By Shubhangi Shah
In Panchayat, a web series created by The Viral Fever (TVF) and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, there is an entire episode dedicated to an issue as mundane as a CCTV camera installation. Overall, it is a show set in an obscure Indian village where seemingly nothing happens, and the highest point of conflict is over a pair of swapped chappals. But the series still manages to make you chuckle as well as emotional, equally and effortlessly, without any over-the-top slapstick humour or social commentary. While the first season came like a breath of fresh air with a lot of feel-good vibes, season 2 not just lived up to its prequel but bettered it, leaving scope for even a third season.
Similarly, if Panchayat revolves around the life and struggles of a 20-something city-dweller stuck in a village and a ‘mediocre’ government job, SonyLIV’s Gullak captures the life of a middle-class family, and how it acts, reacts, and adapts to challenges and opportunities that such a life offers.
With the onset of the digital medium in India, viewers have been exposed to more content and variety over the years. While makers have pushed boundaries to offer content depicting dark, edgy, and taboo subjects, which have now become the cornerstone of OTT platforms in the country, shows like Panchayat and Gullak are providing a pleasant alternative to the audience.
Such simple and realistic shows that capture the simple and harmless realities of ordinary people are making them a winner. The situations are exclusive to the characters, but the feeling is universal, says Chandan Kumar, who wrote Panchayat, on why his show resonated with a wide range of audiences. “A character made to share his office-cum-home with some groom and a group of his friends is a situation, but the feeling of loss of privacy is a universal one,” he explains.
The reason why such simplistic slice-of-life comedy-dramas resonate much “has a lot to do with the fact that they deal quite directly with the mundane realities of many Indians”, says film critic Tanul Thakur. This is important as the kind of realities Hindi filmography has dealt with for at least the past three decades are starkly different.
Elaborating further, Thakur says that the past 25-30 years of Hindi filmography can be roughly broken down into two parts. “The first spanned from the mid-’90s to around 2010, when post-liberalisation, stories of rich Indians dominated the popular imagination,” he says. This period was dominated by Yash Raj, Dharma and Rajshri with their films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G), etc. “However, these were constricted to a minuscule section of India, a country which is largely poor,” he adds.
Somewhere around the mid-2000s, as the myth of the economic riches of liberalisation started hearing hollow, and it was realised that it wasn’t something that would possibly trickle down to the masses, this is when this second part of Hindi filmography came into play, he explains.
Juxtaposed to the Karan Johar, Yash Raj and Rajshri world of cinema was that of Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Abhishek Chaubey, which gave us films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya, among others. These were largely ordinary stories set in the hinterland. “But many of these were centered around gangsters and blood-thirsty figures, which again were not representative of the general population,” Thakur says. But such stories continued to find a space and blew up in the OTT space with the likes of Mirzapur (on Amazon Prime Video) and Sacred Games (on Netflix), among others.
“Although it’s a generalisation, in the 25-30 years of film-making, the common man was largely missing. This is where shows like Panchayat, Gullak, Kota Factory and Yeh Meri Family fill the space,” says Thakur, adding: “These are bereft of conflicts, where, I think, lies their charm and appeal.”
Shows like Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience and Modern Family have come to dominate the wholesome comedy-dramas landscape. But Panchayat and Gullak-like dramedies provide the Indian audiences with a pleasant alternative.
“Even if you don’t like certain aspects of these, there are scenes and plots that absolutely work,” the critic says. “These understand how normal people like us talk, behave, negotiate certain aspects of urban or rural realities, capture our aspirations, and humour,” he adds.
“Whether it’s a thriller or a comedy-drama, writing content of any genre is tough. While writing Panchayat, I faced the usual writing challenges such as designing characters, conflicts, etc,” says Kumar, adding: “However, a bigger challenge here was the absence of any large-scale conflicts. So, to keep the audience’s attention intact, you have to add funny bits so that the story keeps flowing.”
Similarly, Saurabh Khanna, writer of shows like Kota Factory and Yeh Meri Family, says: “Whether they are shows like Mirzapur or Kota Factory, you have to say things very craftily.” Kota Factory, again a TVF creation and released on Netflix, revolves around students adjusting and reacting to the different realities that Kota’s grilling coaching industry offers. From the protagonist struggling with getting used to the abysmal hostel food to his absolute disdain towards inorganic chemistry, the show handles simple elements with such finesse that it makes ordinariness amusing. Set in the ’90s is Khanna’s Yeh Meri Family, which beautifully captures the eccentricities of a typical middle-class family on one hand, and craftily sends you on a nostalgia trip on the other.
Why not TV?
While we have Gullak and Panchayat on OTT, we had Malgudi Days and Wagle ki Duniya on television. All these dealt with different subjects but had common feelings of warmth and comfort.
While Malgudi Days and Wagle ki Duniya came out in the 1980s, Yash Raj Television came up with the show Mahi Way in 2010 on Sony Television. Set in Delhi, the show revolved around Mahi (played by actor Pushtiie Shakti), a 20-something columnist of a glossy fashion magazine who happened to be overweight. Showcasing the struggles of being overweight, the show delves into Mahi’s quest for love and acceptance, to finally find comfort in her own skin.
“The audience’s response was great,” says Shakti, who played the protagonist in the show. “They were like, ‘Oh my God! This is my story’. It has been over a decade, and I still get messages for season 2,” she adds.
Indian TV hasn’t been bereft of such kinds of shows altogether, which now find an audience on different OTT platforms. However, we don’t see these on TV anymore.
Although one cannot point to the exact reason, Indian TV is largely dominated by a specific kind of storytelling, which is heavy on the so-called domestic politics, which leaves little room for other kinds of stories. “Also, TV means a lot of other things, be it reality shows, news, or sports,” Thakur says.
“On the other hand, India’s population is predominantly young, who were drawn to these shows that echoed or showed their reality. What OTT did was make the process of storytelling democratic in some way and mitigated the tyranny of storytelling itself controlled by very few people in the industry,” he adds.
Balance or oversimplifying?
Although such shows generally open up to rave reviews, these might not be bereft of flaws. Critics have pointed out that the village Phulera, in Panchayat, is shown as a casteless majoritarian utopia that doesn’t exist in reality.
“No, we haven’t ignored it altogether. India has these caste-based clusters (sic), and we showed that. We were not judgemental about it,” he said. “Also, in a show, we can show so much,” he added.
More such shows in the future?
Kumar says more such shows will be and should be made. “We are already hearing that some such shows have been commissioned,” he says.
“I and director Deepak Mishra conceptualised this idea of Panchayat. Other creators can have a different view. And with different views, everything can be covered,” Kumar adds.
Thakur, on the other hand, holds a different view. “If this becomes a formula, that would be really sad,” he said. “Also, showing the ordinariness and emulating the finesse of Panchayat isn’t that easy,” he adds.
STRIKING A CHORD
Aired on Doordarshan in 1986, the show was based on the 1943 book by legendary writer RK Narayan. The show, just like the book, was set in a fictional town of Malgudi, capturing the life of Swami and his friends. The characters were relatable, and the issues simple, which one might expect from a small town in pre-Independence south India
Written by Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author Manohar Shyam Joshi, Hum Log, often called India’s first soap opera, was released on Doordarshan in 1984. Capturing the lives, ups and downs, desires, and insecurities of eight members of a middle-class family, the show received massive reception and ran for 17 months
Wagle ki Duniya
There is something about the 1980s that it saw TV shows that became iconic in the long run. Joining the list is Wagle ki Duniya by famed cartoonist RK Laxman, widely known for his common man. Just like cartoons, Laxman captured the day-to-day struggles of a middle-class family, which many could find relatable
It is another Doordarshan show from the ’80s with the trademark storyline of capturing the social realities of a certain class in a simple, realistic way with a tinge of humour. However, what sets this show apart are its protagonists— chai vendors and domestic staff to beggars and alcoholics—whose lives are captured in a lighthearted way
A 2010 show produced by Yash Raj TV, Mahi Way revolves around the life, day-to-day ups and downs, love, and aspirations of Mahi, a columnist at a high-end fashion magazine who also happens to be overweight. Far from creating slapstick humour at her expense, it shows how a fat single woman is perceived in Indian society