The first thing I did was to Google ‘Fakauli’, the main market place of the village of Phulera. Not surprisingly, I got fakaul results. That pun, designed not just to draw chuckles, but to encapsulate a city-dweller’s frustration at having to live in the boondocks, dawns upon you as Abhishek Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) lands up in said countryside as secretary of and in Panchayat (Village Council). Tripathi’s come there not breathe in the air or to reinvigorate his soul, but as an exigent recourse to beat the exiguous job options he’s had thus far. Egged on by his friend-cum-philosopher, Prateek (Biswapati Sarkar), to give his best in a measly paying job, Tripathi takes his advice — and the gifted striped shirt — with a pinch of hurt and salt; after all, it’s all very well to be dispensing gems of wisdom when your tax deductions equal Tripathi’s monthly salary.
Written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra (also cameoing as an electrician in one of the episodes), Panchayat is a gentle, breezy look at life in a village with the panchayat office at its heart. Arriving at Phulera, Tripathi discovers its secret hidden in plain sight — the elected panchayat pradhan (head) is Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), but running the show is her husband, pradhan-pati (hubby of the head) Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghubir Yadav); a real-life metric of the suffix that carries more weight than the title itself. But this is, much like the series, genial connivance of sorts. The balance of power in the couple’s home is constantly calibrated, with the husband’s bluster blunted by his wife’s swift repartees. Plus of course, it’s an arrangement that both find convenient for most of the series. There’s a daughter in the house too, but director Kumar doesn’t quite reveal Rinky to you, even if there’s plotlines involving her. Adding to this bonhomie are the deputy pradhan Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik) and the panchayat office assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy). The characters are real, if not simple, and when not solving a robbery, their ambitions and power struggles are limited to life’s props around them — to the installation of banners and solar lights in the village, and ergonomic-chair-with-wheels envy. It is this focus on seemingly trivial issues that works for Panchayat and us. There’s no evil conspiracy or vitiating forces at work. And no virus. (Although there’s a stretched out reference to the human anatomy where the sun don’t shine that strikes a dissonant note in the proceedings.)
If there ever was to be a serial that set the masterful Yes Minister series to a rural Indian milieu, it is Panchayat. On second thoughts, that comparison may be specious, for none of the latter’s characters display the vicious struggle for power and survival or bask in the glory of others’ misery that the British cabinet ministers’ characters do. Panchayat is a gentler, lovable version of the English dry and vitriolic run. But tugs-of-war and push-and-shove there are, and with Tripathi struggling to study for his upcoming CAT exams, there’s schadenfreude delight to be had for all those who pored over insufferable books only to discover during the exams that the human mind can be a wonderful sieve. (Case in point: yours truly.)
What makes Panchayat an ambling delight is also its cast. As the deputy pradhan, Faisal Malik is wonderful: a bear of a man, his act is a know-all one, one step behind his chief, but child-like ambitions running through his sly smile. Chandan Roy as Vikas, the office assistant, is a delight to watch, as is his superbly written character. Irresistibly likable, Roy turns in an act of empathy that warms your heart in a blink. As the introverted, simmering in frustration Tripathi, Jitendra Kumar is superb; as a lot of impetuous introverts do, his bluster in one scene is but the opening of a fizzy drink can; when it’s time to pour it out and make some mean moves, his anger’s turned to gaseous sputter, and all that’s left is tongue-tied helplessness. Neena Gupta shines through, despite the series dominated by the men around the panchayat office. The actor uses her cool eyes and act to slice bottle gourd with the same efficiency that she uses to solve WhatsApp quizzes or clear pathways of nagging troubles elsewhere. And finally, there’s Raghubir Yadav who shuffles through the series so masterfully, there’s not a scene where it seems as if he’s in an act. Natural, understated, delivering dialogues with warmth, he’s classic. You can see his character taking in the situation, evaluating, scrutinizing, and yet distantly inscrutable.
Panchayat‘s half-hour episodes may not zip around to deliver twists and mega thrills, but in these disquieting times, it’s a soothing salve. Much like its title music (Anurag Saikia) that soars beautifully when the credits appear for the executive producer (Sameer Saxena), you do too. And even if seemingly there’s not much happening, all you have to do is look carefully at its main characters. Not unlike us, there’s lots playing on their minds.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Panchayat is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). There’s some abusive language.
Director Deepak Kumar Mishra Time ~ 35min
Writer Chandan Kumar
Stars Jitendra Kumar, Raghubir Yadav, Neena Gupta, Chandan Roy, Faisal Malik
Genres Comedy, Drama