Small town swag: Why shows like 'Panchayat', 'Gullak' and 'Hasmukh' are striking a connect with audiences today

A still from Panchayat   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There is always a right time for everything. And there could not have been a better one for Panchayat — currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video — that has turned out to be the darling of the binge-watchers this lockdown season. The eight-episode web series, about a young engineering graduate, who, for the lack of a better job opportunity, heads to the village of Phulera to work as the panchayat secretary, is just the kind of show the doctor would have ordered now. It has the basics of what makes for an eminently watchable show: good writing, well-observed characters, excellent performances (Jitendra Kumar, Raghuvir Yadav, Neena Gupta, Chandan Roy), an innate understanding of the youth, and the unending problems of the hinterland.

Just last week, one saw Bamfaad, a love story set in Allahabad, on Zee 5. Meanwhile, reruns of old serials — from Ramayana to Office Office — are working well with the audience. Are we turning nostalgic and seeking a connect with the past now that the present has suddenly turned dystopic? Hard to say, but it is an opportune time to examine online content that is more mofussil than urbane; homegrown than edgy.

Simple pleasures

In a similar vein, another TVF show, Gullak, on Sony Liv, is about the ordinary concerns and heart-warming grid of relationships in a small town, middle class family underlined with cheeky lines and gentle humour. Each episode is about a little day-to-day issue that threatens to keel over into a loud family battle — the motor for pumping water conking off on a Sunday for instance — but is amicably resolved over a post-dinner ice cream. The arc in each episode is reminiscent of serials from yore; feels like a mellowed out version of the more rambunctious Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi or Dekh Bhai Dekh.

A still from Mannphodganj Ki Binny

A still from Mannphodganj Ki Binny   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shreyansh Pandey, AVP, Content Strategy & Creative Producer, TVF Originals, says that their protagonists are cast in the Amol Palekar mould and the shows themselves aspire to be like Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. “It is about showing the people from the villages and small towns as normal people, and bringing their aspirations and small problems to life. Also, looking at the drama emerging from the small things in life rather than from some big world crashing down,” he says.

Back to roots

For director Vikas Chandra — known for hinterland dramas like Chacha Vidhayak Hai Humare and Mannphodganj Ki Binny — it is to do with the web world following in the footsteps of Bollywood films. It is about going past the breathtaking views of Switzerland and taking the tier 2 characters and their stories beyond the caricatures and kitsch that they often get stuck in. The trendsetting show in the genre has been Mirzapur (putting aside the polarising debate on its quality) that brought a certain swag to the small town world. “Much as Gangs of Wasseypur did for the ones on the big screen. It also made Hindi swear words sound cool,” says Chandra.

Since then there have emerged varied narratives under the larger umbrella of the small-town genre. The two seasons of OML’s Laakhon Mein Ek looked at the commercialisation of education and medicine. There was also Kota Factory, on the iconic coaching classes culture in the small town of Rajasthan. An idea that may well have emerged from the makers’ own growing up years in these cities.

The supply is also being determined by the demand. A huge audience has opened up in tier 2 towns for the streaming platforms, riding on the omnipresence of mobiles and the growing spread of 4G networks. “Everyone I met in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had seen Mirzapur and Chacha Vidhayak. When I went to Allahabad for the shoot of Mannphodganj... I was treated with respect when they got to know of my Chacha Vidheyak association,” says Chandra.

A still from Hasmukh

A still from Hasmukh   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The dark side

However, the reason for backing these shows has to go beyond the logic of eye balls and numbers, or for that matter the flavour and setting. “You will have to show the ugly underbelly, however uncomfortable it might be,” says Chandra. Something that Jamtara — Sabka Number Aayega, on the phishing scam in Jharkhand tried to do, but also got widely criticised for its excessive use of coarse language.

Chandra’s next — a show from Tiger Baby — takes him back to the heartland. Based on serial killings in Rajasthan with Sonakshi Sinha playing a cop, he says, “We have localised the characters, milieu and lingo. It is to do with caste and gender politics, and the misogyny rampant there as well.”

This Friday’s new Netflix offering, Hasmukh, plans to add yet another new dimension to the genre. It takes its comedian protagonist Hasmukh on a journey from Saharanpur to Mumbai, where he murders his way to on-stage success. “It is not a gangland, heartland narrative,” says lead actor Vir Das. “The small town will, however, remain till the last scene,” promises co-writer Suparn Verma. Or, as actor Ranvir Shorey puts it pithily, it is about the small town as a point of view: “It is about Saharanpur looking at Mumbai’s entertainment industry.”

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 3:57:08 PM |

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