The opening sequence of Amazon Prime’s Panchayat takes you on a ride through rural India, aboard a rickety bus, and that’s where the show had me. If you have ever travelled by a roadways bus, you’ll know what I am talking about. The deafening and unending shudder of the windowpanes, those steel handlebars that let your arm also serve as a head rest. The smell of that grimy rexine seat covered in sweat and dust. While Panchayat is not a perfect show, it is these little details that it gets right, and if you have ever lived in a village in the Hindi speaking belt, you’ll enjoy watching it just for the nostalgia. Even if you haven’t Panchayat has that simplistic bittersweet tone to it, that the entertainment industry left back in the 90s. It is like watching a Doordarshan show in HD.
What is it about?
Panchayat is about a fresh college graduate Abhishek Tripathi (Jeetendra Kumar) who fails to get a placement and thus takes up a job as a Panchayat Sachiv at gram (village) Phulera in UP. Apart from being stuck with a low paying job (his income is as much as what his well-earning friend would be paying out in tax, as Abhishek points out) he has to live in a tiny room in the Panchayat office all by himself. Oh and the village has a four to five hour-long power cut every night, and everyone goes to sleep at 7:30.
Panchayat has that simplistic bittersweet tone to it, that the entertainment industry left back in the 90s. It is like watching a Doordarshan show in HD.
Tripathi has to work with pradhan pati (husband of the gram pradhan) Brij Bhushan Dubey who runs the show as his wife Manjudevi (Neena Gupta) holds the post only on paper, a common practice in many areas where seats are reserved for women, as we realise later in the series. Tripathi decides to prepare for CAT, for better prospects, while having to deal with day-to-day problems at the village, that suck him up, and that forms the crux of the story.
What works and what doesn’t
The show is full of sharp observations about village life. Homes with large courtyards and chunky iron doors, hole in the wall grocery shops, the “jo tera hai wo mera” attitude of villagers, where everyone feels almost entitled to your possessions and help, and offers the same in return with no questions asked. Within hours of arriving in the village, Tripathi is casually asked to loan his bike to his subordinate and his hesitation goes completely unnoticed because that is something these people aren’t used to. It is as if the gram sachiv is taken into the folds by the village as “one of our own” the minute he arrives.
When Abhishek has a meltdown because he feels lonely in the village, the reason he drinks a couple of beers in one episode, that leads to the theft of the only computer monitor from the office, his colleagues come around at night to party with him. His subordinate borrows chai patti from his room without asking him, when they run out of their office stash. All this does begin to seem a bit staged on some occasions.
Secondly, the show is very well cast. You have seasoned actors like Neena Gupta and Raghuvir Yadav, but it is Chandan Roy as the office boy Vikas, completely devoted to the gram sachiv, that deserves applause, for holding his ground amidst such stalwarts. The usually dependable Kumar, on the other hand, disappoints a little. While Abhishek may have been designed to be grumpy, Kumar’s frowns and sighs become a little tiring after a while and you fail to empathise with the character.
The case of missing women
One thing that struck me as odd at first about Panchayat was how women are missing from the narrative in the show. Despite having a meaty role, Gupta exists on the periphery. Could this be intentional, to emphasise on the patriarchal hierarchy in rural India, that is prevalent across homes, offices and even bureaucracy? The most powerful person in the show’s premise, a District Magistrate, is a woman. And yet we only see her being referred to in the third person throughout. The same goes for Manjudevi who has no interest in village politics and is content reigning over her house, where she gets her way with her husband. The couple’s daughter is deliberately kept hidden from the sachiv, since she is of marriageable age and he is a single young man.
It is only in the last few minutes of the season finale that women burst into the show, indicating that their absence could indeed be by design. One would have to watch the second season to know better though.
Is Panchayat a flawless show? Nope, but it is a good watch that may seem straightforward on the surface, but has multiple layers to it.
Image Credit: YouTube screenshot
The views expressed are the author’s own.