panchayat, review

Director: Deepak Kumar Mishra
Writer: Chandan Kumar
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Neena Gupta, Raghubir Yadav, Faisal Malik, Chandan Roy, Sanvikaa, Sunita Rajwar
Cinematographer: Amitabha Singh
Editor: Amit Kulkarni
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Panchayat tells the story of a middling engineering graduate who accepts a low-paying government job in a sleepy village called Phulera. Employed as the secretary (sachiv-ji) of the gram panchayat, this young man, Abhishek Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar), is also studying for his MBA entrance exams. If you’ve seen enough TVF shows – and enough Indian students in them aspiring to ace the rat race – Abhishek treating his rural stint as “work experience” is perfectly plausible. He is not where he wants to be. He just wants to do his time and move on, like a prisoner serving a sentence, but also like a bankrupt American family having to swallow their pride and relocate to a rundown motel in a nowhere town. The finale of Schitt’s Creek aired four days after Panchayat premiered in April 2020. Thematic likeness aside, both feel-good shows shared the distinct honour of speaking to a newly pandemic-stricken world. Only in the third week of grappling with nationwide lockdowns, homebound audiences instantly took to the warmth and hospitality bestowed on cranky city protagonists going through their own mental quarantine. As wonderfully crafted as these stories were, the fortuitous timing played a role in their respective pop-cultural triumphs. It took a global tragedy to recognize – and celebrate – the merits of slice-of-life filmmaking. 

On the face of it, Panchayat 2 is just an extension of Abhishek’s unlikely journey. His everyday experiences with Pradhan-pati Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghubir Yadav), upa-Pradhan Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik), office assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy) and the locals still define the narrative. The lightness of touch and easy chemistry still seeps through the episodic cracks. The lovely performances still shine a light on the art of ordinariness. But if you look beyond the surface, this sophomore season also does something rare: it reclaims the identity of its setting. The first season looked at life through the lens of Abhishek, but this one suggests that the lens of life is bigger than Abhishek and his evolving perspective. Slowly but surely, the village of Phulera acquires a sense of permanence: it becomes more than just a device in a temporary visitor’s journey. It becomes more than an earthy bullet point in a CV. People may come and go, but it’s the place that remains – a place where big hearts camouflage the school of hard knocks its spirits have emerged from.

With every episode, one can almost feel the camera zooming out to reveal the dot that is Phulera. It dawns upon us that this is in fact a dusty village in Uttar Pradesh, where politics and patriarchy are too pronounced for a story to pursue its tropes. But instead of hammering in the sociopolitical context through moral posturing and heavy-handed monologue, a slow-burning pragmatism is subtly woven into the direction its story takes. For instance, Panchayat had ended with the promise of rousing social change. The faceless daughter of the Dubeys, Rinky (Sanvikaa), is revealed in the final shot. And the stern (female) District Magistrate schools the casually sexist men of the village – giving the surrogate pradhan, housewife Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), a booster shot of agency and confidence. Most other shows might have hit the ground running with the inevitable romantic track, and the rise of Phulera’s women. But Panchayat 2, which opens a few months after the events of the first, immediately resists the natural ‘progression’ of the village. 

On both counts, the first episode teases our perception of narrative motion. It not only hints at a secret tryst between Abhishek and Rinki but also places Manju Devi in a position to win the day for her constituency. Abhishek looks happier and spends his mornings drinking chai on top of the water tank, where he first bumped into Rinki. There is a spring in his step, and the writing nudges us to conclude that he is in love. The episode all but closes with a shot of the two youngsters secretly involved, because it is preceded by a scene where Vikas and Prahlad feel silly for suspecting the same. But that shot never comes. The end credits keep rolling. Similarly, the track of Manju Devi proving her worth to the all-male panchayat is nipped in the bud; it diffuses just as we expect her to bargain her way to victory. She remains a pradhan only on paper. Rinki and Abhishek do bond, but not in the manner one might imagine. Abhishek, too, is still only tolerating his Phulera stint – he is yet to subscribe to the grassroots son-of-soil prism that his city friends view him through. He could have easily hidden his failings behind patriotism, but he simply shrugs off their praise. Unlike TVF Aspirants’ protagonist, Abhilash Sharma, he doesn’t get swayed by potholes in the road or is suddenly overcome with the UPSC passion to improve his country. In Abhishek’s case, coming of age is an incidental process, not a narrative template.

panchayat 2
This continues through the season. By staying real, and not succumbing to the excesses of its genre, Panchayat 2 strolls on the elusive bridge between life and storytelling. In addition to textural authenticity, it lends Phulera village the dignity of legitimacy. A political rival to the Dubeys emerges. A road needs to be built. An election is on the horizon. This time, it’s not a stolen computer but a cocky MLA that triggers an adorable father-son-cum-bestie rift between Dubey and Abhishek. Prahlad’s son, a soldier serving in the Indian Army, visits in the break from his Kashmir posting. Rinki is stalked by a potential groom from Ghaziabad. A Gurgaon hotshot, who exoticizes rural life and takes selfies with buffaloes, pays his friend Abhishek a surprise visit. An alcoholic driver hired to advertise the perils of addiction passes out at Abhishek’s home-office. Little by little, we see the village come alive to the world it occupies. 

Gullak 3 went the same bubble-bursting way in terms of growing up. But the cultural expansion of Panchayat 2 feels more organic – not just because there’s no voiceover, but also because the protagonist of this series realizes that perhaps he is not the central character anymore. He is not a saviour, not a Swades-style convert, just an observer being pulled into the larger scheme of things. Season 2 exists somewhere between his arrival and awakening. But the conceit is that he, too, exists between the village’s slumber and reckoning.

It’s tempting to think that this role comes naturally to Jitendra Kumar. But his arc in this season reveals a guilty indifference on Abhishek’s face – as if he is starting to notice that he is not the train that stops at different stations, but one of the several stations that the train of Indian bureaucracy passes by. This tilt-shift of perspective is nicely performed. All the villagers – the inimitable Raghubir Yadav, Chandan Roy, Neena Gupta and especially Faisal Malik as Prahlad – are perfectly pitched at the intersection of complacency and simplicity. They welcome us back into the fold with warmth and banter but don’t hesitate to become the India we often scoff at in newspapers. You can sense that their attachment to Abhishek is far purer than his is to them. They respect him as much as they indulge him, like modest parents who don’t mind touching the outer world through their well-travelled child. Most of all, their lack of self-awareness – particularly in how they run the village as symptoms of rural ignorance themselves (one episode details their mad dash to make Phulera Open-Defecation-Free on the morning of a DM raid) – is honest and disarming. 

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In other words, the writing doesn’t placate the viewer with sweet messages. It is unafraid to introduce “villains,” distort the focus and flirt with the sort of big-scale seriousness that threatens to puncture the tone of lesser shows. This evidence of the big picture is rooted in an explosive finale which, by the end, feels like less of a sucker punch and more of a culmination. As viewers lulled into a benign conflict-resolution cycle, it may seem like the rug is abruptly pulled out from under our feet. But once the tears dry and the heart heals, it becomes clear that the climax is some of the most powerful Indian television in recent memory. The drama was imminent; it was heading nowhere else. But the sheer volume of the final fifteen minutes – where we virtually see the village as a creaky cog in a wheel – is a revelation. It could have gone horribly wrong, what with Hindi cinema’s notorious view of modern nationalism. Yet, despite the presence of two reporters who spell out the subtext, I was shaken to my core. The moment fully commits to the story, shedding its gimmicky body to reveal a trampled soul. The low-stakes bittersweetness leading to the finale only amplifies this jolt.

It’s the sort of feeling you get when you discover that your happy-go-lucky buddies were vulnerable humans of flesh and blood all along – as well as oblivious victims of a system that invisibilises the red-inked margins. That’s when Panchayat 2 snaps us out of a two-year-old fever dream and reminds us that there is life – and loss – beyond the pandemic. If Season 1 became a therapeutic escape from the vagaries of life, Season 2 signals a return to the tragedy of living. That we keep smiling through it all – until we don’t – is a testament to the show’s profound reading of the term “slice of life”: Slicing is, often, the prelude to bleeding. 

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