The one footing the bill calls the shots. This is illustrated vividly — and mercilessly — in the new season of Gullak, where the elder son of the household, realising his new paycheque will be put toward more pressing expenses than the branded sneakers he has long coveted, has taken his younger brother to the barbershop. Older brother Annu lords over the scene, unimpressed by young Aman’s plans of burgundy highlights. Like an aesthetically unbothered client ordering an advertising agency to simply make the logo even larger, the big brother knows he holds the cards. “Katora-cut,” announces Annu, and Aman’s dreams of style are snipped.
I have written before about my fondness for Gullak, a modest series on SonyLiv that serves up warm and relatable slices of middle-class life. Like all family stories, it is equal parts comedy and drama. Narrated by an earthen piggy-bank that collects more anecdotes than banknotes, the series is about the unglamorous and immediately recognisable Mishra family.
Written by Durgesh Singh and directed by Palash Vaswani, the five episodes of Gullak make for an ideal one-evening binge. Mother of the house Shanti describes husband Santosh’s ideal day as one where he comes back from work, watches Ravish Kumar (widely considered the most honest of news anchors) on TV, eats home-cooked chicken and then gets mildly drunk while listening to Begum Akhtar… not that Shanti knows or cares who the singer is. If some evening Santosh turned on Gullak instead, he would have much the same reaction as most of us: he’d spot his family in the one on screen.
The first season was harmless fun, the second got sharper and more sentimental, and in the new third season, a certain bleakness appears to have crept in.
This is why government employee Santosh Mishra’s sons refer to his honesty as ‘charas,’ a drug that does no good in a workplace where people negotiate bribes while sitting under signs saying “No corruption please.” On the other hand Annu, now working as a medical representative, is desperately and blatantly offering inducements to doctors in order to get certain medicines stocked. Younger son Aman who surprised the household (and indeed the neighbourhood) by topping his school exams is suddenly expected to study Science — which has nothing to do with what he wants.
The ensemble is smashing. Jameel Khan plays Santosh both as a proud man and a deflated one: he enjoys puffing his chest but, as he gets older, is becoming aware that his sons may be outgrowing his boasts. Harsh Mayar is rather wonderful as the slack-jawed younger son who daydreams about studying the Arts… and about butterflies.
Meanwhile, Geetanjali Kulkarni’s eternally compromising — and eternally hard-to-placate — Shanti lives the thankless life of the middle-class mother, her truest joy lying in reminding her family of the aforementioned thanklessness. One significant grouse I have with Gullak this time around is that while all the men in the family have significant season-long struggles to deal with, Shanti gets no such narrative arc. She doesn’t go on a journey as much as she cleans up after all her journeymen, and that is disappointing — particularly given that Kulkarni is a staggeringly gifted actor.
While the show used to be primarily about the struggles of Santosh and Shanti, Vaibhav Raj Gupta’s Annu — the elder son coming of responsibility-bearing age — is the de facto leading man this season. He’s the one eager to shoulder the family’s needs, to watch over the parents and to shepherd his brother. Gupta plays Annu as an unformed young man, as confused as he is eager to contribute: he knows he must step up even if he doesn’t know which way to face. He remains bewildered, for instance, about the fact that he has never dreamt of butterflies.
Set in an unnamed North Indian city where Raag Malhar is but the name of a mushroom dish on a fancy menu, Gullak is all about acute observations. “What is a novelist?”, asks the mother, a bookish word for that profession believably out of her ambit, and the elder son’s deadpan answer is priceless: “Inauspicious.” Another episode draws finely distinctive lines between ‘suspension’ and ‘dismissal,’ elaborating on the way gossip works, and how easily misery is turned into a sarvjanik halwa — something for the entire neighbourhood to feast on.
While this season of Gullak brings up genuinely prickly problems for each of the characters, it also displays a great hurry to resolve them neatly, with most of the answers coming too conveniently and wishfully. This is only half a complaint, because the series gets us so invested in the characters and their worries that I felt more relieved than irritated by the deus ex machinas. If only solutions really were as commonplace. Then again, perhaps they are. Perhaps, like the elder son, we need only learn where to look. A butterfly isn’t a bug, it’s a future.
Streaming tip of the week:
As we mourn the tragic death of cricketing legend Shane Warne, a new documentary called Shane (Disney+ Hotstar) provides a timely reminder of the legspinning wizard and his staggering career. The wickets, the excesses, the struggles and the redemption, it’s all there.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.