Caution: potential spoilers ahead.
What a day it is turning out to be for Abhishek, a reluctant public servant stuck in a job he doesn’t want. Abhishek (Jitendra Kumar) is the new and crotchety government-appointed panchayat secretary in Phulera village in Uttar Pradesh. The sarpanch is Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), but her husband, Brij Bhushan (Raghubir Yadav), runs the show.
Abhishek’s workplace, which doubles up as his home, is locked, and the key is missing. The lock can’t be broken because it belongs to Manju Devi. The locksmith is missing too. Abhishek hasn’t eaten very much, and his assistant’s chirpiness is getting on his nerves.
The first season of Panchayat, TVF’s new web series that is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video, crackles with promise in its early episodes. Written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, the series quickly sets up its principal characters and solidly establishes their personalities and their personal dynamic. The strong foundation helps when the rest of the episodes prove to be of varying quality. Panchayat is often so light that it slips out of grasp, but the characters are lovable, the cast is excellent, and the gentle humour lands firmly home. Eight episodes whiz by before you realise it.
At the centre of the classic fish-out-of-water situation is a young man with dreams of joining the Indian Institute of Management. Abhishek doesn’t have the grades just yet, so is forced to opt for what he considers a low-paying and lowly position in the boondocks. His friend Prateek (Biswapati Sarkar) frequently gives him the pep talk. You are like Mohan Bhargav from the movie Swades, you are working for the cause of rural development, Prateek tells Abhishek from the comfort of an air-conditioned office in a big city.
Abhishek would rather be in a swivel chair (and he does get one in a later episode, which leads to a charming little rumpus).
Each episode presents Abhishek with a storm in a teacup. Those among us waiting for these storms to brew into something more substantial are clearly watching the wrong show. Abhishek does meet a poor villager who is owed money by the government’s MGNREGA scheme, but the panchayat officer’s workload turns out to be astonishingly light. The villages of India are clearly in more robust health than we have been led to believe.
The series is better placed to explore the foibles of its handful of characters. Panchayat unfolds as a comedy of mofussil manners. A proposal to install solar-powered lights teaches Abhishek the art of negotiating with the locals. A poorly phrased slogan for family planning leads to the discovery of hidden allies. The theft of a computer monitor is a sign that Abhishek is finally settling into his role.
Hiccups are cured and niggles smoothly resolved to ensure that Panchayat can never be accused of being serious about the encounter between government and the governed. The villainy of Brij Bhushan, the panchayat chief who rules in his wife’s stead, lasts for about as long as it takes to say “Raghubir Yadav, the brilliant actor who can do no wrong”.
Manju Devi is not exactly enamoured of her husband’s prowess, leading to some entertaining sparring between the couple. Neena Gupta has several lovely moments of mock exasperation, but we will have to wait for the second season for Manju Devi to fully emerge into view.
The warmth radiates in all directions and infects every human of Phulera. Brij Bhushan’s lackey Prahlad (Faisal Malik) has a stuffed-toy quality to him, while Abhishek’s assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy) is unfailingly loyal and sweet-tempered despite frequently being talked down to by his boss.
Annoyed at being forced into a game of trivial pursuit, Abhishek lashes out ever so often. However, his challenges are ultimately too minor to merit anything more than mild consternation. Jitendra Kumar’s perfectly pitched performance includes a whole lot of jaw-clenching and eye-rolling. Abhishek’s death stares have the potential to set off a meme festival. Kumar’s expressive eyes convey something else too – the believable exasperation at being plonked in the middle of nowhere, and the gradual realisation that Abhishek might be getting somewhere after all.