By Ujwala Srinath
Sony Entertainment television telecast Kutumb from the Balaji camp with a relatively new cast in early 2001. This was an era where the advent of picturizing complete Hindi movie songs hadn’t bitten the TV folks as yet. It was also a time when the lead protagonists seemed ok with not getting married again after they messed up their first set of events in sheer rage or haughtiness. It was acceptable for the female lead to wear simple sarees and not overly concern herself with accessorizing everything to match her clothes and hairstyle for the day. This does not necessarily mean Kutumb plays it close to reality – it is just that the glamour was used in minimal doses – almost with a tinge of conscious tentativeness which is very appealing in the early attempts of many production houses.
Kutumb traces the journey of two stubborn personalities as they work their way through the maze of relationships, marriage, joint families and ego clashes. Pratham Mittal (Hiten Tejwani) lives up to his name literally – a rich brat, who likes to place himself first in almost everything. He seems to toe the line only when his father’s anger gets the better of him. His family is rich and yet highly traditional (as was the norm with all the onscreen families in the late 90s and early 2000s). He likes to have it his way and does not take kindly to any opposition. At the other end of the spectrum is the defiant and righteous Gauri Aggarwal (Gauri Pradhan) who can’t play the damsel in distress. She speaks her mind when she has to – and instantly takes a dislike for the laidback and reckless Pratham. They wisely avoid each other till Pratham’s careless flirting puts Gauri’s friend in trouble. An enraged Gauri publicly pulls up Pratham for the misunderstanding. This tarnishes his reputation which eventually leads to his sister’s broken engagement. Furious at the personal attack, Pratham starts clashing with Gauri just to get the better of her and eventually stretches his pranks a bit too much when he locks himself up with her in a classroom just to get even with her for spoiling his image. The thoughtless event makes headlines in the wrong way and pulls both their traditional families into the mess. Pratham’s strict father, Umesh Mittal (a beautifully nuanced Sai Ballal) is furious and in a bid to quell the scandalous controversy, reluctantly decides to marry off both the miscreants to each other for making amends. Initially resistant to the idea, Pratham merrily agrees when he sees this as a way to bring Gauri under his command. Gauri, on the other hand, accepts her fate after a decent amount of pressure but does not make any excuses on how she sees it. She accepts it as a challenge from Pratham and refuses to back out just to wipe the smugness off his face. Despite a lot of questions on their own character from both sides of the families (Pratham is not favored by Gauri’s parents while Gauri is not in the good books of Pratham’s father), they enter into a wedlock to teach the other a lesson.
Their wedding promise to each other pretty much sets the tone for the next 30 episodes that follow – to make life hell for the other in their quest for one-upmanship. The tug of war that ensues is a definite power struggle between two people who are fighting for dominance in situations where they don’t need it. What sets the pace and makes it relatable is the fact the conflict is centered more around their own egos – Pratham’s disdain for losing and Gauri’s compulsion for being the correct one – more than any battle of right and wrong. They are astute enough to understand their tantrums won’t win praises with anyone – while they are out to annoy each other to endless extents, they keep their fights between themselves, holding a sophisticated unity in front of the rest of the family. Special credit here to the dialogue writers, the leads and the director – they make the fight significant and futile in the right amounts – enough fireworks and fun to watch. The spiteful expressions of hatred are so seamless they pass off as a natural reaction rather than a performance.
While the center of the storyline is the clash between the lead pair, the entire screenplay provides a lot of occasion for conflicts between almost all the characters in the story. Most of the sequences seem credible. This is a great sign when you realize that the supporting characters have a mind and stature of their own. Considering most characters start out in a simplistic, almost nonchalant pattern – the story and the events allow them to gradually align into the perspectives or ideologies in a relatable way. For instance, Pratham’s otherwise funny and loyal sidekick buddy, Yash (Dheeraj Sarna), falls for Pratham’s sister and fights back admirably well when Pratham opposes their marriage. His docile sister, Sanskriti, walks out of marriage to a boy who judges her based on her family’s social image.
However, everything we associate and learnt to overlook or dismiss in the Ekta Kapoor serials do make an appearance pretty frequently. The short bursts of repetitions of the same shot to emphasize one emotion, the faltering and tone changing background music at times, many sudden out of place sequences. But since the series chooses to maintain the tone neutral without going extensively overboard for a long stretch, it makes it easier to concentrate on the plot line and think about the subtext being provided.
Before the female lead became the Goddess Incarnate in most of Balaji’s projects, Kutumb projects a phase where the women actually held and showcased strength without feeling the need to be perfect or ideal in any way. Not only are the men showcased as flawed characters, but the women also seem to have equally strong inclinations to deviate from perfection or traditionalism to challenge the men around them. Gauri’s distrust and walking out on Pratham is logical when posed with a claim that he could be the father of an ex-girlfriend’s child (given his past antics). She might love him – but she refuses to trust him blindly. She has her own willfulness at play many times when she defies Pratham’s advice. Pratham’s mother (a lovely calm act by Shama Deshpande) supports the daughter-in-law silently when her son misbehaves with her – the least assurance that she can give her son is that she will not mention his misdeed to the rest of the family. Even in her protectiveness, she spares Pratham no pity. Incidentally, it is also her silent treatment that breaks the otherwise wayward and headstrong Pratham into making amends.
Drawing a parallel to some of the works I have seen in the recent years, Kutumb gradually instils many impressive emotions subtly which may continue to resonate well with the present day audience (based on their reactions to the content on air today). For instance, in a well-scripted scene from the more recent ZindagiGulzaar Hai (yes, I dare!:)), the college bad boy turned mature lead Zaroon Junaid summarizes his decision to marry the reserved and unaffected Kashaf in a simple line – he cannot idolize weak women. Pratham, on the other hand, marries Gauri because he hates her guts and finds her a formidable competition he would like to squelch. Instead of putting him off, her strength spurs him on to spite her. Gauri, like Kashaf, audaciously risks walking into the marriage with an unreliable man willingly. The family and social pressure notwithstanding, Gauri makes the choice with a lot of deliberation. She isn’t stirred by Pratham’s sincerity though, but her own relentless attitude to prove her credentials by teaching him a lesson in humility. While this comes across as absolutely reckless and vain in the initial episodes, the dynamic instantly changes when the pair starts respecting each other. The understanding of the opposing strength and its use comes through unexpected support from each other in tricky circumstances– more from a strange realization that they could work very well if they chose to collaborate. Despite his budding protective edge towards her, Pratham expects Gauri to be strong by default. He wisely changes tactics when he has to convince her. On occasions when he has to make her trust him, given his unreliable history, he uses well-placed barbs and taunts to make her catch on, and gently coaxes her in the direction he wants her to pay attention to. Gauri learns to value Pratham’s shrewd resourcefulness on occasions where her straight-forward approach doesn’t work and reaches out to him each time she heads out to face trouble. It is a mutual collaboration formed steadily – albeit grudgingly so.
Hiten Tejwani was a decently known face when he took up this role – and has now gone on to cement his credibility on TV screens with many popular roles. But Pratham Mittal debatably remains his most memorable of the lot (possibly closely rivalled only by the younger pre-leap version of Karan Virani in KyunkiSaasBhi..). He set the standards for everything rich brats could possibly wreck without overtly crossing over to the villainy zone. He plays Pratham with a smug charm that is utterly at crossroads with his carelessness and incorrigible pride – but enough to build a loyal fan base and sustain the entire show around him. Effectively bridging the gap between being a performer and a star, he subtly and steadily transitions from an egoistic reckless brat to an egoistic man in love with a woman who has a mind of her own. The essence of Pratham is never lost till the end of the first season, it just loses the sharp edge of arrogance bit by bit.
Gauri Pradhan (now Tejwani – and what a lovely thing to see this connection not only translate over to real life – but also culminate into a long-lasting fairy tale that one always hopes for) doesn’t need to act as Gauri. She is Gauri – and that by itself is the best compliment for her as well as the casting team. Elegant and self-assured, she defied the bashful image that every other heroine held within the same genre of TV series. It was refreshing to see her take on Pratham in most unaffected and nonchalant manner without any dramatic nuances or excessive emotions. Her appeal lies in her rawness and unpolished act – she doesn’t try too hard at any point to overshadow or impress anyone – be it her counterpart or her audience. With almost zero drama and a strong screen presence – Pradhan in this role, manages something that many actors have to wait awhile to find in their career – a role that melds into them so naturally that you don’t see them “acting” – it is by extension the person itself. She gracefully allows her talented costar to take away many good sequences and expressions without a flinch and yet manages to hold her ground for the next scene.
Many of the sequences are well shot and fit into the established arc meaningfully. The story stays true to the big picture, meandering very less over the course of the entire season. Pratham and Gauri are locked in a battle for supremacy and steadily move towards cease-fire to respecting each other and eventually liking each other’s company. In the recent years of romance on screen, this could easily translate to tried and tested sequences with dollops of eye locks and sensuous romance which highlight intense attraction despite the prevalent logic or conflicts. But Kutumb’s beginning provides a solid foundation for both Pratham and Gauri to establish their credentials as characters. The lack of attraction serves as a base for the conflict with each other as well as their individual efforts to make their relationship work. As their bond progresses into the commitment zone – they struggle to keep up with each other – and this is established finely in multiple scenes. Pratham mends his ways to become an obedient rule-abiding husband only to find himself struggling to prove his innocence in an unexpected situation where his loyalty is questioned. It takes him a few unsuccessful attempts before he realizes that getting back to his original street smartness could win him back everything he deserves and stands to lose (including Gauri’s trust). He outright rejects Gauri’s rebukes to “mend” his ways by explaining to her that she wouldn’t be with him had he not opted to get back to his original behavior- a point even she cannot refute. In her needless attempt to prove her point, Gauri refuses to slow down despite her health conditions (she is pregnant) and ends up losing their baby in an accident. While a dose of guilt is an expected reaction in a normal heroine, she chooses to put a strain on her marriage by taking an opposing stand when her husband rages at her. She stays true to her character even in moments of absolute despair and wreckage – compromising isn’t a viable option for her despite her love for the man she is with.
In another well-shot sequence, Pratham and Gauri drive out of a party after a particularly bitter standoff – and take a break on a scenic spot. Both the actors are probably at their gorgeous best as far as the aesthetics are concerned, the breeze catching their hair at the right spots and setting up the scene for romance. But the sheer unhappiness and frustration of their faces break the happy façade of the moment – and though it is not hard to guess what they might eventually decide (to go separate ways) – it is still a cold chill when Pratham, in a voice mature beyond his own years or actions, voices out the separation option sagely to his equally disturbed wife. Staying true to one’s character can be a challenging task in relationships that require you to be flexible and accept loopholes. It is even more so when the person on the other end happens to be as headstrong and specific as you are. Both Gauri and Pratham essentially concede their defeat and decide to relinquish hold – choosing to let go after having held ground so firmly. It is a no-win situation and it comes when they are both being perfectly honest about their ideologies and emotions. Despite their individual history, you can’t fault or side either of them. The strength of the scene shines through very well in the entire episode and continues to resonate beautifully in the following few sequences when the two head back home to explain their decision to their respective families. The hesitation to send out divorce papers is shown very well too – they struggle to collect themselves when they are apart and still care for their relation – but a freak careless move from Pratham’s divorce lawyer triggers Gauri into action – she sends him a divorce notice because he sent her one first. Pratham reacts to her divorce notice like he has been spurned for the first time (he is unaware of his lawyer’s misdeeds). Despite the break-up and distance, he has come to depend on her loyalty and this event shatters that trust for him.
About 17 years back, when Twitter was yet to take wings and each dialogue, expression, the strength of handholds and lipstick shades was yet to be broken down and discussed to the atomic level, Kutumb in its first season managed to keep you engaged with simple sequences of companionship and minimal declarations of love. Though the fan clubs and the discussion of the “chemistry” would follow much later (those were the times of the Yahoo! Groups – they did not even have a cool couple name tag back then) – but the impact was undeniable. Hiten and Gauri stood out as a pair with ease amongst the other formidably well matched (and perfectly righteous) on-screen couples and were repeatedly cast in many other follow up projects in their careers with varying levels of success and popularity(including a season 2 of Kutumb). This is not necessarily because they could not recreate the onscreen connection, but more because the content provided to them was arguably not as good enough to match the initial grounding and simplicity of Kutumb’s season 1. This probably serves as a reminder to all of us fans and fan clubs that the perfect work of art and chemistry comes as collaboration of the well-chosen set of artists and creatives on the stage at the moment – right from dialogues on the paper through the nuances of the performances and direction to the last minute selection of the perfect reaction shots – everything that makes the scene come “alive”.
A special mention to the well worded and picturized spiffy title track, sung with lots of gusto by the ever-youthful Shaan and Jaspinder Narula. Lalit Sen uses the right aura of challenge and mischief to create a track that serves as a perfect summary of everything that transpires in the episodes to come by.
There are flip sides to almost all series and this one has its fair share too – abrupt editing in so many sequences, sub-tracks and characters that are brought to the center and suddenly seem to vanish into the background, clichéd comedy tracks, a hurried finish for the season one and some sequences which seem to stretch a tad too much at times – but overall, the dynamics of the lead characters and their interactions with their immediate connections keeps the momentum steady. It also helps that season 1 was finite and wrapped up with a decent number of episodes (the second season was completely unrelated to the first one and its storyline).
While some of you might hopefully relive the nostalgia of viewing the series when it was on air after reading this, I am hoping this review makes a few of you venture out and discover it if you haven’t seen it yet (it was available in Sony’s YouTube channel a while ago – but might have been moved to the Sony television site now). The cinematography might look a bit jarring, the style of presentation a bit outdated and definitely less polished. But if you manage to hang on a bit and view it with a pinch of salt, you might realize that it might have been way ahead of its times. It debatably worked as a base for many of the romantic series that were eventually launched in the same lines (opposites forced into a wedding and eventually falling in love), but it did so in a much more relevant and sincere manner. An absolute credit to the creative team for crafting such unapologetically headstrong characters and showcasing their struggles in learning to make relations work. Kudos to them for retaining their strength and flaws throughout their tumultuous journey and making their counterpart respect and stand by them for what they are – a mix of perfect and imperfect. Onscreen romance has seldom been this balanced on Indian TV and rarely do we find scripts that stand the test of time and relevancy. Not only did the series gain popularity, but it also did so by admirably staying decently close to the overall story arc. Now, just how many series can we actually remember having achieved that? 🙂