Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi dignifies melodrama. It uses the formula shamelessly — the flute breath and the violin strings to cloy a scene, the close-ups of flaring eyes tearing up, the heightened pauses reacting to something that ruptures the texture of mundane life, and characters breaking into sad songs, weeping. But, surprisingly, it never really uses it to draw you into the show — by hooking you to the proceedings as a cliff-hanger or shocking you with a strobe light-like soundscape and edit — as much as draw you towards a character. There are no loud percussions or zoom-ins to drum the drama into your head, forcing your brain to pay attention. Often big emotional scenes of melodrama, like dropping a cup of tea in a moment of grief, takes place with a background score's fingers on its lip. It's stunning, heartening, and admirable that someone would want to make a show like this — melodrama, without its dizzying noise. Muted melodrama.
Set in Bihar, though extensively shot in Madhya Pradesh based on all the Madhya Pradesh ministers thanked in the credits, the show follows the return of Nirmal Pathak (Vaibhav Tatwawadi) to the village he was born in. There is a complicated family history, involving the ousting of his communist father from the casteist village, leaving behind Nirmal's biological mother (Alka Amin), whom Nirmal has never met since father and son were banished together. He did not, in fact, even know he had a biological mother in the village till very recently, till his father passed away from cancer and in an ultimate confession, told him everything about his birth.
He is back to Bihar to attend the wedding of his cousin brother, the hot-headed, simple-minded Aatish (Akash Makhija), who fashions himself as the throbbing Lakshman to Nirmal's Ram. But Nirmal is also here to float away his father's ashes in the Ganga. Everyone is waiting for him with baited breath — like the constantly referenced Ram coming back from his exile. But no one in the village knows about Nirmal's father's death. The first dramatic hurdle is revealing to them, this death. By the time that scene skirts through, the tone and reach of the show is clear. Sweetness and sadness in equal measure, peppered with lines of metaphoric resonance, chiseled profundity, spoken of with casual affection, "Baap bete ka rishta aisa hota hai jaise kisi bus driver aur yatri ka hota hai. Safar saath karte hai, par zaroorat se zyada baat nahin hoti."
The show doesn't take too much effort trying to labour the story with logic or smooth reasoning — Nirmal is 24 years old and has never been told of the circumstances of his birth? An instant ability to take to the family he hasn't seen for that length? To call someone ma, and feel the sentimental gravity of it? — because it realizes there is none to give. Instead it focuses on the emotional logic, taking great pains to establish love and care, affection and later, acid.
There is something strangely indifferent about the show, the way it thinks of reform as impossible, shrugging its shoulders at the violence that you either succumb to or escape from, but can never turn over into virtue.
Directed by Rahul Pandey and Satish Nair (Pandey also wrote the show), most of the 5 episodes feels resolved. Not in the TVF (The Viral Fever) sense, where once resolved an issue is never brought up in subsequent episodes. Here, tensions linger through the show, even if they feel resolved at first. By resolved, what I mean is that there is nothing towards the end of an episode that feels manipulatively incomplete, whose completeness you crave enough to click on the next episode. The only reason you'd want to move forward, is because you want to slip deeper into the lives of these characters. Another strange yet charming decision, this refusal to be packaged as bingeable, snackable.
The phrase used — ghar wapsi — is radical by refusing to even speak of the way that phrase is strewn around today, referring to the reconversion of converted Hindus. This is part of the radical appeal of Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi. It tackles issues, especially caste head-on, unlike the flitting uneasiness of it in Panchayat, another story of a man shock-transplanted from urban to rural.
It is unfortunate though, that the show is not able to dust itself off from becoming a social drama in the narrow, conventional sense, with a morally spotless hero, the outsider who becomes the centerpiece around whom the village becomes restless, and then resurrects itself. He's a communist, to boot. Caste, dowry, forced marriages of convenience, child labour, mental health, there is no tentacle of the backward village he doesn't want to upturn. While the show is aware of making an urban hero the centerpiece of rural reform ("Yeh ladayee aap logon ki hai. Meri nahin hai."), it is not willing or able to create a movement around him, because that is not what the show wants. It is strictly on the side of the hero, not the village itself. Nirmal Pathak, with his electric, steady stares — not easy to be staring at a camera without shaking, without slipping into awkwardness, at such length — is eventually rendered alone in his fight. Even a romance that is hinted at, is just as easily washed away. There is something strangely indifferent about the show, the way it thinks of reform as impossible, shrugging its shoulders at the violence that you either succumb to or escape from, but can never turn over into virtue.
This show doesn't have the limbs to create tension. There is a scene in the last episode, which leaves the season hanging awkwardly and impatiently like wet laundry, that takes place as a train leaves a station — one that is inherently dramatic because of the cinematic history of the train station and the fact that it is a chase. The camera, however, refuses to allow for that tension, gazing instead from a distance as the train leaves the station. Later, when it tries to be immersive — a 2 minute single shot that shakes through a house as various members come and go — it is not able to summon the body language of a tense situation. You can almost hear the actors breathing behind the curtain, waiting for their turn to walk into this one-take scene. In that sense, the show has its limitations, which are just as obvious, novel, and revealing as its achievements.