Jitendra Kumar: ‘Apna 100 Percent Do aur Reality Check Lete Raho’
The viral superstar discusses his new show ‘Panchayat,’ playing an engineering graduate (again) and how creators can best leverage the digital platform
“Chalo theek hai, aath saal lage magar theek hai (It took me eight years, but it’s okay,)” says actor Jitendra Kumar about his journey from web to film and back. The actor who got his start through entertainment platform The Viral Fever’s (TVF) YouTube channel in 2012, is perhaps best known for his roles as startup co-founder Jitendra Maheshwari from Pitchers (2015), JEE teacher Jeetu bhaiyya from Kota Factory (2019) and as closeted, small-town lover Aman Tripathi from Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020). It’s safe to say that Kumar has learned a thing or two about portraying frustration — he’s famous for his simmering anger and on-point jaw clenches — which is why playing secretary Abhishek Tripathi in comedy-drama series Panchayat was a no-brainer.
“Ek ladke ko achaanak se aisi jagah jaana pade jahan pe woh interested nahi hai — basically, ek engineering ladka jiski job nahi lag rahi hai (A boy who has to suddenly pack up and leave for a place he has no interest in — basically, an engineering graduate who can’t land a job,)” laughs Kumar, recalling how he’s been in the same situation several times over in previous roles and as an IIT graduate himself. In the Amazon Prime Video series Panchayat, his character takes on the job of a secretary at the village council during a gap year, diving head-first into village governance after living a life of hustle and bustle in the city. What drew him to a role that echoed his previous performances? Well, it all boiled down to how much fun he could have with a compelling script and an all-new setup. Panchayat brought all this and more.
The comedy-drama series was shot in Bhopal’s Mahodiya village over a three-month schedule. Apart from the learnings Kumar could incur from interacting with the villagers during filming, what excited him most about the project was nostalgia. Panchayat reminded him of the Nineties when shows like Malgudi Days and Circus aired on Doordarshan and storytellers used characters’ roots to tell their stories. Acting in Panchayat also helped him debunk his own prejudices and preconceptions, which was an added bonus.
“The basic thought ki ‘panchayat ped ke neeche paanch panch baithe hai’ woh nahi hoti (The basic thought that ‘a panchayat consists of five officials sitting under a tree,’ it’s not that,)” says Kumar who liked that TVF, the creators of the show, tried to portray things authentically. From the office to the computer set-up to the wooden bench outside, everything was as close to reality as possible because the series was shot in Mahodiya’s panchayat office itself — after operational hours. “Main excited hua kyunki gaon aur government ke baare mein mujhe bahut kuch jaane mila (The series excited me because I could learn so much about village life and village governance,)” says Kumar. The actor gained some hands-on experience by observing Madhodiya’s pradhan (village chief) and sachiv (secretary), even sitting in on panchayat meetings while he prepared to play Abhishek Tripathi.
Shooting in the village also meant the writing was always undergoing improvisation and that the team had plenty of notes to exchange and go over after a hard day’s work, especially as the crew was all from Mumbai. “Hum humaare experience bahut discuss karte the aur script ke saath compare karte the ki, ‘Arrey, yeh cheez toh aaj exactly hui.’ Jaise ek urban bande aur ek gaon ke aadmi mein understanding aur misunderstanding ka jo fun hai, uska joh humor hai… woh sab nikal ke aane lag gayi humaari script mein (We used to discuss our experiences and compare them to the script, often thinking, ‘Oh, this exact instance happened today.’ Things like misunderstandings between a man from the city and a man from a village, the humor and fun of it… all started making it into the script,)” says Kumar.
While he loved the advantage of filming in a real location, Kumar reveals that things weren’t always so dandy on set with temperatures soaring up to 47°C during the day. He recalls not always being able to speak his lines well (due to sweat!) and how the gaffer or the “light wala” got dead tired in the sun. Execution was a hustle but the team pulled it off. “Lekin wo bhi journey ka part hota hai (But this too is a part of the journey,)” says Kumar, adding, “Gaon wale bade acche the aur har din bahut fun tha. Teen mahine ke liye sab tanned ho gaye, sab ko gaon ka bukhaar chad gaya (The villagers were very kind and every day was fun. Over three months, everyone developed a tan and enjoyed life in the village.)”
The actor, who first experienced what it’s like to go viral on the internet after playing intern Munna Jazbaati in a TVF video, has since experimented across mediums, from YouTube to streaming to film. His advice to creators is to find which platform works for them and just go for it. “Apna 100 percent do aur reality check lete rahe ho (Give your all and keep taking a reality check,)” he says, underlining the importance of feedback (read all suggestions and focus on the constructive ones), especially when creating online content.
Drawing a comparison between traditional cinema and digital content platforms, Kumar thinks that the experimentation that’s put on hold in cinema — on account of big budgets and little room for risk — can be given free rein in the webspace. “Bahut zyada masala point of view se sochne ki zaroorat nahi hai (There’s no need to think from a point of view of all-out drama,)” says the actor, encouraging creators to tell new, untold stories. His biggest learning over the years? “Pehle kaam shuru karna padega aur woh bahut aasan hai. Apne aap tumhaara rasta ban jayega (First, start working — that’s the easiest thing in the world. The way ahead will automatically appear,)” he says.