Home Shanti review: Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa are marvellous in this throwback to shows like 'Wagle ki Duniya' and 'Nukkad'

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(from left) Poojan Chhabra, Supriya Pathak, Chakori Dwivedi and Manoj Pahwa in ‘Home Shanti’, streaming on Disney+Hotstar since May 6, 2022. (Image: Screen grab/Disney+Hotstar)

Among the more intriguing things about the OTT series boom is the phenomenon of the creative or the analogous subtitle – where dialogues featuring Indian cultural references or idioms are translated in such a way that they might be more relatable for a (presumed) westernised viewership. One can feel ambivalent about this sort of thing (some people are annoyed by it just on principle) but when done well, it can have inventive results.

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Consider some examples from the new series Home Shanti, about a pleasant middle-class Dehradun family (the wonderful Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa play a middle-aged couple with two teenage children) getting a new house, a long-cherished dream, built for themselves. In one scene, a contractor boasts that the cement mixer they have rented is as much in demand as the actor Akshay Kumar. The subtitle replaces Kumar’s name with that of Ryan Reynolds. (One wonders if Reynolds being Canadian has anything to do with it.)

In another scene, the 17-year-old Naman goes on a rant about his older sister being out of step with the times. “Jigyasa is so ’90s,” he says, “Ussko lagta hai ‘Udaas’ koi mood nahin, ghazal singer hai.” The reference, as anyone who knows the period will know, is to the singer Pankaj Udhas, but the subtitle opts for a clever alternate: it reads “Jigyasa is so ’90s, she doesn’t think Freedom is a feeling but a George Michael song.”

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That second scene in particular shows what can be done with good, imaginative subtitling, and there are other examples too (such as the replacement of Mahabharata characters with figures from Greek mythology in a scene where the Pathak character Sarla complains that her husband would probably have chosen obscure names for the children). At the same time, one has to wonder if such subtitling makes sense in this case, for this show. Because it’s hard to picture a series like Home Shanti drawing a non-Indian viewership that would be so clueless about Akshay Kumar or Pankaj Udhas or the Mahabharata that they would need to be spoon-fed foreign reference points such as Sophocles and Aphrodite!

This is very much the sort of homegrown show that gets described (sometimes patronisingly) as “sweet”, “simple” or “innocent” – descriptors that were, in an earlier time, used for the Middle Cinema films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, and for Doordarshan-era serials like Yeh jo Hai Zindagi, Wagle ki Duniya and Nukkad. In marked contrast to the dark, edgy, profanity-and-violence-filled shows that appeal to many young OTT addicts today, this one is goofy, often slapsticky. Almost everyone in it is basically likable, even the characters whose function is to set up conflicts. The humour is safe and reassuring, though there are traces of irreverence here and there.

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The minimalist opening credits with cute drawings of the Joshi family (alongside each episode title) reminded me of the original Wagle ki Duniya with R.K. Laxman’s illustrations. As does the show’s format: each of the six episodes deals with a very specific aspect of house-building, from doing bhoomi puja to working with architects and interior designers, from curing the walls (deewaaron ki tarai) to bribing an official for a permit. Within the first few scenes, we also get easily digestible information about each of the four main characters, almost as if little labels are stuck on them. Thus, Sarla, a school-teacher, is a disciplinarian, while her laidback husband Umesh (Pahwa) spends most of his time writing poetry or listening to cricket commentary. Jigyaasa (Chakori Dwivedi), often impatient and on edge, hopes for more privacy when the new house is done. Naman (Poojan Chhabra), a Tiger Shroff wannabe, behaves like a cool dude and wants a gym, but he is a softie inside. Needless to say, beneath the surface squabbling, they all love each other.

It might take even a patient viewer – even someone with an affinity for “sweet and simple” – some time to warm up to Home Shanti. Some of the jokes are laboured (pun intended), with facile humour built around the twisting of words or names (“Chhup kar, Sigmund Fraud”), and the antics of young Naman can be annoying (even if the character is meant to be your average unbearable teen). Some scenes move between being genuinely funny and laying it on too thick: encounters with a young architect whose love for surrealism leads to a very complicated building layout; a new-age pandit who conducts online pujas if required and gets a pumpkin broken at the “feet” of the big mixing machine. (“Mixer dev ke charanon mein kaddu ka balidaan karo.”) There are some inspired touches, too, such as a running joke about the three-and-a-half-hour film Lagaan playing on loop in the waiting room of a Kafkaesque government office.

But where Home Shanti’s foundations are most secure are in the scenes centring on the older characters. Pathak and Pahwa (this should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed their recent work) are consistently marvellous; even within the broad frameworks of situation comedy, they do the little things so expertly that it’s hard not to grow fond of this family and to feel invested in their dream. Whether Sarla is offering to smack her son with a spade, or exploding at the contractor with “Kya sahi baat?! Aadmi ho ya pendulum?” (when he says “sahi baat” to everything she and Umesh say during an argument), Pathak does exasperation very well – you can even see her as a stand-in for the viewer who may be getting impatient with some of the tomfoolery.

Alarm bells can go off when a show that is positioned as a comedy starts to get serious or sentimental or message-oriented. But again thanks mainly to the two senior actors, Home Shanti caries off such moments reasonably well. There are a few lovely little scenes, such as one between Sarla and a former student in the SDM office where the beleaguered family has reluctantly gone to give a bribe. Or a slice-of-life conversation which begins with the teasing of a friend who is stuck with eating guavas when he really prefers mangoes, and then segues into a reflection on how parents set rigid paths for their children to follow. In the final two episodes, the show, while still sticking broadly to the “different stages and challenges of house-building” theme, also makes small narrative detours to tell us more about the characters, including the reticence that has prevented Umesh from going up on stage at poetry-recital gatherings.

And, importantly, Home Shanti knows not to over-stay its welcome, restricting itself to half a dozen 30-minute episodes that move at a decent pace, and ending on an expected but satisfying note. The last-minute arrival of a grandmother who makes most of the family nervous does point to a second season that might turn out to be a more conventional or prolonged dramedy, but we’ll cross that bridge – or cure that wall – when it comes.

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