Abhishek Tripathi is a man with little patience but an eventually yielding heart. You go to him with a problem you think he can solve, a favour you need him to perform, and the first thing he does is sulk, saying that it requires him to do things he wouldn’t have otherwise been doing, that he has been inconvenienced by you. If you are a little shameless, you prod, you ask him again, with more force, more love, more drooling desperation. You tell him a story. How you have been inconvenienced by your problem. Listening to your woes, watching you struggle, something in him suddenly softens. He yields.
Played by Jitendra Kumar, the breakout star of The Viral Fever’s (TVF) Kota Factory, Abhishek, the protagonist of TVF’s Panchayat, is hard-edged enough to be relatable, soft-focussed enough to be aspirational; the TVF formula, one they have warped and wefted through their shows, tailored for each engineering-degree demographic as it ages through other demographics, from the claustrophobic and cutting pressure of entrance exam preparation (Kota Factory), to the years one struggled in and strutted through college (Hostel Daze, Girls Hostel), to the idealism and eventual drain of one’s first job post college (Cubicles), taking their storytelling, like a travelling bioscopewala, to tier-two cities (Gullak) and now, with Panchayat, to the village.
In the first season Abhishek, a city boy, was shipped off to Phulera, a dozed hamlet lodged somewhere in Uttar Pradesh—though the show was shot in a village lodged somewhere in Madhya Pradesh—to be their sachiv, the secretary of its panchayat. The arc of the season bent towards Abhishek eventually swaying to the slow rhythms of rural life, making friends, seeing hope despite having it dashed again and again, like his failed attempts at cracking the MBA entrance exam, and getting out of the village, making it a dusty memory. In the second season, his love for the village, and the village’s love for him, dig in its heels.
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Part of the show is a fantasy, of not just being flung into what Abhishek’s friend in the city calls “the real India”, but being moved and fundamentally altered by it. To have a story to tell. That you, too, lived a life. His potli of friendship includes the pradhan-pati Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghubir Yadav), upa-pradhan Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik), and office assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy). One is married for many years—to Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), the pradhan who has relinquished her power to her husband—one is a widower with a son, and the other is freshly married. Abhishek is single. On lonely nights they drink beer together.
Director Deepak Mishra’s vision, as he has described it, is the kind world of Doordarshan shows, of Malgudi Days. And it is not just the rural set-up that he wants to replicate.Mishra captures that softness of spirit, that languor of time. Drama is folded within the ho-humming routine, and by the time it is expressed or explodes, we as an audience are impatient, for we predicted this expression, this explosion, many scenes prior, trained as we are in the broad arcs of narrative structure. This predictability, this frustration with predictability, is part of the structure of the show which unfolds with its own strolling pace, like walking along an uneven village landscape, hands behind the back. There are shots of people walking, knocking, thinking, sleeping, cooking, scheming. No dialogues overlay this glacial pacing. No dramatic music singes our attention.
It is this language of languor that is the triumph of Panchayat. It perfectly replicates the drawn-out slowness of rural life without letting it collapse into stillness. The slowness, the swirling nothingness of every scene whose tone is often set by its background score — sometimes a scene moves between humour and tension entirely, merely by the change in music, as the pitch of the acting retains its naturalistic flourish—is a modern relic that refuses to jolt its viewers, lulling them instead into its world.
Take the brawl. Two women are dancing in front of a raucous, heaving, horny crowd. One of the men realises that one of the women is, in fact, a man dressed up as a woman. He feels cheated. He creates a scene. Cut to the aftermath of smashed chairs. The show is not interested in chaos, in the actual brawl, and in the humour and tension that could have come from such chaos. Neither is it interested in the nasty human condition that makes one mad about a man dressed as a woman. It is kind even to its bigots.
No dramatic catharsis
The thrust of an episode, then, is never towards dramatic catharsis. In one of the most sensitive episodes, Abhishek Tripathi has to nurse a drunk driver who crashes the car on which he was blaring a government anti-addiction message. The humour is in the irony as much as it is in the physical humour of two lanky men—Abhishek and his secretary—trying to pull this burly driver who is punch drunk out of the car, and feed him burnt rice and dal. In between there are drunk smatterings. The driver makes a poignant point, that addiction can never be foreseen. It just happens, and that it could congeal over Abhishek, too.
Abhishek is wary but also sympathetic to the driver’s plight. He steals a smoke from the driver’s pocket, feels that gutting pinch of loneliness, and calls his potli over for a night’s drink. As they are huddled, drunk, the driver finally wakes up, walks to his crashed car, revs it, and drives off before casting an eye at the group, apologising for his behaviour. That’s it. No grand conclusion, no sudden epiphany to dislodge the alcoholic urge in him.
Even the fear of becoming an alcoholic remains a faint worry in Abhishek’s head as he glugs his beer. This is not a universe where events are a grand summation of events past. It’s a meandering silence, populated by characters, not actors. Many of them are new, unknown faces, and there is no voyeuristic urge to know more about them as actors, as stars, for they seem carved out of the setting in which they are performing for us, so seamless is their belonging.
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Even as we buy into this charm, we have to, also, be extremely sceptical of it for anything that is designed to be relatable is designed to keep discomfort at bay. It will acknowledge feminism, casteism, and queerness but it won’t incorporate it, performing this knowledge as a distant, off-hand joke. One of the criticisms of Panchayat has been that despite being set in a village, it refuses to think of caste in any substantial way, despite the ubiquity of it. That its insistence on being kind is an active project of erasure.
Besides, there is an attempt in such shows to carve out a middle-class protagonist, even as data journalist Rukmini S notes, anyone in urban India who spends more than Rs.8,500 would be in the top 5 per cent of the country, and that the true middle class of India is actually the poor. The “middle class”, then, becomes a hazy category that one can easily latch onto to perform relative poverty, to project a monetary limitation as a virtue.
So, in a show like Cubicles you will have the protagonist complain about his salary—a complaint that yanks every viewer onto his side, for we all burn with the conviction that we should be paid more. We see his desperation before the salary is credited and the joy dripping from his face, after. The show will focus on how much money his bank account has before any injection of money—Rs.1,105.03—by training its camera on to the number, but the salary itself is never mentioned or shown, for that would suddenly create a chasm between a cubicle in Indore and a cubicle in Mumbai.
Similarly, in Gullak, there is a long scene of the family in this fictitious small town trying to calculate how much money it would take to renovate their house—a constant companion for any house owner—and after a drawn-out exchange where they list the things they would need, they do the calculation, see the result, decide it is too expensive, and put a temporary shutter over the idea. These shows revel in universal ploys but are afraid that with specificity—how much money exactly is too much money for this family—it would cause a sudden rupture in its relationship with us.
It is in this context that Panchayat feels like a rip in the template, for in the second season the show refuses to be coy about itself, identifying its protagonist as someone who exists and flourishes despite the distance we may feel from him. His disappointing Rs.20,000- a-month job is constantly pitted against his aspirations—of earning at least a lakh a month. His friend who returns from the US is given a Rs.1.5-crore package. His heart rankles. He feels disgusted at his job, at where he is, yearning for more, tired of being short-changed by the winds of fate in a world like Panchayat, a world without villains in the conventional sense, a world where the worst thing to happen to someone is not violence, but grief and humiliation.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.