It’s always incredible to watch the good guys turn into the bad guys.
This happens halfway through the new season of Panchayat. A wonderful little series that won audiences over a couple of years ago, Panchayat (Amazon Prime Video) introduced us to an ensemble of rough-around-the-edges villagers, forever compromising and adjusting with circumstances — forever making do. The Pradhan of the village, for instance, is only its chief because there is a government quota for female leaders; her husband runs the show while she bickers from home, perpetually sewing and darning. Everyone cuts corners, not least the show’s protagonist: the Panchayat secretary is an underachieving MBA aspirant who wants to get out of the village.
It may be harder to get the village out of The Secretary. The Panchayat gang is a loveable one, yet this season we see them throwing their weight around. There is a local rabble-rouser they do not like, an acerbic critic who calls them out for collusion and self-serving, and the truth of the matter is that he makes a valid point. They are breaking and bending the rules to suit their needs, and when challenged, they respond by outnumbering and threatening the man, deleting on-camera evidence of their own wrongdoings, and — repeatedly — hitting the complainant’s wife with slippers. They act as bullies.
This, in pro-wrestling terms, is called a Heel Turn. It’s when characters you are meant to applaud become characters you are meant to boo, and this feels stunningly unexpected in Panchayat, a good-natured series about smaller, simpler pleasures. To watch The Secretary — whom everyone calls ‘Sachiv Ji’ not only out of deference but because they can’t pronounce his name Abhishek — become vindictive and petty is remarkably ambitious storytelling. I marvelled at what this deceptively simple series appeared to be saying about the nature of power. A little power can corrupt even more deeply than absolute power, as those who wield it may be forced to flex harder and more demonstratively.
Alas, this meanness dies down. Panchayat, written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, chickens out of breaking bad and chooses instead to, well, break sad. Leaving all this malevolence uncommented upon, they choose a devastating tragedy to close out the second season. With characters this delightful and actors this finely chosen, a sentimental climax is invariably effective, even actually stirring, but this show genuinely, thrillingly was on the verge of an absolute knockout — if only it hadn’t pulled its punches.
Panchayat, like the hapless Secretary, appears to still be finding its feet. The first two episodes of the new season struck me as patently unfunny while being well performed and finely written. It’s impressive for a series to pivot from comedy to drama, but the opening episodes felt indulgent, a problem Panchayat suffered from even the first time around. I loved season one but storytelling economy was never its strongest weapon. At 35-40 minutes, the episodes definitely feel overlong.
Then we are rescued — literally — by toilet humour. The third episode, about the village’s Open Defecation Free status and a poor villager who has been made to wait forever to get a toilet, is a smashing one. This is where we learn that even villagers who have had latrines installed in their house choose to go to the fields for their morning routines because that’s the way they like it. The word used rather brilliantly here is “shaukiya,” to mark them out as connoisseurs of open-air ablutions.
Those are the kind of fields you’re unlikely to see in the lavish films favoured by a visiting city-slicker. A friend visiting The Secretary who wants to pose with bulls and is absolutely — in diametric contrast to the Anshuman character in Jab We Met — obsessed with going to see the fields. Going down a dirt road, the visitor tells an autorickshaw driver to enjoy the fun of the village, but the rickshaw driver tells him its only fun for those on the outside. (There are deft touches in the writing: the visitor is only cautioned to pay 50 rupees to the driver, while the driver asks for an extra 50 rupees as soon as he arrives. In a way, this show is all deft touches.)
The cast is exceptional. Raghubir Yadav as the Pradhan’s husband holds scenes together even when nothing is really being said or done, while Neena Gupta is a highly likeable foil as his wife the Chief. Faisal Malik is the standout this season as Prahlad, the village Obelix, the warm Deputy Pradhan who laughs the most guileless of laughs when he gleefully rips up The Secretary’s train tickets. As the struggling Secretary, Jitendra Kumar doesn’t have quite enough meat this time — though it is priceless to watch him try (and fail) to suppress his smiles when hearing about how everyone yelled at an evil politician.
While on that evil Uttar Pradesh politician, it doesn’t seem coincidental that the self-important leader who humiliates people happens also to be wearing injudiciously short half-trousers, not far from the kind associated with formally schooled fascists. The camera focusses squarely on his hairy thighs. At a time when Indian entertainment is facing extreme challenges of self-censorship, we need to hold on to any allegories we can find. Perhaps we don’t need more bad guys after all.
Streaming tip of the week:
There is a new comedic hall of fame. The Hall (Netflix) salutes George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. Even in brief montages, the legends dazzle: Carlin’s vigour, Rivers’s savagery, Pryor’s fearlessness — and Williams, fellating his face off.
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’.