In the opening episode of Hotstar’s recently released dramedy Ghar Waapsi, we see our recently laid-off 28-year-old protagonist, Shekhar Dwivedi, talking to a friend (and fellow IT professional) who’s in Bangalore. Shekhar, meanwhile, has trooped back to his hometown Indore, keeping the fact of his unemployment a secret from his parents, siblings and friends (not to mention the kids and teachers at his old engineering coaching classes, who revere him). His friend wants Shekhar to take up a slightly lower-paying job for the time being, pointing out that every workplace has issues. “In one place, there will be low salary, in another there will be no work-life balance. A third place will have a boss who has been named in a MeToo scandal. Every office has problems but you have to work somewhere, right?”
This is an insightful and bittersweet line that a cross-section of yuppies across India will relate to. It’s a pity, then, that Ghar Waapsi doesn’t really apply these same critical faculties to its major setting, Indore. What begins as a promising, timely story about the economic anxieties currently sweeping the country devolves into tawdry wish fulfilment. Shekhar “solves” his family’s failing, stone-age travel agency, convinces his controlling mother to be more liberal with all her children, shares a cigarette with his dad and mends fences with childhood friends.
In short, he crafts a wholesome existence from scratch in his hometown, a much better life than he ever could manage in Bangalore. And all this happens at warp speed in the last two episodes.
Ghar Waapsi represents a trend that has become prominent over the last couple of years—Indian streaming shows romanticising (in some cases, stopping just short of fetishising) the hero’s “homecoming” to small towns or villages, with all the wrinkles of big-city life magically ironed out by a simple “ghar wapsi”. The commonly acknowledged limitations of small-town life—casteism, sexism and other, milder expressions of social conservatism—are either downplayed or “solved” with classic “white knight” story arcs.
The “white knight” trope comes out in full force in another show with the phrase ghar wapsi in the name (itself a very bad idea, given that this phrase was coined by right-wing vigilante groups). This is SonyLIV’s Nirmal Pathak Ki Ghar Wapsi, released earlier this year. Here, the titular protagonist, a Delhi-based writer, returns to his native Bihar village a full 24 years after his father had left acrimoniously, with his son in tow. Without much prompting, Nirmal immediately falls head over heels in love with the Bhojpuri cadences and pastoral life on display.
Across five episodes, our upper-caste (Brahmin) protagonist manages to “solve” casteism in the village, among other things. The show relentlessly positions him as a deus ex machina messiah without a shred of self-awareness, complete with heroic music and dollops of insufferably self-righteous dialogue.
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Recently, we saw a slightly different kind of saviour narrative in the Voot Select show Jholachhap; a young, female doctor starts working in a village so remote that it’s fully dependent on quacks who have been plying people with steroids that offer temporary relief.
It’s worth remembering that these shows are trying to capture a market that was first opened up by the popular Amazon Prime series Panchayat. The story of a young engineering graduate who takes up a job as a panchayat secretary in a remote Uttar Pradesh village, Panchayat is a very enjoyable comedy on the whole, with outstanding performances. But even the show’s most ardent fans will admit it often ends up normalising the (bigoted) status quo found in rural India.
In its second season, an episode on open defecation features a character called Binod—never outright introduced as lower-caste, but the veneer is quite thin. Binod is depicted as weak-minded, easily manipulated by politically canny axe-grinders and prone to, well, shitting all over a given situation. He wants to get the village’s ODF (open defecation-free) status reversed because he was promised a toilet at his home by the panchayat’s pradhan-by-proxy (Raghubir Yadav’s Brahmin character, Brij Bhushan Dubey), a promise that was not kept.
The episode ends with his family and him using the pradhan’s toilet, much to Dubey’s discomfort. The show’s noble, well-meaning characters are all Brahmins (like Prajesh Mishra, the sweet-natured bus conductor), while the buffoonish or misbehaving characters are all Dalits or OBCs (Sanjay Yadav the jokey cop, Balram Yadav the perennially drunk driver who, ironically, is in charge of spreading the anti-alcohol message).
The makers of these shows would do well to pick better role models while depicting small-town and/or rural India. Somebody like the author Tanuj Solanki, whose short story collection Diwali In Muzaffarnagar has several excellent stories set in the titular Uttar Pradesh town. It doesn’t look at either of the two Indias with rose-tinted glasses, which is something more Indian creators ought to keep in mind.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.