In the inaugural episode of the first season of Panchayat, the newly appointed secretary of Phulera village’s governing council runs into an elderly man who can’t afford to buy cooking oil. The man hasn’t been paid for his labour, he tells Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar). Abhishek, having barely arrived in Phulera, tells the old man to come and see him in his office.
This callous bureaucratic response is familiar to countless Indians, but especially the poor. Panchayat, which first aired in 2020, benefitted from its refusal to lionise Abhishek and make him the streaming version of the principled government official bringing reform to the village.
Instead, the TVF production for Amazon Prime Video examined the crochety Abhishek’s fish-out-of-water situation. Ample screen time was devoted to Abhishek’s attempts to qualify for an MBA and flee Phulera for good.
By the eighth and final episode, Abhishek was doing swimmingly well, all things considered. He had worked out his equation with panchayat head Manju Devi (Neena Gupta) and her husband Brij Bhushan (Raghubir Yadav), who ruled in her stead.
Abhishek had also established a firm friendship with his assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy) and Manju Devi’s deputy, Prahlad (Faisal Malik). A glimpse of Manju and Brij Bhushan’s daughter Rinky sparked the hope of love in the sticks.
The second season shares with the first edition droll humour, mild satire, sharply observed characters and winning performances. The crew – including writer Chandan Kumar and director Deepak Kumar Mishra – is mostly unchanged, while Rinky is played by a new actor (Sanvikaa). But otherwise, Panchayat remains a series about a jolly corner of rural India where storms rage in teacups and molehills pretend to be mountains.
Abhishek is not only digging his feet deeper into the Phulera soil but appears to be enjoying it too. He grins more often than before, with frowning duties now transferred to the frequently pained Brij Bhushan. Meanwhile, covert looks and shy smiles are exchanged between Abhishek and Rinky, even as Manju Devi strives to get Rinky married to the first available groom.
The subjects of the eight-episode second season include the correct price of mud left over from road work. The arrival of CCTV in Phulera has unintended consequences.
A man hired to publicise a de-addiction campaign turns out to be a drunk. A kerfuffle over the installation of a toilet reveals the mission of Phuleri’s resident cynic Bhushan (Durgesh Kumar) and his wife Kranti (Sunita Rajwar) to upstage Manju Devi and Brij Bhushan.
As a study of compromise, complacency and even defeat, this season improves on its predecessor. Abhishek is in imminent danger of becoming part of the furniture – an extension of the chair over which he fought in one of the first season’s best episodes.
Guest characters remind Abhishek of the consequences of getting comfortable. The scope of Abhishek’s world momentarily expands when his friend Siddharth (Satish Ray) drops in from the city to get the authentic “grassroot” experience.
Bhushan, quite correctly, points out that Abhishek is too much in thrall to Brij Bhushan and Manju Devi to be impartial. In a show less enamoured of its lead characters and more sensitive to the mechanics of power and hierarchy, Bhushan might have had a point, but instead comes off as unreasonable and petty. (His poor wife Kranti gets the worst treatment.)
In this self-contained patch of imagined rural life, the big questions barely matter. Sure, Brij Bhushan and his posse do get a bitter dose of state-level politics when they meet the area’s legislator (Pankaj Jha) to request funds for a road repair project. Prahlad too gets a nasty whiff of the world beyond the village, taking Panchayat into emotional territory for the first ever time.
But the selling point of Panchayat is the pursuit of the trivial. Unwilling to tackle bigger questions – such as caste, income disparity and gender inequality – and unable to scale up in a convincing way, the second season, like the first, shrinks to conquer.
The leisurely pacing, coupled with the unshakeable feeling of being underserved, might have been more acutely felt if it weren’t for the formidable acting talent. Jitendra Kumar, Chandan Roy, Faisal Malik and Neena Gupta superbly inhabit their characters without a hitch the second time round. Raghubir Yadav continues to be the scene-stealer, bringing an endearing shaggy-dog quality to Brij Bhushan that makes his many omissions negligible.
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