Gullak Season 3, On SonyLIV, Sheds The Stillness And Awkwardly Embraces The Drama

The drama of this season tries to reframe the Mishra world as a Panchayat portrait, where even seemingly negative characters are warm-hearted folks who close ranks during a crisis
Gullak Season 3, On SonyLIV, Sheds The Stillness And Awkwardly Embraces The Drama

Creator: Shreyansh Pandey
Director: Palash Vaswani
Writer: Durgesh Singh
Cast: Jameel Khan, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Harsh Mayar, Sunita Rajwar

It says something that a sweet, vignette-laden series about a middle-class Indian family brings to mind a sweet, vignette-laden series about a grieving British man. In terms of rhythm and tone, Gullak's run is a lot like Ricky Gervais' After Life. Every season features more of the same characters doing the same things, living the same life, heading nowhere and everywhere, but the anti-narrative is the actual point. There is no cure for their respective ailments. Being middle-class in this country is a stage of grief, after all: somewhere between bargaining and acceptance. So people simply bide their time, fight the little battles and overcome their days with rants, care and hidden love. But that's the thing about "existence" dramedies. At some point, the restlessness to move, and move ahead, starts to seep in. And unlike After Life, which stayed the course, Gullak 3 blinks. The low-stakes stillness dissipates. 

After resisting kinetic energy for two seasons, the show is back with its most filmy season yet. There is palpable conflict and tense background music now. There is curated circularity and shape to the fortunes of the Mishra family. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the motion is organic. But Gullak 3, despite retaining the smooth Lucknowi banter and terrific cast, is visibly aware of its rising cultural currency. You can sense that this is a TVF show with an eye on its viewers' expectations; that this is a show trying to outgrow itself. So some of the storylines feel heavy-handed and tropey – like the younger son in a familiar science-versus-arts struggle, the upright father at the mercy of office politics, a family friend's daughter becoming the fulcrum of a preachy arranged-marriage episode, a dramatic heart attack. (The final episode, in particular, plays out like a short Rajkumar Hirani film starring Ayushmann Khurrana). Unlike previous seasons, the pressure to grow up – rather than just grow – is apparent.

It doesn't help that the know-it-all clay piggy bank (that insists on not being called a "piggy bank") continues to spell out every theme and punctuate every big moment with writerly quotes. Why does it have to chime in with its two bits? Can't it just trust our intelligence? Why is the tone so patronizing? I get that the "gullak" is a symbol of both hope and emptiness in a middle-class household. But I never liked this voiceover device, and I still do not. It is the show's equivalent of a flimsy song sequence – where characters are reduced to slow-motion and their thoughts are lavishly described. The veneer of observational humour is annoying. I've spent an entire review's worth of words dissing this voiceover across three reviews of this series, so I should stop now. I mean it's tough to ignore when the entire show is named after precisely this voice. Now I'll stop.

The show – based in a nameless city, once upon a generic time – makes many transitions between funny and serious. But this season, there's a sense that the writing sometimes confuses one for the other. There's also a sense that the characters are maturing – and saying the right things – not because they must, but because the makers seem intent on conveying social messages. For instance, when newly minted topper Aman explains his discontent with the science stream to his older brother Annu, the 17-year-old describes how he looks out the classroom window and finds pleasure in the idiosyncrasies of the world. If this is meant to be a satirical take on a common student conflict, the self-awareness of the humour diffuses the authenticity of the setting. It's like the writers – and not Aman – have watched too many 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par reruns. Annu seems to understand Aman's problem too easily, only a few episodes after Annu flaunts his status as the new dictator of the family. At another point, the long-suffering mother, Shanti, delivers an oddly woke monologue to the men in the house. The episode shows her empathizing and connecting with a girl the Mishras are supposed to find a suitor for – which is nicely constructed – but the resolution, and the words she chooses, are too manicured. 

That being said, the design works in some places. The girl explaining her life to Shanti in the kitchen is intercut with her father speaking of her to the men in the living room – a smart juxtaposition of social vantage points that defines the inherent patriarchy of even the most well-meaning families. The arc of Annu slowly taking charge of his family is bittersweet; the day he becomes a breadwinner, middle-class destiny hands over the mantle to him. He is not resentful because the "burden" of responsibility snaps him out of his hustling habits. The performances, too, are as reliable as ever. Geetanjali Kulkarni's character can get too crabby and monotonous – a man's view of a mother, basically – but the actress turns bickering into an artform with her impeccable timing and modulation. Her presence highlights the names of the husband-wife couple: ill-fated synonyms for satisfaction and peace (Santosh, Shanti). With a face composed of frowns and worry lines, it's the moments of her softening – like when Shanti quietly offers to cook chicken on noticing her husband's stress – that stand out. 

I especially like how Jameel Khan plays Santosh Mishra, a man whose right-wing leanings do not hamper his humanity. There are hints of him being a product of his saffron environment – the way he speaks of Kashmir to his wife, or the way he refuses to join a workers' union citing government loyalty. But at no point does this dilute his image within the show; he is too busy providing and surviving to flaunt his political ideologies. He's that affable sanghi uncle who is harmless beyond Whatsapp groups. By extension, I like how everyone – including the local leader and the intrusive neighbour – exists through the lens of the Mishra bubble and not as individuals open to moral scrutiny. The drama of this season tries to reframe the Mishra world as a Panchayat portrait, where even seemingly negative characters are warm-hearted folks who close ranks during a crisis. The pay-off is satisfying, but the execution lacks the stream-of-consciousness subtlety of previous seasons.  

Gullak is a difficult series to dislike. The Mishras have, since 2019, become an antidote to our perception of the Indian streaming ecosystem. The long-form medium conditions us to expect a certain level of scale and gravitas. But textural shows like Gullak – with their 25-minute episodes and five-part seasons – tap a middle ground between modest sitcoms and high-profile dramas. I started watching the first season as a lightweight cleanser of a palate hijacked by the Delhi Crimes and Paatal Loks of the web. The identity of Gullak was inextricably linked to our relationship with other genres. It's different now – the show has earned a distinct reputation and space. It's no longer a dessert to the main course. Which is why it's not surprising to see Gullak 3 tip the scale with such force. There is purpose and pressure to mean more. It's more of a franchise than a show. I suppose the "change" is inevitable. We saw this with Little Things, too. But the question is: Are the creators auditioning for the future, or are the Mishras transitioning into the future? 

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