‘Panchayat’ Review: Effortlessly Entertaining Portrait of Village Governance
The comedy-drama is chock-full of eccentric characters and there’s rarely a dull moment in the eight-episode series
★ ★ ★ ½
In Uttar Pradesh’s Phulera village, two men sit on a wooden bench outside the panchayat office. They argue over the impropriety of offering guests an odd number of pethas. “Guest ko koi teen piece mithai thodi deta hai, ya toh chaar deta hai ya do deta hai (Who offers guests only three pieces of sweets? You offer either four pieces or two,)” says sahayak (assistant) Vikas (Chandan Roy). “Bhak (Get lost,)” responds upapradhaan (deputy chief) Prahlad (Faisal Malik) while biting into the petha. Vikas pauses for a moment and then evens the number of pethas on the plate. I’m not arriving at a moral angle here. This is just one of many scenes in comedy-drama series Panchayat that mimic everyday life, particularly many a kid’s experience of feeling robbed when guests arrive.
Lucky for newly appointed panchayat sachiv (secretary) Abhishek Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar), the village is more than welcoming to the city dweller. He hasn’t even entered the office before he’s taken to the fields. Why? Oh, to search for the office’s missing key that pradhan-pati (Chief’s husband) Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghuvir Yadav) lost while answering nature’s call. Phulera has plenty of washrooms but the down-to-earth experience is unparalleled, after all. As Dubey echoes, “Aap gaye hai khet ke taraf kabhi (Have you ever been to the fields?)”
Created by TVF and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, the eight episodes of Panchayat take on unlikely issues as governance goes about its business. Whether a locked door, a haunted tree, population control or a patriarchal, petulant bridegroom, the office treats every matter with urgency. There’s not always enough action or mystery to fill the half-hour episodes, but the characters and dialogue take on a life of their own, making for five hours of engaging, effortless entertainment despite the loose plot.
The makers were not going for posturing while making this Amazon Prime Video series. Their lens is bereft of judgment as they let the village’s narrative take over. There’s a nuance to writer Chandan Kumar’s storytelling that makes the problematic commonplace without it being contentious. Caste is mentioned many a time and quite passingly, so is dowry and the pitfalls of not using birth control. There are times when you want these issues to be addressed while watching Panchayat, but this is just not that kind of show. Everything occurs at its own pace in Phulera and just as the series leisurely begins to take on women in governance towards the end of the season, perhaps the next act will see the makers explore other issues as well.
Panchayat is chock-full of eccentric characters who endear just as much as they confound and there’s never a dull moment on screen. Dubey rules in his wife Manju Devi’s (Neena Gupta) stead, the actual bonafide chief (pradhan) of Phulera. As the government reserved the seat for only women in the previous election, Devi ran on behalf of her husband. In the first episode itself, we’re waiting for the series to set up a villain but in this story, Dubey just isn’t one. There’s no force threatening the villagers or their livelihood, no outright goon ruffling feathers or toting a gun. Life just goes on in Phulera and the characters edge each other on in a manner that’s wholly unique to them.
Devi is razor-sharp and sees the obvious when nobody else does, solving most riddles before anyone has fully understood the question. But she doesn’t quite realize her power yet. When someone compliments her cooking, she retorts, “Haan, paintees saal se bana rahe hai, accha toh banega hi (I’ve been cooking for 35 years, of course I’m good at it).” Over the course of eight-episodes, we see her political ambition take small steps and begin to manifest. The great thing about Kumar’s writing here is that he treats his characters like real people and their arcs progress naturally. As someone who takes pride in her role as a homemaker, Devi doesn’t outright gun to take on the pradhan’s duties. She heckles at and edges people like Dubey and Tripathi on, who in turn return the favor. “Sahi baat ke liye awaaz toh nikalta nahi hai. Bade aayein neta banne (You can’t speak up for what is right but you want to be a politician,)” she challenges Dubey at one point who on his part, tries to engage in better governance. Gupta eclipses her every scene and if the show is renewed for a second season, hopefully we get to see more of Devi.
Yadav is mesmerizing as the powerful village chief Dubey who in reality is at the mercy of his people. In Panchayat, Dubey deals with his own insecurities as he rules the village — particularly his purview and outlook of power — and Yadav brings humorous nuance to his performance, especially as he leads the loyal panchayat pack of Prahlad, Vikas and to an extent, even Tripathi. It would be remiss to not speak of Malik as Prahlad and Roy as Vikas, who challenge the stereotype of stock sidekicks. It’s hard to imagine Panchayat without them and the actors deliver breakout performances, gently challenging even as they accept the workings of the village they were born in.
It’s hilarious to watch city-bred Tripathi respond to the villagers’ eccentricities, not so much because he thinks life to be small in Phulera but because he wants to get the hell out of there. Kumar is in his element as Tripathi, playing a recent graduate working for the sake of practical experience and he embodies the frustration of a student preparing for CAT. Tripathi is not looking to challenge or uproot — it’s his ‘gap year’ after all — he’s just looking to get by. But the villagers always have an issue that needs attending to and the sachiv rarely catches a break. If you start keeping count of Tripathi’s every eye-roll and jaw-clench, you could very well indulge yourself in a drinking game which is something Tripathi doesn’t get to do very often. A particularly heartwarming scene in the show is one where the pack bands together to drink under a tree and they capture the moment with a resounding “selfie!” making Tripathi realize that while his stay in Phulera is temporary, he is very well amongst friends.
Cinematographer Amitabha Singh captures the rusticity of Phulera, infusing every scene with the villagers’ palpable sense of warmth as the series’ many aerial shots pan over quaint lanes, wide fields and clusters of houses, showing us that in a place where everybody knows each other and their uncles, it’s a small world after all. Anurag Saikia’s score is tuned into the narrative, and harmonica medleys as well as pop sojourns play out over the eight-episodes, hitting the right notes as characters experience discovery, aspiration, nostalgia and more.
Panchayat is as simple as it is complicated but at the end of the day, it’s an honest albeit upbeat portrayal of the maladies of life, where the good often comes along with the bad and we’re hard-pressed to find a hero. The series never tries to make a point and echoes much of what Tripathi says to his friend at the outset, “Simple life chahiye yaar, nahi karna adventure (I want a simple life, forget going on an adventure.)” Doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the ride.