Sumit Sambhal Lega (2015), the Indian sitcom television series, is the Hindi adaptation of the Warner Bros sitcom series Everybody Loves Raymond (1996). Airing a total of 108 episodes, the show is strict in its adherence to the original, and is replete with problematic, gendered notions of femininity and masculinity.
What is peculiar about most famous American sitcoms is their crisp packaging of episodes, short enough to demand the audience’s attention throughout. They are laid with humour to sustain interest in the show. However, one seldom addresses the fixation of comedy on gender performativity and gender roles. The nature of ‘humour’ itself in such shows is premised on the adherence to gender norms, the deviance from which is the source of giggles.
While these shows serve the latent function of perpetuating heteronormativity, they also reinforce gendered expectations within this framework, both of which are fuelled and propelled by patriarchy and deep-seated misogyny.
The constant adaptation of this lacklustre theme within sitcoms, propelled by shows like Sumit Sambhal Lega, advocates the need to peer into the nuances surrounding the culture industry and it’s malfunctional relationship with gender. Situated in the Indian context, the show fuels conformity to gender roles, and runs the threat of cementing the same.
The show centres around a family in Delhi. Sumit, the protagonist, is the younger son of Dolly and Jasbir Walia, and the brother of Rajneesh Walia. Living on the floor atop his parents and brother, Sumit, his wife Maya, and children (Aaliya and Avi), are an extension of the Walia family. Fashioned in a regressive manner, this Indian family embodies well-defined, problematic gender roles.
Uni-linear Conception of Masculinity and Femininity
The show has one, unilinear way of conceptualizing masculinity, that serves as the yardstick along which every other expression of ‘mardaangi’ (manliness) is evaluated. In Episode 11 (The Kabbadi Match), Jasbir Walia, Sumit’s father is preparing for a kabbadi match in the colony, and asks his older son, Rajneesh Walia to play along with him. Sumit feels left out, assuming his father didn’t ask him to be part of the team given his “effeminacy”, repeatedly portrayed in the show as the premise of comedy. His father tells him he was not approached for the same, given his preoccupation with the sangeet party he is to attend with his wife. This itself generates humour as he picks “ladies sangeet” over “men’s kabaddi”. Eventually in his quest to prove his hypermasculinity, he abandons the sangeet ceremony, and trains for the kabbadi match with his brother and father.
In Episode 16 (Who’s Macho), Simran is introduced to Rajneesh (Sumit’s brother). Simran, who is well acquainted with Maya, describes to her how Rajneesh’s ‘machoness’ instantly drew her attention. Maya agrees and calls him a “Gabru Mard”. Eavesdropping on the conversation, an insecure Sumit tries hard to prove that he too, falls into this category of masculinity.
In Episode 45, (Sumit Proves his Manhood), Maya chokes on a seed and Sumit is unable to help her out of the situation. She then questions his ability to protect her and embody the role of the “protective” husband. Stressed by another instance of not being the “ideal man”, through the course of the episode, he tries hard to prove his manhood, and his ability to take on the role of the protector, in addition to being the provider.
In Episode 58, (The Walias Play Table Tennis), Sumit is constantly derided by his brother and father, who at the pinnacle of hypermasculinity, look down upon Sumit for losing a table tennis match years ago. His loss is punctuated with tantrums, tears, and a sour defeat, which being an explicit deviation from the ubiquitous “ladke rote nahi” (Boys don’t cry), is yet another instance of ridicule directed at him.
In episode 82 (Maya Sprains Sumit’s Hand), Sumit refuses to share his ice-cream with Maya. The result of her wrestling with Sumit for the ice-cream, is Sumit’s sprained hand. He hides the cause of the same from his parents and brother, because getting his arm sprained by his wife is symbolic of his failure to adhere to the standards of masculine strength, which itself would provide his family with another instance to laugh at his effeminacy.
Humour derived through deviation from gender roles
Located within the framework of patriarchal gender roles, the show trivialises instances of deviation from the same. This mockery itself furthers the internalization of traditional gender roles in myriad ways. Sumit’s wife, Maya, a former copywriter, is now a homemaker out of choice. This seems to be largely influenced by her in-law’s and husband’s perceptions of what an “ideal” wife and mother must embody.
In Episode 47, (Maya attends the Interview), Maya expresses to Sumit her desire to work and attends an interview. Her joy however is short lived as she is not selected for the job. Interestingly, prior to the interview she was the recipient of Dolly’s advice on how the children might fall short of a wholesome upbringing owing to her career. Similarly, post interview, Maya was given solace with the same monologue of better attention to child rearing.
Following a similar story arc, in Episode 65, (Maya Contests Election), Maya conteststheParent Teacher Association(PTA) elections at her daughter’s school. Maya receives just one vote, and loses the election. Disgruntled that the one vote wasn’t her husband’s, she confronts him only to find out, Sumit believed being part of the PTA Committee would eat into Maya’s time which she dedicated to the domestic space, and caring for her children.
In Episode 53, (Maya ka IQ Sumit se Zyaada), Rajneesh brings home an IQ test he recently took at work. Eager to find out their scores, Maya and Sumit take the test only to find out, Maya’s IQ score is higher than Sumit’s. Through the course of the episode, Maya tries to repair Sumit’s broken ego with sympathy and consolation. The episode culminates with the convenient response of the scores being swapped, and the test being a hoax.
Likewise, in Episode 55, (The Walias Argue Over Food), to everyone’s surprise Maya cooks delicious Amritsari Kofte. The episode takes an ironic turn with Maya’s wonderful cooking. The irony in her ability to cook a good meal despite having failed previously in itself is presented as an instance of comedy. Similarly, her mother-in-law’s jealousy at her husband’s appreciation of Maya’s food, combined with a hesitant Sumit, unwilling to taste her kofte given his anticipation of yet another bad dish,propel humour derived from Maya’s failure to subscribe to the notion of a “good” cook and thus a homemaker. This only gets worse as at work, Sumit refers to Maya as “Bhaasi Ki Rani”.
Adaptations must be accountable for reinforcing distasteful humour
American sitcoms follow the unilinear trajectory of humour based on stereotypical representations of gender. F. R. I. E. N. D. S, a globally loved show, is a shining example.
The show, believed to portray the acme of “humour”, is laden with layers of gendered expectations. Chandler is ridiculed for exhibiting “gay” characteristics, Joey is the coolest in the group simply owing to his ability to make quick sexual advances on women, Ross is blatantly sexist, Monica is surprsingly strong and competitive for a woman. These are a few examples of character arcs that have shaped “humour” throughout 10 seasons of the show.
The characteristic of the culture industry to produce standardized and pseudo-individualised content propels shows and sitcoms to adhere to previously established models. F.R.I.E.N.D.S at least has the defense of having been made at a less politically informed time, if at all.
To replicate these shows in the Indian context, years after the original aired, is a gesture of gross ignorance. By lacing itself with the shiny veneer of “family comedy”, Sumit Sambhal Lega, reinforces a lot of problematic ideals the typical Indian household still upholds. By stripping its members off their agency, most Indian families function within a hierarchical power dynamic. Their projected happiness is illusive, and enjoyed only by patriarchal figures.
“If Everything is Problematic, There Will Be Nothing Left to Laugh at”
Humour can be unproblematic. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a classic example of intersectional representation and inclusive humour. Not only does the show steer away from tokenistic representation, it actively presents nuanced takes on social issues, does not reinforce stereotypical notions of gender and sexuality, and rather, breaks them. The show also does not vest all comic power within the male protagonist Jake, and this itself is a radical step away from the repetitive trope of laughing “with” the male characters, and laughing “at” the female characters, which the aforementioned shows do.
Similarly, adaptation can also bear in mind the volatility of time and socio-cultural phenomena. It can rely on a narrative, but also add creativity, political accountability and novelty in sublime ways. While Sumit Sambhal Lega was an example of a problematic adaptation, Anne with an E, a series based on Lucy Maud Montogomery’s books, is an honest attempt at borrowing from the book, while also adding fringes of inclusivity. Reinforcing ideas from the past in the quest for adaptation runs the risk of sustaining problematic tropes which must be done away with.
Sumit Sambhal Lega did give it’s characters miniscule moments of triumph that soon fell prey to convenient storytelling, riddled with defeating gender roles. In its attempt at adapting Everybody Loves Raymond, dating almost two decades back, Sumit Sambhal Lega also goes back in time, when a lot of injustice around gender was left unquestioned.
Shows that carry forward sediments of the past in terms of adaptations, must do away with wrong representations. Adaptations must also be attempts at taking forward the artistic culture in tandem with progressive ideals.
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