In the fifth episode of TVF's Panchayat, the show's protagonist, Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar), who leaves behind his city life to work as a village secretary, is in deep trouble. The office PC monitor has been stolen on his watch. Throughout the episode, he is shamed for drinking a few beers and leaving the door unlocked on the night of the theft. The investigating cop judges him, the villagers judge him, even the pradhaan (chief) – otherwise a gentle, mild-mannered man – severely judges him. Sick of being demonized, Abhishek launches into a heartfelt rant about his loneliness: "My friends party on the weekend, while I'm stuck here in this godforsaken village with no family or social life." He is upset and frustrated, more so because he expects nobody there to understand his problem.
Later that night, there's a knock on his door. This leads to one of the great moments of modern television. Abhishek is surprised to be greeted by the office gang, led by a beaming pradhaan. "Tell me, does Saturday count as your weekend?" asks the old man, and right on cue, his two sweet sidekicks – like excited children unable to keep a secret – unveil a stash of chilled beer bottles and bar snacks.
Panchayat has streamed in thousands of Indian homes over the last week, and this scene leaves no dry eye in them. It's perfectly timed and scored, marking the moving extension of an olive branch to diffuse the tension. But there's another, more intangible, context to this image. For those familiar with the man playing the pradhaan, Abhishek opens the door to reveal the precise moment a long-time acting career comes full circle. 35 years ago, Raghubir Yadav made his debut in Pradip Krishen's Massey Sahib: a period film about an edgy government clerk who wants to win over his colonial boss by hook or crook. In its most haunting scene, Francis Massey, who expects to be praised for executing his boss' dream project, mutters in disbelief when the Englishman instead fires him for corruption.
Panchayat's scene has the pradhaan winning over the young urban man by adapting and graciously speaking his language; words like "weekend," "high" and "selfie" dot their subsequent drinking session. In some sense, it almost feels like Massey has matured into the worldly-wise pradhaan-ji after years of experience. The face is creased and kinder, but the striking sense of empathy is the same.
It's not surprising that Raghubir Yadav's performance has widely been hailed as the finest element of a fine series. Every gesture of his frees a simple script from the obligation to do things. It allows the writing to be plotless without being mundane. All the viewer has to do is watch him walk or hear him speak. His body language – the trademark furrowing of his brow, the subtle falling of his eyes – accomplishes far more than any dramatic situations that might have needed to be contrived to define his character's tender patriarchy. An example is the fleeting reaction shot of the pradhaan when Abhishek reaches the word "family" in his rant. It's just a filmy glance upward, but the abrupt softening of his face expresses the essence of an entire narrative arc.
There is, however, a lyrical aspect to Yadav's "breakout" turn. In a way, Panchayat and its Pradhaan-ji culminate a career of popular characters that have existed at the shaky confluence of opposite cultures. Massey's drive to impress a Britisher destroyed him. Chillum, from Salaam Bombay, was a rakishly tragic drug-addict who searched for purpose in his mentorship of the child protagonist. The charming TV series Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne was based on his titular middle-class character's daydreams of a lofty and wishful life. Bhura, from Lagaan, was one of several oppressed villagers who embraced cricket to defy their colonizers. Budhia from Peepli Live was a farmer caught in the crossfire between poverty and fame. In Sui Dhaaga, he is a retired government servant with broken handicraft-business ambitions. In Newton, he's a local election clerk with broken literary ambitions. Even in Love Per Square Foot, he's a railway announcer with broken playback-singing dreams.
Ordinariness might be an acquired taste at the movies, but it is the fast food of life. We, as a moviegoing culture, have belatedly recognized Raghubir Yadav's legacy because his recent roles have featured people who have made peace with their own limitations. Given that most of us have grown up in a country that idolizes the West, it becomes strangely reassuring to see middle-aged everymen who are not only comfortable in their own skin of fragile masculinity but also with the concept of failure. Newton's Loknath has a sense of cheerful resignation about him, just as Love Per Square Foot's Chaturvedi, who is happy to sing a classic into the station mic to mark his modest retirement party. But Panchayat is the ultimate embodiment of this trait. There is nothing desperate about the pradhaan's behaviour in the beer episode; it's sporting, unassuming and effortless. He is at once patronizing and receptive towards Abhishek's ways, without being envious of them. In stark contrast, his early roles – Massey, Chillum, Mungerilal, Budhia – featured people who aggressively aspired to overcome the cultural chasm. They were resentful of their social circumstances, defined by constant confrontations with a sense of shame. The reason Pradhaan-ji feels like an endearing portrait of our elders is because his narrow personality is punctuated by a self-awareness of his frog-in-a-pond energy. As a result, we see the best and most non-confrontational version of our parents in him.
Ordinariness might be an acquired taste at the movies, but it is the fast food of life. We, as a moviegoing culture, have belatedly recognized Raghubir Yadav's legacy because his recent roles have featured people who have made peace with their own limitations.
Our altered perception is also reflected in how, even as an artist, Raghubir Yadav has struggled to situate himself at the confluence of two cultures. For someone who started off as a lead, his restlessness as a "character actor" would be mirrored not just in the brand of bit roles he was offered but also in the lead roles he chose to do. Shabby films like Gandhi to Hitler (he played Hitler) and Meinu Ek Ladki Chahiye (a "rape comedy") were, visibly, desperate attempts to reclaim the history he was once expected to make. But Newton and Panchayat signify an artist who is secure, and finally at ease with his status as a supporting actor. There is now a serene seniority about his screen presence: Both Loknath-ji and Pradhaan-ji influence a frame even when they're not in it, and shape younger protagonists with their refined regression. They don't aspire to change the narrative – a self-effacing quality that, in itself, represents the forgotten core of humanity.
If Raghubir Yadav were to play Mungerilal now, this is what he would see: There's a knock on the average viewer's door. We open it to be surprised by a 62-year-old Yadav who, after years of skulking in the shadows of Hindi cinema, stands at the front of his merry gang – Sanjay Mishra, Gajraj Rao, Manoj and Seema Pahwa, Neena Gupta – to greet us with that grin of deep-rooted decency. He then asks: Tell me, do all heroes wear capes? And we feel a lump in our throat. Only, this is a real-life scene. Because today's Mungerilal doesn't need to daydream anymore.