for the first audition and that was really helpful. It gave me an idea of the tone of the show, the kind of humour, the fact that it’s a mockumentary style and so much more.
But the minute I got the part, I stopped watching because I didn’t want to get into that zone. I think the bigger risk wasn’t that I’d copy Steve Carell, but that I’d make too much of an effort to be different. Watching something just before you do it is a very bad idea. It’s only when we finished shooting that I watched both the UK and US versions and they’re very different. I’m now on Season 5 of the US one.
Did you feel a sense of pressure recreating this iconic character?
I never did strangely. I was sort of oblivious to what would happen. To me, it was a great role which I wanted to do. I mean, who wouldn’t? And it was always about creating the character of Jagdeep Chaddha, there was never any reference to Michael Scott.
But many months after shooting, I met a friend and she was talking about the UK and US versions. She’s a huge fan of Ricky Gervais. She said ‘it took me five years to forgive Steve Carell for what he did to that character’. So I said mar gaye (laughs) because it will take a couple of lifetimes to forgive me. That’s the first time I realised the kind of mad adoration these shows have. And naturally, when there’s that kind of adoration there will be all these angry comments that you see on Twitter – which I had a blast reading by the way. You can tell it’s coming from a place of crazy love for the original. But that’s before seeing the show. I’m very excited to see what people say after seeing it.
When creating Jagdeep Chaddha, was it difficult to find the right level of exaggeration whilst still trying to keep him grounded and relatable?
I think that’s always the challenge when you’re acting – finding that right level. You’re given lines and you have to make the gag work but you have to keep it real. The gags are there by the writer and director, your job is to keep it real. It’s not our job to think about the gag, your primary responsibility is to keep it true.
This kind of format and approach to a comedy show is still relatively experimental for Indian audiences. Are you nervous about how people will receive it?
It is very different and I like the fact that it is a very different kind of humour. But on some level, I feel if something works, it works. I can’t get into whether it will be a hit or not, you have no idea. But it’s not something I’m thinking about it.
I’m also grateful to the makers because I’m sure it must not have been easy for them, because, as you said, it’s the kind of humour we haven’t often seen in India. But they were brave enough to stick to that and didn’t compromise on that.
Given that in the show, the camera is a character in itself, was it strange acting to camera and working with it rather than ignoring it?
Yeah, I had a tough time with that because as an actor you’re trained to ignore the camera. That’s what you do day in day out and here it was completely different because the cameras is a character. You have to acknowledge it and recognise it. And I have to say, for the first few days of shoot, it was a challenge to get reminded that at times we have to look to camera. But then you start playing with it till you get comfortable with it.
When you’re shooting a scene, how can you tell if something’s genuinely funny?
Sometimes you can never tell. For me, very often it’s about the kind of project it is. There are projects where, and there might have been a few scenes in this one as well, the humour comes from a cut of this or cut of that. You’re not a part of the entire scene so you never know. It’s completely in the director’s head and you have to trust them completely. But here, a lot of these scenes were shot fully, from beginning to end. So you see the scene as the viewer might see it in some sense. That made it easier to tell and you kind of knew and you can say ‘let’s do another one because this didn’t feel right’. If there was any one actor who didn’t feel good about it, if there was time and all the rest of it, very often we did another one and then you’d get one that works for everyone.
With a lot of US comedy shows there’s a culture of improvising to create those small moments of comedy. Was there much improvising on this?
We had set scripts, but we did improvise and try different things which you do in other projects as well. The actors and directors were open to it. I remember Debbie (Rao, director) used to have this concept where we did a take and if she got what she wanted, she’d do a ‘fun take’ where everybody does what they want. Sometimes something interesting would emerge and we would go down that path.
The Office will be available on Hotstar on June 28th