Review: Panchayat

I have been a Jeetu fan from his Munna Jazbaati days during the early TVF era, and it remains a perennial treat to watch him perform. With Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan, this incredible actor got a well-deserved break into mainstream Hindi cinema. Because let’s face it, his body of work online has already made him the Amitabh Bachchan of the web series Universe. And even though recommending his shows is akin to recommending an Amitabh Bachchan movie at this point, imma give it a go.

Panchayat is the story of Abhishek Tripathi, an average graduate from an average college who, in dearth of fancy corporate job offers, is forced to accept the one job offer he has – a sarkari naukri. He reports for duty as the Panchayat Secretary (Gram Sachiv) at a government office in rural UP. Phulera is a Gram Panchayat in a block poetically named Fakauli. 

With my decade long experience of working in and with the government, I can vouch that everything in Gram Panchayat Phulera, Vikas Khand Fakauli, Zila Ballia is as UP as it comes. And so, the new Sachivji is received at his new office-cum-residential quarters by a grand welcoming party of two, who eat half his welcome snacks as they wait for him. The third member has lost the office keys while on a “morning walk” in the fields, doing something that has been my career goal to eradicate from rural India for the last four years. Oh well, shit happens. And this sets the tone for Tripathi’s stint with his new job.

The thing that sets Panchayat apart from any other city-dweller-in-rural-India movie or show I have ever seen is that even though his best friend makes repeated references to Swades when trying to cheer him up about his new job, Tripathi is no Mohan Bhargav. He has no interest in bringing about a revolution in rural India. In fact, he is the opposite of a driven idealistic leader of the masses. He dreams not of bringing hydel power to the village, but of spending Friday night drinking with his buddies back in the city. The point is well made when he is offered solar lights by the government, and quickly begins planning machinations to get it installed outside his own room, so he can prepare for CAT and get the hell out of Phulera. So expect no heart-wrenching visuals here of a toothless old woman, watching a bulb lightup for the first time in her life, crying, “Bijalli“.

Nor are the villagers here wide-eyed does, waiting for some sheheri babu to lead them by the hand towards a better tomorrow. Instead what Panchayat gives you are the real people of a real Indian village. They are corrupt and superstitious and casteist and sexist. At the same time, they are kind and caring and generous and giving. Brother will fight brother over a small piece of land for decades. At the same time, a professional rival will also take a home-cooked meal for another, because he just can’t sleep knowing the latter is on an empty stomach. Make what you will of it, but this truly is “real India” – the people are neither savages nor saints, and the truth is always somewhere in the murky middle. 

You watch Tripathi grow as a human being over the episodes as he moves from battling one bastion to another – from the welcome of a locked office door, to facing daily power cuts, to fighting local ruffians, to solving office theft mysteries, to understanding the disempowerement of women office holders, to dealing with his own loneliness and hopelessness.

Without any outward agenda to make any sort of social commentary, Panchayat still manages to warm your heart, deliver a laugh, and make you think – all at the same time. With supporting cast members of the caliber of Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta, no less, and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra (another beloved TVF talent) this is as close to a perfectly made show as I have ever seen. 

The show may not have an agenda, but I do. So allow me to add this vishesh tippani on a related note: There are no easy answers to the developmental challenge that is India, and there are very good reasons why our country is where it is. And while noone can possibly change things overnight (at least not for the better),  we should all take heart in knowing that when good people do their jobs well, and make small differences in their own limited domains, it matters.

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