'Munshi' is the longest running series on a private channel in Indian television history by a staggering margin of over 5,000 episodes.

Still of motta with rooster in Munshi Malayalam satirical showMotta carrying a rooster in his hands/ Munshi, 17th April 2017 Asianet/YouTube
Features Television Tuesday, December 22, 2020 - 13:38

The iconic crowing of a rooster and an accompanying jingle that announces the beginning (and end) of Munshi has to be one of the most identifiable tracks on Malayalam television today. In a three-to-five-minute sketch, Munshi presents to its audience a witty, engaging and everyday conversation between different characters on the day’s most important social or political events. Despite over a dozen other political satire shows and news debates that inundate the many news channels, Munshi continues to enjoy its cult status, and has outlived all competitors in the genre of political satire on Malayalam television. Currently running at over 7,100 episodes, Munshi is the longest running series on a private channel in Indian television history by a staggering margin of over 5,000 episodes!

The main characters apart from the titular Munshi—Sakhaavu (dressed in a red kurta and with a beedi tucked by his ear), President (dressed in a khadi kurta and a Gandhi cap), Thirumeni (the Hindu priest), Kariyachan (seen in a neck-brace) and Hajiyar/Zahib—present the main socio-political groups of Kerala society.

Other characters like a barber, a schoolboy, motta (carrying a rooster in his hand), toddy-tapper cheththu, a businessman and others play cameos in some episodes, adding to the diversity of age and class groups represented. Notably gendered, overtly political and sufficiently witty—Munshi is a microcosm of mainstream Malayali public sphere, and this is what makes it click.

Watch: An episode of Munshi

Evolution of television satire in Kerala

The 1990s was a crucial period in Malayalam television history. Asianet, Malayalam’s first private television channel, was launched in 1993. A media report from the time noted that the channel aimed to air “independent and impartial news-based and literary-cultural programmes” that other private channels in India shied away from during the period. Even before a dedicated news channel was launched by Asianet in 2003, socio-cultural and political discussions were central to the channels theme, as some of the most successful programmes form the period like Ente Keralam (My Kerala), Kannadi (Mirror), Nammal Thammil (Between you and me), Mukhyamanthriyodu Chodikkyam (Ask Your Chief Minister)  suggest.

Nammal Thammil pioneered the “talk-show” format in Malayalam, and was an instant success thanks to the diversity in topics covered and opinions shared, and the wit and informality that host Sreekandan Nair brought to it. Another popular genre was, unsurprisingly for Kerala, that of satire, with Cinemala being the most popular. First aired in 1993, Cinemala ran on Asianet uninterrupted for 20 years, before wrapping up after celebrating a thousand episodes. Cinemala played a huge role in bringing the popular arts of mimicry and satire to the common masses and into Malayali living rooms in the 1990s and 2000s. Although the show initially focussed on cinema, it soon dropped this element for political and social commentary, picking events of public relevance, and using mimicry and slapstick as comic tools. Politicians, academics, critics, writers, actors and singers across the social and political spectrum have been prey to the show's wit, with many even admittedly enjoying the intelligent humour and constructive criticism.

Munshi follows this rich tradition of political satire that has influenced literature, arts, film and television in Kerala. Its format is simple: characters, each belonging to a different social, religious and/or political background, comment on a chosen contemporary social or political issue, before the titular, wise, Munshi summarises the discussion with a proverb or a quote.

 In a rare interview this year, Anil Banerjee, the creative brain behind Munshi, said that he was inspired by Sakshi, a cartoon series by P.V. Krishnan, which featured regularly in Kumkumam magazine. The show follows an age-old tradition of “vedivattam”, where a group of friends—almost always men—would gather in a public place to discuss the day’s events. Such homosocial groups became more common in early twentieth century, when the early-modern secular public sphere was taking shape in the region. Initially limited to upper-caste males, such informal gatherings became comparatively more diverse and common around teashops, reading rooms and libraries across the state after 1930s, with the arrival of communism.            

Chitram Vichithram’s regular set designed as a teashop, during Vishu 2019. The sign on the left reads “One can talk politics here” (Source, Facebook)

Polimix’s “angadi” set (Source Media One, Youtube,23/03/2020)

Munshi appeared at a time when these traditional public spaces had started to dwindle. As politics became part of the television debates and discussions, one also saw the adaptation of traditional public spaces into a digital medium. By early 2000s, public spaces were fast being televised, and digital adaptations begin to appear. In the recent years, satire-genre shows like Chithram Vichithram (Asianet) designed their set after a teashop, while others like Thiruva Ethirva (Manorama News) had the presenter seated on a bench in a public space, and Polimix (Media One) announced their move to a digitised “angadi” (public square). These changes reflect the acceptability of political conversations that have long-been intertwined with public spaces in Kerala. It is no surprise, then, that Munshi, with its plush green outdoor sets was well-received by the television audience.

Hajiyar and Motta, (08th July 2019, Asianet/YouTube)

The banality of politics

One of the criticisms of the television news-hour debates has been that they have dramatised politics, pitting political opponents as irreconcilable opponents with no shared space or common political interest. In contrast, Munshi falls back on the banal—increasingly nostalgic—repetitive nature of politics as part of everyday life in Kerala. Despite the strongly opposing views of the characters, the discussions have a friendliness to them, and the setting of the sketch in a shared public space strengthens this sense of camaraderie rarely seen within the four walls of television studio-debates, where a shared joke feels out-of-place. Wit, exaggerated mannerisms and peculiar character traits are used ingeniously to keep the audience engaged. Also peculiar are the choice of camera-angles that distort these characters, adding to the comic appeal.

Watch: Munshi in the news

Munshi’s characters—the barber, a priest, a communist party member, a Panchayat member, Kariyachan, Hajiyar, a school boy, and others—are extremely relatable to Malayalis from any part of the state, and the tone and tenor of discussions is of friendly banter. This makes Munshi far more appealing and accessible to the everyday audience, as compared to the hour-long high-pitched television debates.

Munshi and the changing public sphere

On Independence Day 2019, Munshi announced its arrival in a “new-gen” format with a move away from their familiar green, outdoor setting into a studio set. The new design has the main characters—mostly familiar faces—now gathered around a Gandhi statue in a studio-designed urban public square. Apart from the obvious move from outdoors to a studio, the new format also situates the show in Thiruvananthapuram, with the buildings in the background featuring at least two structures that suggest this—the iconic Trivandrum Central railway station, and Keralapuram Spice Market. While the reasons for this change remain unexplained, audiences were quick to point out both that the new set felt “artificial”, and the fact that the sets confined the spatiality of the show to one specific city in Kerala, as opposed to the older format, which could have been set anywhere in the state. One comment on the YouTube video offered condolences for the “death” of Munshi.

The “new-gen” Munshi’s first episode, aired 15th August 2019. Source: YouTube/Asianet

The criticism from a seasoned audience especially in a society that is already reeled in the nostalgia of “simpler times” may be fair, but one can’t deny that the change in format is in-tune with recent changes in Kerala’s public sphere. The recent debate around the KMRL’s destruction of heritage buildings in Kochi is only the newest in a series of public debates around increased urbanisation, privatisation by religious organisations and corporations, and encroachment which have featured constantly in the recent decades.

The caste-wall of Vadayambadi may be a recent event in Malayali memory, but is only one among the many public-grounds that have been walled since the 1990s across the state. Even urban public spaces in Kerala, such as Manaveeyam Veedhi, have had to fight against continuous attempts by political and private organisations to carefully negotiate their existence. The shrinking of public spaces has also been the theme of recent films like Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu, a comedy-drama that deals with a government employee struggling to maintain the local arts and sports club, and the public ground where children in the neighbourhood play.

For a show that has discussed politics for so long, it is commendable that it has remained non-controversial. Arguably, its strength is in the equal space that it provides to all views, and the non-partisan form in presentation. This was why K.P.S. Kurup, who played Munshi for the character Munshi for over a decade, was replaced when he decided to join the Congress party in 2011. Interestingly, one of the artist opined at the time that “since the show is apolitical, Kurup should have stepped down of his own volition once he joined a political organisation”.

Sakhaavu wearing flip-flops with the American flag imprint. (Source: YouTube/Asianet, 04th October 2019)

What adds to Munshi’s brilliance is how its commentary isn’t limited to the overt discussions, but also the subtle details and symbolisms in the background. When BJP increased its presence in public sphere over the last decade, the character of a BJP-supporting priest was nonchalantly added to Munshi’s cast, reflecting a new “voice” that had emerged in the Malayali public sphere. The communist sakhaavu makes impassionate speeches about the working classes, while pictured wearing a footwear with the American flag and sometimes, golden ornaments. When jackfruits became the flavour of the season in summer 2020, a character was added, who appears carrying a jackfruit. A cow appears in the background in some episodes, wearing a face mask. The move to the indoor set was a more visible and sudden change. But if anything, it should be read as another reminder of why Munshi continues to hold up a mirror to its audience, and the Malayali public sphere.

S Harikrishnan is a post-doctoral researcher at Dublin City University and a founding editor of Ala. He is also a proud TNM member.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.