Amazon’s ‘Panchayat’ series is a lovely little triumph4 min read . Updated: 17 Apr 2020, 10:22 AM IST
‘Panchayat’ is about a city boy, played by Jitendra Kumar, who didn’t study hard enough in college and now works as a secretary to the village panchayat
The Pradhan of Phulera, a village in Uttar Pradesh, does not know the words of the national anthem. Unlike those of us habituated to school assemblies and big city movie theatres, she hasn’t had occasion to sing it—despite protocol dictating that she unfurl the national flag twice a year and sing the anthem to her people. That is just something her husband does, like all the other pradhan tasks. She may have been elected on the back of national attempts to empower women but her husband is the one who goes to office and makes the village decisions.
Even his title, however preposterous, sounds more grandiose: He is called “Pradhan-Pati", and while that literally translates to husband of the Pradhan, it sounds officiously like one who commands the Pradhan, much like the President is called the Rashtrapati.
This is a sample of the lunacy encountered by reluctant city boy Abhishek Tripathi, who didn’t study hard enough in college and now works as a secretary to the village panchayat in Phulera. This set-up sounds exotic to his friends but proves deathly dull for Tripathi himself, who swots for the CAT entrance exams at night while spending his days ferrying about ghee for village weddings and thinking up “modern" baby names for parents who would like very much to be aspirational.
Directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra and written by Chandan Kumar, Panchayat is a modest and meaningful triumph.
It is comfort viewing for the entire household, something that goes a long way in times of confinement.
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 (streaming now on Netflix). 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.
The man in question is played by Jitendra Kumar, who first shone as an earnest everyman in TVF Pitchers—a pioneering Indian web series that did well even though it pilfered plots and twists from HBO’s Silicon Valley—where he, as a young married nerd, came across as both earnest and romantic. He proved very candid in a series of YouTube videos called Tech Conversations With My Dad, memorably trying to teach an eager father how to use Twitter, while on the phone. In the recent Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, he played Ayushmann Khurrana’s mousy boyfriend. Panchayat rests entirely on his unassuming shoulders.
He’s perfect for the part. Incredulity is stamped across Kumar’s face as he encounters—and adjusts to—various quirks of village life. He goggles at nearly everything he sees, and occasionally evokes the late great Ravi Baswani with his expressions and wiry energy. Kumar makes it a point not to play Tripathi as a likeable lead, but instead an easily exasperated and under-confident young man who can’t always speak up in front of the Pradhan-Pati, and so frequently takes his frustrations out on his assistant. His first flare-up involves his name being persistently pronounced “Abhisek". The villagers get around this by assiduously calling him Sachivji, like Mr Secretary, instead.
It may be tempting to label this fetching show as a nostalgic, bucolic throwback but Panchayat moves in intriguing and unpredictable ways. It is unafraid to explore odd little tangents and has things to say about masculinity, about self-worth, about empathy and, perhaps most importantly, about first impressions..
In that, it reminds me of Parks And Recreation (also available on Amazon Prime) and its ragtag bunch of eventual do-gooders who make a difference on an extremely local level. That sunny Michael Schur show was “adapted" rather clunkily into an uninspired Indian web series called Better Life Foundation (YouTube) which essentially tried to replicate the series whole, setting it in an urban NGO. That was never the right parallel for a show about a truly local organization. A village office where the door is less sturdy than its padlock fits much better.
Panchayat may have many inspirations—there are traces of the mighty Yes Minister (Amazon) in its petty politicking—but it is very much its own show, a sharp and capable and unmistakably Indian creation.
Its Indianness also means episodes run a tad too long, going on for 30 minutes with enough story to be served up in a snappy 22. There is also a well-meaning but clumsily directed “fight scene". Still, the show’s languor is leavened by an excellent cast, led by Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav as the Pradhan and her man. There are interesting unfamiliar faces, like Faisal Malik, who plays the burly and baby-faced deputy Pradhan, and Asif Khan, a churlish tantrum-throwing bridegroom. The highlight is Chandan Roy, who plays Vikas, Tripathi’s frequently chewed-out assistant. His fresh-faced naïveté gives Panchayat its warmth.
In these eight pleasant episodes—in truly sarkaari fashion—there is very little pushing of the envelope. There is both amiability and predictability, yet even though I did see the last scene coming, it made me smile. Tripathi, by the end of his first dusty and clueless stint, knows more about the village inhabitants he needs to serve and I look forward to seeing how that informs his future actions. He may start treating those around him with respect, empathy and patience. India could do with balanced decision-making taking place right at its roots. Perhaps he will indeed make a difference. So long as the Pradhan doesn’t ask him how to tweet.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.