Director: Deepak Kumar Mishra
Writer: Chandan Kumar
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Raghuvir Yadav, Chandan Roy, Neena Gupta, Faisal Malik
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video
Perhaps the most fertile genre in the Hindi web space today is the Middling Indian Student Syndrome. Its acronym, MISS, is lyrically appropriate, because these shows are based on young boys who miss the one-percenter bus. (Not girls, mind you, because ambition is still primarily a male birthright in small-town India). These boys are neither here nor there: Not smart or ruthless enough to cut throats in the academic rat race, and not timid or dense enough to completely fail the system. “Enough” is their villain: They are tender, but not enough. They are driven, but not enough. They make for the most uncomfortable, complex and, by extension, the most cinematic manifestation of peer pressure. Take the Honest Indian Education Trilogy ™: Middling Akash from Laakhon Mein Ek S01 grew into middling Vaibhav from Kota Factory, who grew older to become middling Ankit in Hostel Daze. The ecosystems follow natural progression: pre-coaching-class (Akash) to coaching-class (Vaibhav) to college (Ankit). Perhaps it’s only logical that the next phase of the MISS universe – the first job – is the most rewarding of them all.
Panchayat, created by the first movers of the Hindi webspace (TVF), introduces us to Abhishek Tripathi, who is not so much a protagonist as a mental culmination of not-enoughness. Abhishek was Ankit a few years ago, Vaibhav some years before that and Akash in his childhood. Naturally then, his first job after engineering college is not work but “work ex,” a means to an academic end (MBA). One of many remarkable things about Panchayat is the form of this job. There were several left-of-field choices: Call center, advertising, marketing, film production house, teaching, assistant to regional manager of a paper sales office. But the makers – writer Chandan Kumar and director Deepak Kumar Mishra – opt for grassroots India. Abhishek takes up a modest government post: Secretary of a panchayat office in a remote Uttar Pradesh village called Phulera. Contrary to popular opinion (and storytelling), Abhishek’s situation is not a cultural gimmick. He is precisely the kind of average student who wakes up too late in college and spends the rest of his young adulthood playing catch-up in the CTC-package game. It is entirely believable that Abhishek would rather work in a village at a monthly salary of 20k than sit idle in a city under the shadow of his fancy “placement” friends. A “gap year” doesn’t look good on the CAT registration form; it sounds even worse in an IIM personal interview.
In a way, Phulera is Abhishek’s version of a ‘punishment posting’ – he must have grown up on mainstream films about promising cops getting transferred to obscure villages for ruffling too many feathers. Which is also to say that his gaze best captures the way urban moviegoers and web show audiences tend to interpret rural life. This is cleverly reflected in the show’s opening-credits sequence: A dusty, sepia-tinted montage of village routines. The grainy filter and period-style theme evoke a dated image of an India that our palettes have long been conditioned to associate with thakurs, dacoits and reincarnation sagas. It’s what Abhishek expects, too, but the reality – a disarming melange of simple pleasures and fragile egos – is what defines Panchayat.
Speaking of films, in the first episode of Panchayat, Abhishek’s friend jokingly greets him as Mohan Bhargava: a nod to the famous NRI who went from snob to do-gooder and revolutionized a village with his NASA-scientist ways. Swades remains Hindi cinema’s foremost symbol of the barbie-in-hinterland template. But narratives like Swades, even Article 15 to a degree, hinge on the conscience of dormant heroism. A version of Hollywood’s white-saviour syndrome, these heroes, disillusioned by the dysfunctionality of their adopted environment, are morally driven to affect change. Panchayat doesn’t pretend to be half as dramatic. It is in fact driven by a self-centered young man who is in no mood to be a preacher. All he wants to do is crack the CAT and get out of there. What Panchayat so perceptively does is depict social change as an incidental product of Abhishek’s selfishness. He is unresponsive to Phulera’s lazy backwardness – unless, however, he has something to gain. For instance, Abhishek sets out to debunk the myth of a haunted banyan tree in the second episode. In the process, he schools the villagers about superstition. It’s a nice victory, but it only happens because Abhishek wants the last solar lamp of the village to be installed at his office-cum-home rather than at the tree. In another episode, Abhishek inspires his boss, the pradhaan (Raghuvir Yadav), to make a difficult leadership decision about population control only because he is wary of being suspended by the district superintendent. In an excellently performed episode, he inadvertently highlights the ills of dowry by puncturing the ego of an arrogant groom (Asif Khan; deserves special mention) who wants Abhishek’s favourite chair. In yet another, he angrily inspires a woman to overcome the ingrained patriarchy of her surroundings only because she taunts him about his own career. Every episode, under the facade of its non-hero’s personality, bears a subtle message.
Fortunately, Chandan Kumar’s screenplay is so unobtrusive – and so mindful of the little things (a key is lost, a computer monitor is stolen, a “gang war” is threatened) revealing mundane hinterland existence – that no message appears as if the writer is speaking through the characters. It’s a tricky balance. Even accomplished films like Gully Boy have made the mistake of designing voices at odds with the politics of their environment in pursuit of a redemptive arc. Murad, for example, always seemed transcendent in his values because the script wanted him to show everyone the way. The modern writers communicate their language through him: As a result, he sounds morally superior rather than principally different. But Panchayat never succumbs to this temptation, despite having one of the finest ensembles in recent times. No villager sounds overly unique for the heck of it. Even their moments of progressiveness and kindness are consequences of a limited worldview. For example, a lady propagates population control to her husband because “do you know how painful it is for women to give birth to more than two kids?”. In another case, the pradhaan forgives Abhishek’s mistake only when the young man’s agitated monologue on loneliness touches the ‘family’ chord in him.
At the same time, their simplicity refuses to morph into stupidity. Each of the supporting actors is so particular with body language that the characters’ emotional intelligence is never in doubt. Raghuvir Yadav invokes his delightful Newton persona as the laidback pradhaan with a big heart. There’s not enough of the scene-stealing Neena Gupta as his wife. But even this alleged flaw of the series is in sync with the visual status of the women in the village – as surrogate faces of the constituency, while the husbands hijack their titles. Her limited screen time is actually a payoff device, because the final episode rests squarely on her shoulders. It also has the best use of the national anthem I’ve seen in years. This is just as well, because it comes on the back of an Akshay Kumar reference in the previous episode.
It’s a testament to Jitendra Kumar’s versatility within his ‘everyman’ comfort zone that, after playing a star coaching-class teacher in Kota Factory, he is equally expressive at the other end of the spectrum. Abhishek might have resented the empathy of that Kota teacher. Like Ayushmann Khurrana (who he co-starred with in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan), Kumar, too, is adept at conveying the physicality of pent-up frustration. His characters reek of suppressed angst to such an extent that something as ordinary as a smile – fleeting, fateful – can resolve a whole narrative. A chuckle feels earned, and can do what even the most manipulative background score cannot: It releases the viewer. And it exposes a high-strung grasp that we never knew we were in. Turning life into a steep climb is, after all, the trademark of the Middling Indian Student. But every now and then, a show like Panchayat arrives to confirm that a mountain is nothing but a collection of charming little molehills.