‘Gullak’ season 4 review: Still one of the best Indian shows

A still from 'Gullak'
A still from 'Gullak'


The real star of Shreyansh Pandey's ‘Gullak’ this season—its fourth—is the writing

It is hard to speak about Gullak without also speaking of Wagle Ki Duniya. Based on RK Laxman’s beloved ‘Common Man,’ the 1980 show directed by Kundan Shah starred Anjan Srivastava and Bharti Achrekar and painted a vivid picture of the average middle-class family as it stood 40 years ago. The ongoing SonyLiv show Gullak — created and directed by Shreyansh Pandey — is a worthy descendant, a slice-of-life series showing us that no matter how far the country may and may not have come in the last four decades, the great Indian middle-class grapples with the very same contradictions and insecurities.

That things have literally not changed becomes evident with the third episode of the new Gullak season, an episode all about that uniquely Indian struggle of parting with hoarded relics and bargaining with the kabaadi-wala, the waste-collector. He is doing us a service, taking away what we do not need, and yet we haggle aggressively to get paid for old newspapers. This is the exact storyline of the very first Wagle Ki Duniya episode, the kabaadi becoming a metaphor for our middle-class life. Our reluctance to part with the old guarantees that we are forever struggling to make room for the new.

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“Most Indians of my generation were brought up on the slogans of patriotism and sacrifice," wrote Khushwant Singh in his 1999 novel The Company Of Women. “When we grew up, we realised that those who had coined these slogans did not believe in them. We saw the hypocrisy of our leaders. We saw the corruption among them. Our middle class is caught in this trap. It wants to believe in ideals, but its daily life is filled with compromises. It preaches morality, but practices deceit in the hope of bettering itself."

Gullak is about the Mishra family living in an unnamed North Indian city. Santosh (Jameel Khan) is a government servant, working in the electricity department, his wife Shanti (Geetanjali Kulkarni) is struggling to raise the frequently clueless men around her, elder son Annu (Vaibhav Raj Gupta) is going from job to job to find his way forward, and the younger son Aman (Harsh Mayar) wants to be — of all impractical things — a writer. Glued together by good intentions and gajar halwa, the Mishra family tentatively faces the challenges of gently upward mobility. Their tale comes to us via the voiceover of the earthen piggy-bank, the gullak of the show’s title.

The Mishras are consistently relatable. The characters are, by definition, nondescript — yet emerge ironically well-etched. The father is increasingly finding himself defunct in a world where the children are making their own decisions. The elder son, driven by pride and hustle, is making his way forward but tentative about everything — save that he has to keep an eye on the little brother. That little brother is shaving nonexistent stubble, writing love letters and stubbornly borrowing his bhaiyya’s jacket. The mother is, well, bearing with them all, huffily and wearily, not believing in these blustery men till they actually make things happen.

Khan is pitch-perfect as the Papa, trying to behave as the ‘man of the house’ even as he’s too eager to please his family. Kulkarni is so good at showing the weight her capable shoulders are bearing, holding the family together with unmistakably affectionate grumbles. Gupta’s Annu has an unlikely, raggedy charm, defined by his big-brother-ness and place in the family because he is still searching for his place in the world. Mayar’s Aman is as easily enthused as he is deflated, a young man just realising the power of words. Sunita Rajwar is delightful as a nosy, talkative murabba-making neighbour.

The real star this season is the writing. Vidit Tripathi does an excellent job not only arming the characters with snappy dialogue — the father references Amitabh Bachchan and Nirupa Roy to describe family drama, the younger son namedrops Animal and ‘Lord Bobby’ — but also giving the piggy bank a lot to say. “Disappointment with sons has become as common as diabetes," the voiceover says at one point. “Fear and tension are poisons that, slowly consumed, have done wonders for middle-class immunity," it says in another episode.

There is a lovely line about alliteration as Aman falls for an Aditi (“Tumhara bhi Aditi ke saath anupraas-alankar ban raha hai") and later, when speaking about his future, Aman says he’ll teach yoga, later start doing astrology online, and, if he becomes popular, then start commenting on national affairs and end up as a political analyst. That seems as legitimate a way as any. The metaphors are richer now, and the Hindi is solid. “Abhimani ko sammaan, aur lobhi ko jalpaan," instructs Annu’s boss, telling the young medical representative that he must feed the ego of the narcissist and the stomach of the greedy — and never the other way around.

Bribing is an art form, of course, as is writing a love letter. Looking at it as art, however, is a luxury not frequently afforded to the middle-classes.

In earlier seasons, I have complained how Gullak episodes feature problems that are conveniently smoothened out by the end credits, but with this well-written fourth season, it feels like the problems never really go away — they are merely dusted off and kept out of sight while the family decides to smile at something else.

Gullak is about the small victories because sometimes all a father wants is a ride in a make-believe car. Sometimes all a writer needs is someone to say that the words are good. The big wins are frustratingly out of reach. In the end, soberingly, we must all listen to the piggy bank. Money talks.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Nostalgia has never been as iconic as 1980s television series Malgudi Days, based on the novel by RK Narayan. The Doordarshan series set in a Karnataka village is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and I’m pleased to report that the adventures of Swami and his friends hold up beautifully.

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