The first season of TVF’s Panchayat ends on the promising note of the illiterate woman Pradhan of the village learning the national anthem, and confidently asserting her position in front of the District Magistrate during an inspection. At some other points of the show too, it is her wit and sensibility that often come to the rescue of the male characters when they find themselves in a fix. It is a bit puzzling then, when the creators decide to undo all of this growth in Season 2 and try to justify her relegation back into the private sphere under the pretext of humour. Her husband, who goes back to being the functional pradhan of the village, is insecure of his wife, and is quick to deny her every opportunity of wanting to delve deeper in administrative work – a space that rightfully belongs to her – with comments laced with scorn.
Of course, when one looks at the larger oeuvre of TVF in the last few years, what remains more puzzling is the thin layer of progressivism they chose to coat the first season with. In 2021, TVF came out with the second seasons of Hostel Daze and Kota Factory. While the former was rampant with sexist and queerphobic characters and tropes and presented the culture of ragging and bullying in colleges with fourth-wall breaking characters not only justifying and normalising such experiences, but even romanticising them, the latter eulogised the experience of navigating through the bloodsucking industry of toxic coaching institutes where lakhs of students – some willing, many unwilling – end up every year to train to land into a top engineering or medical college. While Kota Factory specifically looked at engineering entrances, coaching culture has moved on to include virtually every field that can be entered by cracking an exam – medical school, management courses, universities, public sector jobs, civil services.
The last of these was the focus of another 2021 TVF show, Aspirants. Both Kota Factory and Aspirants were massive advertisements for Unacademy, an edtech start-up that had promised to dismantle the coaching industry as it was, but has so far only entrenched it further. Unacademy, alongside other brands of its ilk, has continued to emphasise simply cracking these exams as opposed to actually learning. Of course, this attitude of gaming exams is in the first place promoted by the administrative and educational systems themselves. Needless to say, both these “coaching” shows have upper-caste, upper-class male protagonists, with Aspirants also notably including an outburst against quotas and reservation by the protagonist.
Still from Kota Factory; Netflix
Aside from engineering and entrances, TVF has constantly peddled shows about familial affection and love. Since Permanent Roommates (2014), TVF has rolled out a steady line-up of titles where disparate, even dysfunctional families run into irreconcilable conflicts among members, only to always come out united and full of love for each other by the end – without ever addressing the structural issues that shape families and dictate the way they function.
The Indian nuclear family with a patriarch as its head can often be a very limiting and suffocating space to inhabit. This is exemplified in Gullak, a three-season drama about the simplicity in lower-middle-class homes. In the show, the family makes constant jokes on the sexuality of the youngest child because of his fascination with TikTok, the father (Jameel Khan) is utterly disrespectful and condescending to his wife, and the division of labour in the household is highly gendered. Instead of critiquing or challenging these very obvious problems, Gullak ends almost every episode with a note of endearment and fondness for a feudal family structure. Another family show, Yeh Meri Family, is nostalgia porn set in the 90s and also ends up reinforcing feudal family values through its series run.
TVF thus has managed to present its conformist vision via a special blend of humour and nostalgia which has fetched them massive popularity in a country obsessed with the glories of past, among a population that has put unquestioning faith on a static idea of culture and has killed freely in its name. The company has sneakily and successfully tapped into these sentiments, creating a huge market of viewers and followers. In keeping the majority happy, they have also managed to slide away from the kind of huge backlash that other shows or films have routinely faced.
Still from Gullak; TVF
In the second season of Panchayat, this conformism manifests in treating the post of the Pradhan, an elected representative, as inseparable from the person of Brij Bhushan Dubey (Raghubir Yadav). Besides the fact that he used his wife to leverage his own political ambitions and is insecure of her coming to the fore using a space and position that rightfully belongs to her, Dubey actively enjoys defecating in the open, is short-tempered, and is keen on finding out the castes of the people he interacts with. In a show where every person with a surname has a Brahmin one, the makers choose to highlight in detail Dubey’s obsession with finding out the caste of a character with a mononym, only for him to relax when he gets to know that he is a ‘Gupta’ – a member of a trading upper-caste. Thereafter, Dubey only refers to this character as Guptaji, even when that character does not use that last name himself. However, the makers explore little about the casteism, bigotry and violence inherent in this obsession, despite the criticism the show received for its all-Brahmin ensemble of lead characters after the first season. Instead, the writers imply that such an exercise is not only common, but also quite normal and unworrying for someone like Dubey to carry out.
Brij Bhushan Dubey also owns the biggest house in the village, which must be far larger than the next big house for it to be nicknamed the “bada ghar” among the villagers. He is quick to shout at others when not having his way, but is also deeply bothered by others talking to him at a raised voice or not treating him with respect. On the surface, a person with such traits would probably sound concerning to be around. But in Panchayat, the writers brush a streak of cuteness and meek body language to cover these problematic mannerisms of the Pradhanpati. And all of the village, barring one family, is happy with the way things are. Even our protagonist – a government-appointed outsider – is very outwardly pro-Pradhan in the new season, in contrast to his constant conflicts with the Pradhanpati in the first season. A moment where he openly declares his love and support for Dubey is played out as one of jubilation and heroism. It is simply portrayed as him choosing his friend over a regular nuisance to the village administration – which brings us to how the makers of the show have chosen to imagine and characterise dissent.
The central conflict for a large part of the second season, running across multiple episodes, is between a tent-house business operator and village-resident Bhushan (an excellent Durgesh Kumar), and the central Panchayat administration of Phulera. Bhushan and his wife are fitted neatly by the writers into the village clown trope, and several humiliating and dehumanising jokes in the series are made at their expense. The conflict between Bhushan and the Panchayat office begins with the very genuine issue of the condition of the village road, but this concern is brushed aside by almost all the lead characters as a non-issue by calling him a “banrakas”, a derogatory term that roughly translates to forest-monster. The Panchayat office doesn’t even feel it necessary to raise the issue of the village road with higher authorities till there’s a looming threat of Bhushan contesting and winning the upcoming Panchayat elections. Even then, his voice of concern and dissent is villainised, and he is unanimously declared selfish and calculating, whereas in reality a better road would make the lives of all villagers better. At a time when protestors have been painted as nuisances by the government and mainstream media alike, and where the opposition is equated with opposing the nation rather than the regime, repeated villainising and humiliation of the lone dissenting voice in the series is surely not a surprise.
Still from Panchayat; Contagious Online Media Network, Amazon Prime, The Viral Fever
Unlike the first season, the village temple and the performance of religion gain a larger visibility in the successor. It plays a key role in at least four instances, with the final two episodes dedicated to organising a 72-hour maha-kirtan. All villagers are made to compulsorily pay chanda for the kirtan, with families having multiple earning members being expected to pay as many times. In a village with not one visibly non-Hindu character, this decree finds universal acceptance, and the kirtan is treated as the village’s own significant festival, despite it being an act of political performance by Dubey and his family to consolidate his power. Temples and religious performativity have always been a tactic used by all political dispositions in the country, but this has clearly gained renewed mainstream acceptance among commonfolk post-2020, with the televised broadcast of the Ram Mandir inauguration, and the increasing number of rallies taken out during every big and small caste-Hindu festival. By choosing to place the temple at the centre of their season, the makers of Panchayat are conforming to the current social climate of the country and reinforcing and encouraging further proliferation of the situation.
The second season of Panchayat was praised by a lot of people for being a simple, laid-back show that dealt with simple issues like friendship and family instead of getting into complex issues like politics and violence. Speaking in the constituent assembly in 1948, Dr Ambedkar had lashed out at Indian intellectuals and writers’ romanticisation of the village. Gandhi had envisioned Indian villages as becoming self-sufficient micro-republics from where true swaraj would emerge. These intellectuals and writers were following in his tradition, eulogising the village and looking at urban areas as areas of decadence. In response, Dr Ambedkar blasted that villages were a “sink of localism, a den of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”, and instead emphasised on the need for independent India to centre the individual as opposed to the village as the unit while drafting the constitution. With its second season, Panchayat seems to not only confirm Dr Ambedkar’s fears of the Indian village, but also seems to be comfortable in propagating this position.
Every few months, a clip from Govind Nihalini’s 1984 film Party makes the rounds in social media, about how the state uses art and media as a tool of propaganda to further its position and dominance, and the necessity of art challenging those who occupy positions of power. Popular culture plays a big role in shaping how people perceive something. If media adeptly manages to depict and transmit inaccurate imagery of the people and places their stories are about, it can go on to have damaging effects. A mindless, non-critical celebration of all the ills of the village flavoured with a hit of nostalgia, simply to sell shows, will ultimately be the most detrimental to those who occupy these villages.
Still from Party; National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC)