Judge Mike Pinsky tried to host a talk show in his backyard, but only squirrels showed up.
"I don't want to be overcritical, but when you lot talk to the guests, it does tend to be about crap. Weddings, babies, house prices. But not tonight. Do I make myself clear?"—Sanjeev Kumar (Sanjeev Bhaskar), admonishing his family before the show
What if you had your own talk show? What if your family decided to barge in on your talk show and pester the rich and famous celebrities you are trying to schmooze with? Sit down, have a bite of samosa, and enjoy the antics of a family that is probably a little too much like yours.
A generation ago, the dream of immigrant families moving to the urbanized west was quaint bourgeois comfort. Move to the big city—London, New York, Los Angeles. Get a house in the suburbs. Own your own business. Send your kids to college to become doctors or lawyers. Retire and tend your backyard garden.
But in recent years, success for immigrant families has been redefined, much in the same way it has for everybody else. Now, the young dream of celebrity. It does not require much. Just the right suit, the right connections, and a camera. Now, you don't just get 15 minutes of fame. Now, everybody gets a talk show.
Take Sanjeev Kumar. He is 32, lives at home (in a pleasant part of Wembley), and has no discernable skills other than an abundance of charm and the ability to look like a stunned puppy when embarrassed by his family. He fancies himself a talk show host, and he has conned his father into bulldozing the back yard and putting up a television studio. Famous people come from all over England to hang about in the Kumars' living room, chat it up with the family in front of a live audience, and head home with a lovely jar of chutney.
But if you want to promote your latest project on Sanjeev's show, you must endure the aimless stories of Sanjeev's father, Ashwin. Mother Madhuri is likely to ask you about your children—or when you plan to get married and have some if you don't already. And for heaven's sake, don't encourage the grandmother. She will flirt with you shamelessly.
If this sounds like your worst nightmare—your family embarrassing you in front of millions of television viewers and your favorite celebrity—take heart. The Kumars at No. 42 is not real. Sanjeev Kumar is really comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar. His randy granny (Meera Syal) is only three years older than he is. His parents (Vincent Ebrahim and Indira Joshi) are actors. It is all a fairly funny satire of immigrant life and the obsession with celebrity.
Oh, except the celebrities are real.
The conceit of The Kumars at No. 42 is simple: famous people come to Sanjeev's backyard talk show and joke along with the crazy family. The formula has been so successful since the show's 2001 debut that at least a dozen countries have borrowed the idea, each with its own social-climbing immigrant family. A Turkish family for Germany. A Greek family for Australia. NBC tried a Hispanic family (The Ortegas) for a few episodes, but the show tanked. What makes The Kumars work above and beyond its imitations is the marvelous chemistry among the cast. While some of the jokes are clearly scripted (especially in the living room scenes that bookend the studio interview segments), the cast improvises with the speed of a real bickering family. Meera Syal takes the lead here, especially in the show's early episodes. But that is not surprising: she was a key player in Bhaskar's sketch comedy show, Goodness Gracious Me, and knows how to make the salacious old lady bit work without breaking the audience's belief in the Kumars' reality.
The Kumars at No. 42 is less a talk show than an improv-driven lark whose funny depends on how far the guests are willing to play along. For example, the first episode features actor Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I), who was born in Swaziland. This fact sets Ashwin off on a bit about their shared success as immigrants. Grant is nearly falling over in hysterics. Just when he seems to recover, the grandmother asks, in a complete non-sequitur, "Does Winona Ryder [Grant's co-star in Coppola's Dracula] have a wooden leg, or is that just her style of acting?" Sanjeev jumps in with a bit about Keanu Reeves' bad accent in that film. Grant can barely keep it together. This random weirdness is the key to the show's charm. When the guests are having a great time, the audience has a great time.
Check out tough guy actor Ray Winstone trying to teach Sanjeev how to butch up. On the other hand, Wildean wit Stephen Fry seems rather lost at not being the center of attention. The best bits on The Kumars come when the guests immerse themselves in the anarchy of the Kumars' world. Anything else is just a talk show.
BBC Video has packaged a half-dozen episodes of The Kumars on a single DVD. Unfortunately, the selection seems almost a random. While the pilot episode (Richard E. Grant and talk show legend Michael Parkinson) makes sense here, the other episodes seem almost arbitrarily picked from the show's first two seasons. We get some guests that would be familiar to American audiences (Minnie Driver, Stephen Fry), but does anybody in the United States know who talk show hosts Richard and Judy are? Perhaps this collection is meant as a "best of" set, but nothing on the packaging indicates that these episodes are not contiguous or that they cover two seasons of the show (or that a dozen other episodes from these two seasons have been left out). I can understand if BBC Video felt that some episodes (like when the cast of the soap Eastenders showed up) might fall flat with American audiences. But it would be nice if somewhere somebody talked about why these particular episodes were spotlighted rather than releasing full season sets.
You won't hear anything about episode selection on the commentary tracks. Sanjeev Bhaskar and fellow writers Richard Pinto and Sharat Sardana chat over all six episodes, pointing out the scripted bits versus the improvised moments, gossiping about the guests, and revealing the difficulties in putting together such a strange hybrid of sitcom and talk show. There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes, including a long and potentially litigious bit in which Richard E. Grant is quizzed about Hollywood drug addicts. Sanjeev also gives a tour of the set (in character).
If you want to check out The Kumars at No. 42 to see if you find it funny, visit the BFI link included with this review to watch the first episode. It is probably the funniest in this brief collection, and you will get a good taste of what Bhaskar and company are up to. If you like it, you will probably enjoy this "best of" DVD. Real fans of the show may want to hold out until the BBC releases more complete sets of the show, which just finished up its 2005 season (David Hasselhoff!) recently.
The Kumars are free to go. BBC Video is forced to endure a night with Sanjeev's grandmother.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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