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‘Panchayat’ Season 3 review: Not a comedy anymore

The people behind ‘Panchayat’ have created an unlikely, innocent, otherworldly idyll—and are finding it hard to move ahead

Raja Sen
First Published29 May 2024
A still from 'Panchayat'
A still from ’Panchayat’

The first few episodes of the new season of Panchayat (Amazon Prime) are so dull that I was forced to cut my viewing with episodes of the significantly entertaining Maamla Legal Hai (Netflix), alternating between the navel-gazing of an old comedy and the snappy insights of a new one. The beloved Panchayat, ever since it first delighted us four years ago, has steadily lost impetus, and the new third season, out this week, makes one thing absolutely clear: Panchayat is not a comedy anymore.

Written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, the first season — about MBA-aspirant Abhishek Tripathi taking a secretarial post in a village panchayat — felt refreshingly unhurried. “Tripathi’s consternation can be traced to IAS youngster Agastya Sen’s wide-eyed befuddlement in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s fiendishly clever 1988 novel, English, August, and the show is quick to credit their hero’s start-at-grass-roots story to Shah Rukh Khan’s struggles in Swades,” I wrote back then, during the pandemic. “Yet Tripathi is too unschooled for Sen’s weary cynicism and nowhere near as worldly as Khan’s Nasa-returned scientist. Here is, simply, an underachieving young man who would like to do better but has no idea how. This may be more Newton than Swades.”

Also read: Amazon’s ‘Panchayat’ series is a lovely little triumph

That first season, slow as an old ceiling fan, had a lot to say — about masculinity, self-worth, empathy, and, perhaps most importantly, about first impressions. Panchayatalso marked a wholesome change from most streaming shows. The cast was super right from the start: Jitendra Kumar as city boy Tripathi, Neena Gupta as the village Pradhan, Raghubir Yadav as her officious husband the “Pradhan-pati,” Faisal Malik as his deputy Prahlad, and Chandan Roy as Tripathi’s naive assistant. This was a gang worth loving.

A couple of years later, the gang was misbehaving. “This season we see them throwing their weight around,” I’d written in 2022. “There is a local rabble-rouser they do not like, an acerbic critic who calls them out for collusion and self-serving, and the truth of the matter is that he makes a valid point. They are breaking and bending the rules to suit their needs, and when challenged, they respond by outnumbering and threatening the man, deleting on-camera evidence of their own wrongdoings, and — repeatedly — hitting the complainant’s wife with slippers. They act as bullies.”

This sets up a fascinating storytelling conflict, that of the good guys turning increasingly bad. Was Panchayat going to comment on the nature of power itself, and how a little power can corrupt even more insidiously than absolute power?

No such luck. The second season closed out with melodrama, as Prahlad lost his son, a soldier to war, and gloom descended on the village. In season three, Prahlad remains shattered and the show itself struggles to cope. With the energy of a power-cut, we see the villagers go through the motions repetitively, without noticeable conflict. Everyone is treading water. In the first three episodes, Jitendra Kumar has nothing to do, and Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta feel as wasted. The show doesn’t seem to know where its players are headed.

ALSO READ: Panchayat Season 3 Goes Fiscal! 3 hidden money lessons to learn from the series

What of the way they had turned into bullies? Panchayat’s answer to this misbehaviour is — unfortunately — the laziest. The show creates a greater bully, an out and out villain, a local politician jailed for killing (and allegedly eating) a neighbour’s dog. This monstrous fellow becomes someone we can all root against, allowing us conveniently to keep cheering on our protagonists, even when they are using a Prime Ministerial housing scheme to play vote-bank politics. They’re still the good guys, the show assures us.

After the evil politician (played amusingly by Pankaj Jha) enters the fray midway through the season, the energy changes. There is a smart “go Corona go” parody with a pigeon, and some egotistical horsing around. The existing characters find purpose because of raised stakes — any stakes. Malik is both weary and wise, Roy is guileless as ever, while Gupta and Yadav extract some magic from their moments: when she comes up with a good idea, his retort is that she’s been eating lots of almonds, while she looks at him messily drinking milk and calls him “Gama Pahalwan.”

This is the lived-in bit of Panchayat we fell in love with. The details, the language, the texture. It is, of course, a naive world — one where there are no Muslim characters in sight, and where elected politicians actually worry about what is being said about them on social media — yet it had a time-travelling sort of charm. Now that is wearing thin.

Let us look, finally, at Abhishek Tripathi, who is still stuck. He loves the villagers who have stopped him from being transferred out of the village, but keeps snapping at them. He calls out their political unfairness, yet also enables it — as per convenience. When a girl thinks about preparing for an MBA, he’s immediately skeptical. This may be because while he studies as much as he can, he continues to appear underprepared. Is there actual intent? Does he want to move on? The people behind Panchayat have created an unlikely, innocent, otherworldly idyll — and are finding it hard to move ahead, for fear of disturbing their own snow-globe. This show’s problem is the same as its protagonist. There isn’t enough ambition.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

In the mood to watch a professional stuck in a strange environment? Australian comedy series Fisk (Netflix) follows that familiar Panchayat template to place a smart lawyer in an un-smart world. It’s sarcastic, it’s witty and — with Kitty Flanagan as a great lead — it’s a blast.

Also read: Review: Panchayat season 2 takes a big swing but pulls its punches

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