Back To Phulera:
The first season of Panchayat came out in 2020, a little after Covid19 locked down everything and an OTT boom hit television viewers of the country.
The Viral Fever (TVF), the producers of the show were early movers in the web space in any case, and this pleasant, rural comedy is about an engineering graduate, Abhishek Tripathi (Jitendra Kumar) who, for want of a better option, takes up a low-paying job as the Panchayat Secretary in Phulera village in Uttar Pradesh. The Pradhan (Head) of the village is Manju Devi (Neena Gupta), but in name only. For all practical purposes, her husband, Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghubir Yadav) is the Chief, and is addressed as Pradhanji by everyone.
Written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, the delightful humour in the multiple award-winning series came from the adjustment problems city-bred Abhishek has in the village. He hopes to clear the entrance test, get into an MBA course, and escape the boredom of village life. His friends, in cushy corporate jobs, make him feel even more frustrated. Abhishek, called Sachivji by all, soon acquires two loyal sidekicks, Prahlad Pandey (Faisal Malik–outstanding), the deputy Pradhan, and the office assistant, Vikas (Chandan Roy–excellent). Later, web series set in north India, portrayed the region full of violent, foul-mouthed gangsters; Phulera, almost seems like a Malgudi-inspired bucolic paradise by comparison. The biggest crimes Abhishek encounters is someone stealing the computer monitor mistaking it for a TV, and an arrogant groom demanding his revolving office chair to pacify a hurt ego.
Whether he likes it or not, by Season 2, Abhishek is assimilated into the village, finding a substitute family with the Dubeys. Season 1 ended with a hint of a possible romance between Abhishek and pampered Rinki Dubey, still single at 23, and a worry for her mother.
In Season 2 (on Amazon Prime), Phulera is pretty much the same, and Abhishek has settled into the Panchayat office-cum-residence. The slogans painted on the walls are still hilarious, and the address includes the circle wickedly called Fakoli, in district Ballia. The series was shot in a picturesque location in Madhya Pradesh, giving city viewers a look at rural life—though this one is sanitized to fairy-tale perfection. Reality lies somewhere between Phulera and Mirzapur.
The appeal of Panchayat is in its simplicity and that comes entirely from the writing, and the perfect casting (Casting Bay), except for two-three well-known and unquestionably talented actors, the others look like they belong to Phulera. Unlike so many TV sitcoms that need exaggerated situations to evoke laughter, in Panchayat, the humour is gentle and completely relatable. Like the episode in which the Dubey couple’s rivals Bhushan (Durgesh Kumar) and his sharp-tongued wife Kranti Devi (Sunita Rajwar) make a fuss when Manju accidentally wears the other woman’s slippers. Laugh-out-loud is a villager demanding that the newly-installed CCTV camera be used to trace his missing goat. When Phulera is declared an ODF (open defecation free) village, the district magistrate actually comes to check if anyone is taking a crap in the fields. The Dubey family gets embroiled in a battle of wills with the father of a potential match for Rinki, who turns out to be an awful clown just heard over the phone. The romance suggested in Season 1 turns into a friend zone, however, and one does not know whether to be happy that a plot cliché has been avoided, or feel sorry for a couple that look made-for-each other.
Clueless urban folk get lampooned when Abhishek’s buddy Siddharth (Satish Ray) visits Phulera and behaves like a tourist, thrilled with the hand-pump, women drawing water from a well, and a buffalo!
If at all the series can be criticized, it would be for its all-Brahmin characters, and keeping out the caste problems, the misogyny, backwardness and ugliness of rural India.
If it didn’t earlier, evil from outside enters in the form of an arrogant MLA Chandrakishore Singh (Pankaj Jha) and another incident that ends this season on an uncharacteristically sombre note, and the promise of some drama in the next season, which, one hopes will be aired sooner rather than later.
(This piece first appeared in rediff.com on May 20, 2022)