Panchayat web series review: A pleasant update on an old premise
Jitendra Kumar’s show paints a simple picture of provincial India
In English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seminal 1988 novel, Agastya, a city boy, takes up an administrative post in the sticks. It’s way out of his comfort zone, and he confesses his fear in the opening pages of the book. To make matters worse, his best friend comes up with a pointed query: “What will you do about sex and marijuana?”
Cast: Jitendra Kumar, Neena Gupta, Raghubir Yadav
Director: Deepak Kumar Mishra
Women and intoxicants are the last things on the mind of Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar), the protagonist of Panchayat, an 8-part series created by TVF and streaming on Amazon Prime. An engineering graduate from a make-do college, Abhishek finds his prospects unfairly limited: a low-paying position in the panchayat office of Phulera, a village in Uttar Pradesh. As such, the motivational speech he gets from his friend is understandably chirpy: “You’ll get to be like Mohan Bhargav… see the real India.”
What Abhishek sees upon arrival is administrative fraud. Brij Bhushan (Raghuvir Yadav) is the de facto chief of Phulera. His wife, Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), is the actual Pradhan, but does not execute duties. It’s a strikingly common practice, but Abhishek doesn’t report matters to higher-ups. Instead, he splits his time as panchayat secretary to prepare for his MBA exams — his only ticket out of this rural dump. That proves a little difficult, with the electricity going off each night and petty conflicts weighing on his urban wit.
Though the show progresses quickly, with a new distraction emerging every episode, Abhishek stays focused on his goal. He’s least bothered about Phulera and its going-ons. All he wants to do is study, bid his time and clear out. Jitendra’s reluctance and perpetual frustration is far removed from Rajkummar Rao’s urgent righteousness in Newton. He’s also wholly corruptible — moving to install solar panels so that he can study at night. Writer Chandan Kumar and director Deepak Kumar Mishra steer clear of obvious heroisms. When Abhishek gets into a scuffle and his ego swells, the scene quickly turns to slapstick.
India’s rural-urban divide isn’t a new theme. On the web, recent offerings like Lakhon Mein Ek Season 2, Jamtara, and Upstarts have varyingly explored this flux. Panchayat, however, stands out in its delicate unraveling of provincial life. Phulera, for all its problems, isn’t quite the landscape of crime and institutional apathy we’ve seen. If anything, it’s brimming with activity, kindness and colour. A simple query about milk is responded to with a roster of cattle to choose from. At one point, Abhishek chides his second-in-command for being superstitious. “Even Americans believe in science,” his aide replies. “Doesn’t stop them from making horror movies.”
Phulera’s self-reliance helps Abhishek find his own. It plays out in unexpected ways: a verbal standoff with a groom, a tiff over a family-planning drive. There are neat touches: Raghuvir Yadav looking at a picture of Sardar Patel before taking a strong-willed call. Neena Gupta’s homebound matriarch is a fun character, sharper and wittier than her husband. The show, however, keeps her benched till the end, which makes narrative sense but does not justify the talent at hand.
When Abhishek enters his new workplace for the first time, he is greeted by the words: “Thokar lagti hai toh dard hota hai, tabhi manusya seekh pata hai.” Life’s greatest lessons are learnt through pain. It takes him an entire year to fully grasp its message. Till then, the words remain just a taunt.