Director: Amrit Raj Gupta
Writer: Nikhil Vijay
Cast: Jameel Khan, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Vaibhav Raj Gupta, Harsh Mayar
Streaming on: SonyLIV
The problem with a sweet little TVF show about ordinary life and average people is that it will keep reminding you that there are average people living ordinary lives. This is something we wouldn’t mind deciphering on our own, but the makers insist that viewers recognize the essence of their vision. The actors are fine, the detailing is great, the conversations and chemistry so natural, and yet it’s almost always the satirical self-awareness of the frames that hinders the mood.
For instance, much like the privatization of ‘90s nostalgia in Yeh Meri Family, Gullak canonizes the concept of “small-town India” through the Mishra family. So much so that the actual town is nameless – could be anywhere in Uttar or Madhya Pradesh, but the specifics (Lane no. 7) aren’t important because this is a good-natured generalization of an overlooked culture. The title credits, if not for the soothing track, might have even worked as one of those hilarious movie-trailer parodies (“Newspaper Movie” becomes “Middle-India” movie): Shots of bylanes, muddled electricity wires, water tanks, drying papads and red chillies on terraces, a fluttering calendar, crumpled toothpaste tube and elaichi grinders form a melancholic montage. The first episode extends the texture, kicking off with the rhythmic knocks of a washing machine in the busy Mishra household.
There’s the husband (good to see the talented Jameel Khan employed for more than his ‘dangerous’ facial expressions), the cranky wife (the fantastic Geetanjali Kulkarni), older son Annu (a lively Vaibhav Raj Gupta) and youngest Aman (Harsh Mayar). The four look like they’ve lived in this (fictitious) space for ages – they bicker, banter, float between rooms and cook like middle-class veterans completely in the dark about camera positions. It’s nice to be around them, to hear them bond and battle without being weighed down by the pressure of narrative purpose. Aloo parathas, inverters, dreams of renovation, nosy neighbours, Civil Services exams and modest chocolate-ice-cream celebrations form the crux of their days.
But the makers insist on reiterating the fact that the backdrop of Bollywood films – the physicality, environment, accents, air, food – is the hero of the series. It’s obvious from the very first shot, and yet we see a device – a gullak (a clay piggy-bank) – serve as a curious narrator (a la dog in Dil Dhadakne Do) that ends up sounding like an oversmart film critic. The philosophical piggy-bank analyzes human nature, but in a way that makes doubly sure we understand that this series is a non-story, a collection of moments, so that nobody expects anything dramatic from the family. So that we realize that ‘unremarkable’ is actually the USP of this series. Piggy informs us early on that “zindagi ek yaadon ki gullak hai (life is a piggy-bank of memories),” these ‘stories’ exist only in the bylanes and that they have no beginning, middle and end. The terms ‘Qisso’ and ‘gullak’ and ‘yaadein’ is repeated at the end of every few episodes to wax lyrical about how little tales become memories which accumulate in this bank.
It’s a cute idea, but I find it quite jarring that writers need to explicitly tell viewers how to think, lest we misunderstand the nicheness of their tone. One can’t really blame them, though. A lot of these mistakes are direct reactions to the way mainstream Hindi cinema has conditioned audiences into using the words “plot” and “story” and “content” to define the effectiveness of a film/series. When younger creators – the ones who rightly believe that you don’t need a story to tell a story – begin to design their own voices, like in Gullak, they tend to overcompensate with the exposition in order to sell a new brand of (non)entertainment. Their language is reactive. In the final episode, when the nervy son fails to clear his SSC exams, the parents are surprisingly mature – they don’t behave in sync with their surroundings, they react like characters who are designed precisely to counter the views of those who think irrationality and expectations are the birthright of small-town Indian parents. They say the right things, like moral-of-the-story emoticons. It’s uplifting to see, but strange to process. This goes against their personalities, like a diversion inserted to defy social stereotypes. Perhaps the devil is not always in the details.