Panchayat(Amazon Prime Video, 8 Episodes)

Starring Jitendra Kumar, Chandan Roy, Neena Gupta, Raghuvir Yadav

Directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra

Rating: *** ½

This one knows. Just knows. Panchayat is an insider’s job. Its director (Deepak Kumar Mishra), writer (Chandan Kumar) and the actors, in big and small roles, they all know the rural milieu first-hand. Which explains why it all appears so real, so lived-in and so smartly unsophisticated.

Panchayat comes from the team that made Jitendra Kumar a web-star with Kota Factory. This time Kumar is cast as an employable but rather bleakly-positioned working-class Indian who has no choice but to take up a job as a secretary in a village panchayat in Uttar Pradesh. As Abhishek Tripathy, Jitendra brings in his trademark laconicism and a smirking disdain for administrative and moral strictures.

Sensibly, the 8 episodes can be seen as independent stories, vigorous vignettes from an almost lifeless existence in a UP village named Phulera. Shot on location I could almost smell the stench of deathly stillness and ennui. Not all of Abhishek Tripathy’s “adventures” (if one may use the word to describe the rather humdrum incidents that are perked up by some insightful writing) are uniformly workable and some of them, like the one where he takes on a couple of goondas from the locality for a fistfight in a maidaan as barren as the life of the villagers, just don’t build-up into something substantial.

After a point, the cruel insubstantiality of the lives being described in the series begins to get to you. There is no hope of a better tomorrow for villages such as Phulera. What keeps the episodes from sagging under the weight of its own despair is the sheer brightness of the characters. These are not people who are aware of the futility of their existence. In fact, they are proud of it.

At one point, Abhishek’s smiling genial assistant Vikas (Chandan Roy, a gem of an actor) tells Abhishek, “Atma-samman bhi koi cheez hoti hai.” A quality that seems incongruously high among these proud but rudderless products of an irredeemable wasteland.

Panchayat is high on credibility and intelligent insightful writing. But be warned. Neena Gupta’s role is dismayingly under-developed. We hardly meet this woman of substance who is the rubberstamp head of the village panchayat while her husband (Raghuvir Yadav, who takes to the rural life fish to water) rules. Neena has only one episode to herself and that’s the final episode where the actor and her character come into their own. This is by far the best episode of the series.

The rest? They are teasing, heartwarming scenes from a rural life that is rapidly vanishing from the cinematic radar. Hold on to it.