Readers Write In #217: On ‘Panchayat’ and its unbridled yet subtle homage to ‘Swades’ and ‘Doordarshan’

Posted on July 5, 2020


(by An Jo)

Spoiler Alert

The finest scene in Amazon’s PANCHAYAT is reserved for the last episode. Very subtly, the makers dove-tail women’s rights versus nationalism; or hyper-nationalism, as the liberals would call it. With diktats raised on playing the national anthem in theaters, and people not standing up, it’s quite telling that Neena Gupta asks the ‘Sacheev’, ‘Do I have to stand even when the national anthem is playing on my phone?’ And then there’s the scene of the District Magistrate [DM] coming over and blasting the ‘Pradhan’ and the ‘Sacheev’ of not letting the woman take center-stage; because, of-course, she is rightly the selected one! And Neena Gupta’s husband, the revered ‘Pradhan-ji’ is asked to take a back-seat by stepping beyond the boundaries!

The brightest spot or idea in PANCHAYAT is that it talks; it talks, and doesn’t preach, All the ideas, all the writing, is built so organically that you just submit yourself to the series. An absolute master-piece of 8 episodes. I did feel a Season 2 coming t, and though I am impressed and curious apropos the inevitable 2nd season, I would say, the series has already done its job.

And let me expand on what I mean: The biggest hurdle I believe is for any film-maker to convince the audience that is it’s not the maker that speaks through the actor; so any actor, however brilliant he or she might be, one cannot but notice the actor is a ‘mouth-piece’ for the writers and the director. So for instance, Jitendra Kumar of Panchayat owes his call to Gowarikar’s ‘Swades’ and its protagonist, Mohan Bhargava. It is pretty much established in the first episode itself. But as you proceed through the series, one can see that it is the characters speaking, whether it’s putting up a solar panel near the panchayat office or taking a look at the village from atop the water-tank. [Sholay’s reference cannot be missed here; what with beer-bottles galore, numbering 2.] When Mohan Bhargava speaks in ‘Swades’, it does appear like Ashu is hammering in his point-of-view. It is to the credit of SRK that he manages to ‘submerge’ that feeling amongst the audiences and let them see the bigger picture. So, the ‘TUM HINDUSTANI’, scene/language/feeling from ‘Swades’ is conveyed in such a brilliant manner through the characters that it is impossible to forget it. 15 minutes of the last episode are reserved for Neena Gupta practicing the National Anthem of India. ‘Practicing’? Do you need to ‘practice’ your own country’s National Anthem? But it’s so beautifully conveyed, one marvels at the scene! The reason is, how ‘organically’ the National Anthem was inculcated in us. And here’s a woman, struggling to sing the Anthem! This is the brilliance of the series; non-judgmental, and matter-of-fact.

The series captures each and every irony beautifully. You want women empowerment pinch? Here it is: In one of the episodes, Neena Gupta reacts to a compliment from the Sacheevji [Jitendra Kumar], about the tasty ‘puris’ and ‘sabzi’ she’s prepared: ‘Why wouldn’t it be good? I have been doing nothing but cooking for 35 years!’ It’s like a bite-after-bite; stinging you with the realities of life; and the differences between city and ‘real-life’, the rural India. The ‘quirkiness’ of R. K. Narayan’s ‘Malgudi Days’ and Gowarikar’s Swades, is literally transmuted here to achieve a bigger, far-more realistic experience. In one of the episodes regarding family planning, Sacheevji paints a slogan regarding how having more than 2 kids is akin to having piles, and how it is received by the villagers! It is hilarious and sad at the same time. [Remember, the makers make it clear that the first 2 kids are girl-children, and the last one is a boy.] This ‘messaging’ through the scenes and not characters is what piqued my interest. There are many such gems hidden here; one only needs to unearth it. a) Raghubir Yadav testing Sacheevji’s CAT ability; the bride-groom crying since he was called an ‘a!@#-@#l3’, the ‘power-dynamics regarding the wheeled-chair. Every scene, points to a greater social paradigm, and calls for a course-correction, or at least, forces people to re-examine it.

All the actors are terrific here, but I need to give a special mention to Neena Gupta: As a house-wife, she provides us with a master-class performance on how to bridge that gap between being loyal in a wedding – a contract – and how to subdue, or escalate, one’s own desires. This is one hell of a performance from her, because that act, that act of a house-wife belonging to the outer-world and also wanting to maintain hold over the daughter, the husband, is not easy to accomplish. Women have borne this burden far too long!

And the UP language/lingo is terrifically captured; the proverbs, the lingo; it’s a joy to listen to the everyday mutterings between a wife and husband or between,  well, anyone!Note especially the conversations between Raghubir and Neena Gupta. They are a hoot! Their ‘nok-jhonk’ is alone the worth of a ticket – well, clicks.

I cannot emphasize on the performances of Neena, Raghubir, Jitendra, and all other supporting characters. Everyone has done a brilliant job. As I mentioned, again, this is a whole-some story-telling experience that needs to be savored as delivered.

I always mourn the death of Doordarshan; of those serials that were high in quality but low in technology. This one, even-though it is laced with a few profanities – a thing I am uncomfortable with— is extremely natural and flows like a stream, and almost takes one back to those days, where watching serials by stalwarts like Mukherjee or Gulzar or Vijay Anand was a taken. And I wondered, are these, so-called/defined, ‘small’ things going to matter in life any longer or not? I was thinking on these terms and then came along ‘Panchayat.’

‘ Panchayat’ had its predecessor in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘English August’, a fine novel. [By the way, there was a movie made on it and it’s now burnt to ashes and irrecoverable.] However, when I saw the movie, starring Rahul Bose, I saw an air of condescension.   I do not see it in ‘Panchayat’, and that’s its greatness. You have to respect the world you live in. If a person’s ego or his hierarchical superiority is threatened by a wheeled-chair, so be it. It is their world, and where it starts and ends, is where one should get in.