One of the primary declarations by Nobel Prize winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their 2011 book Poor Economics — which empathically sheds light on the way the poor really spend money as opposed to the way the wealthy imagine the poor should be spending money — is that people spend beyond their means in order to feel better about themselves. Instead of saving each rupee for a rainier day, they regularly spend some on luxuries: movie tickets, alcohol, new clothes. They spend it on hope, as do we all.
This is illustrated beautifully in the first episode of the unassuming SonyLiv series, Gullak, an exploration of India’s expansive, all-containing middle-class. The show is about the decidedly unspectacular Mishra family, and in the first episode (named after bland food) the family decides their weatherbeaten home needs to be renovated, largely to keep up with the neighbours. When they finally calculate a budget, it becomes clear that the upgrade is beyond them. At this point, the deflated husband looks at the worn-out wife and conjures up a plan for cheer: he asks the son to go get ice-cream for everyone.
The series is built on these victories, triumphs both tiny and monumental. They are the wins that keep us going, chronicled by the earthen piggy bank, the gullak of the title, who also acts as a radio-style narrator of the show. The show is set less in a city than in a neighbourhood: the actual city is never mentioned, and the geography matters little. This really could be inside any nondescript North Indian mohalla. The first season, written by Nikhil Vijay Motghare and directed by Amrit Raj Gupta, rarely even leaves the house, its arguments primarily spilling from courtyard to kitchen, from bathroom to bedroom.
Gullak feels as if you took the camera in a Dibakar Banerjee film and turned it away from the protagonists and toward the bit players in the background. The Mishras are led by the long-suffering and endlessly griping Shanti (Geetanjali Kulkarni), her husband who works in the electricity department Santosh (Jameel Khan), their elder son Annu (Vaibhav Raj Gupta) studying for an exam that will enable him to get a government job, and younger son Aman (Harsh Mayar) who needs lessons in life and laundry.
The performances are exceptional. Kulkarni is so natural as the voluble mother that it may actually be hard to notice just how much she pitches perfectly right, from the sighs to the glares, to the scorn she generously heaps onto the men she cares for and cleans up after. A standout performance comes from Gupta as the elder son, a strapping young man boxed in by mediocrity and expectations: he feels compelled to emerge as the dashing saviour for the family — principally because he’s the right age — but he is an underachiever, and sometimes intent is not enough. As his father says, those with a Mohnish Behl face shouldn’t go around trying to be Salman Khan.
That father is the simplest character, and Khan plays him with natural warmth: a temperate man who spends most of his screen-time reacting to his excessive family, and the rest watching Ravish Kumar broadcast the news. He demonstrates the show’s political allegiance: Santosh is an honest government employee, too timid to be corrupt, and not only an admirer of the only TV journalist beyond reproach, but one who feels our prime minister is more a fielder and less a batsman.
The second season of Gullak, written by Durgesh Singh and directed by Palash Vaswani, comprises five episodes longer than the first season’s five, and at first this length makes the show feel immediately overdone. Then, after an episode about ego and marriage invitations ends on a bittersweet note — one where nobody wins — the evolution of the series becomes more apparent. Gullak has gone from a breezy slice of life comedy to a sentimental series showing members of a family rally around each other. The show started out like a Wagle Ki Duniya for the times of PUBG, but in giving us loveable characters to laugh at and then making us weep with them, it’s cribbing from the Schitt’s Creek playbook. The last episode left me wet-eyed.
It is heartening to see the younger son Aman, played irresistibly by Harsh Mayar, grow up. Not only does this easily tempted boy eventually learn to bring home the groceries, but even starts to contribute to the gullak within the house. There is more to those around us than meets even our own eye. “Khaali hoon, bekaar nahin” growls Annu, drawing a line between being unemployed and being useless, and his friend shows up later in a t-shirt that says “Desi hoon Gawaar nahin,” emphasising that sons of the soil can also be smart.
I do however wish that Gullak, having won its audience over, would now step out of familiarity and move in progressive, bolder directions: neither brother has mentioned a girl of interest, for instance, so is there something to be inferred from the gossip-loving Annu and his best friend Lucky? Or does the father avoid right-wing colleagues and has that affected his career? Characters who feel this real deserve substantial complications.
The show is built on cannily observed details. The mother powers on through every ailment, reliant solely on pain balm and paracetamol. One brother knows his lessons while the other, not as good at studies, can make diagrams very neatly. This I can attest to personally: back in school exams we had a classmate who would draw diagrams for a bunch of us and then cherrypick his answers from all our answer sheets.
I haven’t thought about that fellow for years, and there is the power of Gullak. This authentic and lived-in series strikes excessively relatable chords, chords that immediately take us back in time and bring back our own familial bickering and celebrations and Sunday afternoons. The forever-quoted slips of tongue, the nicknames and in-jokes, the arguments that become more impassioned each time they’re recounted all over again to the same audience. Families are a lot. Thank god for ice-cream.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.