‘Panchayat’ 2 Revels in the Mundane Touches of Daily Life, But Takes Contrived Plot Turns

Many movies, or web series, are charming because of their endearing plots, built on a series of purposeful moments. But sometimes life delights by its very nature: random, mundane, stagnant. Capturing such rhythm requires the writer to sidestep from the focused rails of a screenplay — the real story here is that there isn’t one. Many pieces of fiction take us on a journey, but some, like the Amazon Prime Video series Panchayat, are as interested in the pit stops.

Consider this: two men on a cot, discussing chinauti (a small container for storing tobacco). Which one is better — the metallic or the plastic one? Or an early scene where a middle-aged man standing on a lorry spots an acquaintance on the road and hits him with his gamcha — just like that. Or the one where a young man rushes to attend a work-related emergency. His slippers fall off. The camera stays on him; he returns, wears them, and darts again.

Much like village life, these moments — of seeming nothingness — have vanished from the Hindi storytelling landscape. Panchayat brought them back two years ago. And its second season starts in the same spirit. Nothing has changed in Phulera, an Uttar Pradesh village. The protagonist, a young city slicker Abhishek (Jeetendra Kumar), working as the Panchayat secretary, yearns to crack the CAT exam and live a ‘better’ life. His colleagues — Pradhanji (Raghubir Yadav), the deputy Prahlad (Faisal Malik), and the office assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy) — haven’t changed, either: relaxed, funny, always eager for chat or chai.

The second season retains its superb economical storytelling. Writer Chandan Kumar drives his story via a palace of ‘mundaneness’: Prahlad and Vikas’ gossiping reveals Abhishek’s interest in Pradhan’s daughter, Rinky (Sanvika); Vikas telling Abhishek “Aapka MBA ka sapna” reinforces the central conflict in one sentence; a man, Bhushan (Durgesh Kumar), staring at a family planning slogan remembers his past humiliation, becoming a recurring character — a mini (comical) villain — in the present. The form shows the same consistency: relaxed shot compositions (mostly medium or long shots — the pressing close-ups are rare), a restrained background score, and a calm editing approach.

The first four episodes stroll — as if reluctant to move at all. But look closely, and you’ll notice their purpose: the deepening bond between Abhishek and his colleagues; the escalating tension among Abhishek, Pradhan’s family, and Bhushan; the growing confidence of Pradhan’s wife, Manju (Neena Gupta), the real Pradhan. The understated yet precise dialogues nail the mood. The charged ones don’t pop as much as the conversational fillers (I’ve heard them my entire childhood while visiting my own gaon): “haan nahin toh”, “aye maharaj”, and so on.

These episodes, pivoted on one big idea, have something else in common — a quality shared by most good fiction — sympathy for the scoundrel. It reaches its culmination in the fourth episode, where a jeep broadcasting an anti-intoxicant message is driven by a drunk driver. It starts as an off-kilter hilarious piece but slowly becomes much more sombre — and does so, as usual, with minimum fuss.

Even elsewhere, it’s evident that the writing cares for the marginalised: Abhishek gets a unique life lesson from a young woman who does local dance shows (“do you like your job … if you don’t, then you’re dancing, too”); Manju itches to retort whenever Pradhan disregards her wish to learn local politics; Pradhan’s family defends its self-respect against their potential in-laws. I started watching the second season like an ally — rooting for its success, wanting it to avoid the obvious pitfalls — for I wanted to preserve the pristine feelings associated with the first. The first four episodes? No major complaints.

And then came the ‘curse of the second half’. The fifth episode, centred on the increasing tension between Pradhan and Bhushan’s families, tries hard to find a ‘villain’ in the latter. The idea of a local rivalry, laced with humour, sounds appealing, but writer Chandan and director Deepak Mishra fill this subplot with distracting details and laboured tension. Even Rinky’s fondness for Abhishek gets a fillip through a contrived plot turn. These choices make you believe that the makers are stretching out an already loose shirt — turning something natural artificial.

The villain obsession continues in the next episode, where it bumps into a real menacing figure: a local MLA, Chandra Prakash (Pankaj Jha), who first refuses to cough up money for a road in Phulera, then abuses Abhishek. There’s nothing new to Chandra Prakash, a standard hinterland bully drunk on power, or his interactions with Pradhan and his colleagues. One of the biggest challenges of a show like Panchayat lies in making the routine novel. It had resolved that problem by going deep — by being very specific — about rural life. But these two generic episodes don’t look like lived as much as ‘imagined’ realities.

Also read: Amazon Prime’s ‘Panchayat’ Is a Unique Ode to Simplicity

The show regains its vigour, however, in the next episode, when Abhishek’s friend Siddharth (Satish Ray) — a US-returned engineer, now working in India — visits Phulera. Siddharth is a great device that helps the makers flip the relationship between the audiences and the show. Because he is the kind of man who will watch Panchayat after a long day of white-collar ‘slavery’. He tells Abhishek that he loves the ‘vibe’ of the place, gets a selfie clicked with a cow, romanticises sleeping under the open sky. But his overall experience doesn’t turn out as expected — a nice commentary on the ‘wanderlust’ crowd who struggle to differentiate between admiration and exotification.

But something else is going on here, too. At one point, Pradhan asks Siddharth’s last name. He replies he doesn’t have any. Unable to locate a person without his caste identity, Pradhan asks his father’s last name and smiles (“Gupta”). This framing implies Siddharth’s ignorance — his ‘caste blindness’ — as a progressive sign. But of course, ignorance doesn’t equal awareness. Perhaps much like the show, which hardly drops any meaningful implications about the realities governing village (or, well, any Indian) life.

If caste is absent from Panchayat, then so is the diversity of religions. Phulera looks like a (benign) majoritarian utopia: All major characters are upper-caste Hindus; temples feature prominently, and so do the Hindu festivals. Now I of course don’t expect a breezy slice-of-life show to launch into monologues from Annihilation of Caste. But a heightened awareness and rootedness — especially as it’s centred on a Panchayat office which deals with complex conflicting realities — would have made it much more pleasant.

Panchayat’s last episode is the most disappointing bit in the entire series. The show tries hard to inject some melodrama (read: gravitas!) through a shocking (but forced) plot turn. It feels even more strained because it jumps at us through a peripheral character. Quite needless, as the beauty of Panchayat lies inside, not outside of, Phulera. But even when some individual episodes don’t work, the writing still brims with attention, care, and love.

I disagreed with the last episode’s design but found it difficult to not be moved. That’s the thing about Panchayat. It may stagger and stumble, but it knows how to make you feel. Feelings tucked in some cellar of heart, feelings too ‘small’ for a big screen, feelings too personal to be shared. And when every now and then, a random passerby pops up, breaking into an exasperated “aye maharaj”, your heart jumps with joy, and it remembers how it once felt to be a blissful wanderer in your own land.

Featured image: Amazon Prime

This review was first published on The Wire.