Why ‘Akkarakazhchakal’ continues to charm American Malayalis

The Malayalam series was launched as a sitcom in a style and form not seen before in Malayalam television.
Scene from Akkarakazhchakal
Scene from Akkarakazhchakal
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If you don’t see the road outside his home or hear his children speak, George Thekkinmmoottil might seem to you like a guy living somewhere in central Kerala, perhaps close to Kottayam. He has not lost one bit of the warm dialect of Kottayam Malayalam years after living in the United States of America. Neither has he bothered to pick up the twists and turns of American English. So, George remains adorably original in all 50 episodes of Akkarakazhchakal, a series that two NRI Malayalis made in the late 2000s.

Akkarakazhchakal (sights of a foreign land) was quietly launched as a sitcom in a style and form not seen before in Malayalam television. It aired on Kairali TV between 2008 and 2010, but also had every episode uploaded on YouTube.

Ten years later, George, his family of four, and their cronies remain a favourite among immigrant Malayalis. Just like George and co, they – the immigrant Malayalis - are stuck in the middle ground, neither American, nor truly Malayali, says Abi Varghese, one of the makers of the sitcom.

He and the other maker Ajayan Venugopal, two men with American corporate jobs, were writing a feature film in Malayalam that went nowhere, when they heard that Kairali TV in New York was looking to fill a slot.

Abi and Ajayan

“The executive producer Jose Kadappuram approached us about doing something in that space.  We thought that the life of an American Malayali is extremely funny (when we look at it from the outside).  Because we are not Americans but neither are we truly Malayalis. We are stuck in this middle ground trying to balance both worlds,” Abi says in an interview to TNM.

You can’t say for sure if George really is stuck in the middle ground. He thinks and behaves very much like a Malayali but seems absolutely comfortable with his life in the distant land. George, a middle-aged insurance agent, has absolutely no qualms about striking a conversation with his Malayalam-accented English, often broken at places. He has none of the anxieties that Malayalis have about communicating in English.

Rincy, his nurse wife, is just as recognisable. She could be the woman we all know who compares saris with other women, complains (quite justifiably) about the husband’s many misadventures and happily makes pretences whenever she feels like. America does nothing to Rincy’s very Kerala demeanour.

Sajini played Rincy in Akkarakazhchakal

Both Josukutty playing George and Sajini playing Rincy are wonderful performers. Abi and Ajayan found them from theatre.

“We literally didn't know how to start casting for this series once we had written the first few episodes.  We realised that there were a couple of stage dramas being performed in New Jersey and New York.  Ajayan and I decided to check it out.  Most of them were melodramas, but we found both Josukutty (George) and Sajini (Rincy) from one of these stage performances. We slowly ramped up the remaining characters through their networks and auditions,” Abi says.

The remaining characters include their school-going children, Mathew (Febin) – who hates being called Mathai kunju by his dad, and Chakkimol (Felisha) – who is too young to feel awkward about the parents. Then there are the friends and acquaintances from Kerala and the occasional white neighbour or cop.

Importantly, there is actor Jacob Gregory playing Gregory, introduced in the eighth episode of the series, as an assistant to George. Gregory later became a comedy actor in Malayalam cinemas, debuting in a Dulquer movie called ABCD.

Jacob Gregory in Akkarakazhchakal

“All the characters of AK are still in the NY/NJ area and still very actively doing stage theatre and performances,” Abi says when we ask about the others.

Unlike your regular American sitcom, Akkarakazhchakal does not come with canned laughter. The characters do no slapstick  the background music does not turn 'funny' to let you know that it is time to laugh. You just roll with it with a stray line from George or Gregory or the change of expression of one of the characters without lingering on the joke. It does have likable title music. Kedaar Kumar, a musician based in Boston whom Abi met on a flight, gave them the tune.

“Most of the stories happened in our own lives. These characters are all based on people we know, relatives, friends and there's a whole lot of ourselves in them as well,” says Abi.

Most of the time, George would find some shortcut to make a few quick bucks and land in a mess. Their home is full of strangely shaped curios that he once thought Americans would love and fat-burn Ayurvedic medicine that sends you rushing to the bathroom. Gregory, whom George almost-fondly calls 'Grrgrry', is your predictable funny sidekick –  always hungry, making a mess of things. But Gregory the actor is too good at it.

Watch: Episode 8 of Akkarakazhchakal

“We used to sit around after shoots and just discuss things that are going around with our families. Whenever we hear interesting subjects or funny anecdotes, we would often think of making that part of an episode. It got so bad that we were constantly looking at family members, friends for stories that can inspire us,” Abi says.

The short episodes – 12 to 15 minutes long each – would mostly be in two parts, with just enough material to loosen your spirit at the end of a tiring day. It didn’t work the same way when the writer duo made a movie called Akkarakazhchakal The Movie. Abi is the first person to admit it.

“It shouldn't have been a movie. It was our mistake as these characters and stories were not meant to go beyond the 15 minute episodic framework. There is something nice about revisiting these characters and you know exactly who they are. A film doesn't lend itself to doing that. Film characters evolve and change (for good or bad)....whereas our characters don't. We regret doing a film,” he says.

But they surely would not regret making the series that continues to charm new audiences.

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