The casteless village “Panchayat” is a utopia that does not exist

I woke up pretty late to the web series Panchayat and only saw it last week when the show’s second season started streaming. I finished both seasons in two days and two nights, enchanted by the story of a young Abhishek Tripathi, played by Jeetendra Kumar, who is trying to accept his new country life after being suddenly torn from Delhi and planted in Phulera, a Hindi village became heartland.

From the first drone shot of Phulera in the opening credits, you’re sure you’re seeing a story from the backcountry of real 2020s India: lush, green fields that aren’t photoshopped, a girl in jeans scooping water out of you nearly dried up well, goats being herded on well-trodden gravel roads, a mix of Pucca and Kutcha house with cemented side streets and open drains, the sound of a sewing machine, the government’s social campaign messages painted yellow and black on house walls, a towering water tank . Thanks to the skillful script, direction and acting, the people in the village also seem real – their manners, their accent, the way they walk, speak and react to situations.

But even as Panchayat breaks many myths about Indian villages, it creates myths of its own, the biggest of which is the lack of Jaat-Paat. In 16 episodes over two seasons, there is little confrontation with rural India’s most uncomfortable reality – the caste or Varna system. There are only two instances where the show addresses the issue, but in the craziest way.

In the first episode of the first season, Pradhan-pati Dubey persuades his wife to allow Gramm Sachiv Tripathi to stay in their house for a few days. He says: “Sabse badi baat, apne hi caste ke hain (Most important, he belongs to our caste)”. Both Dubey and Tripathi are Brahmins.

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The second clue to the caste comes 13 episodes later, towards the end of season two, when Tripathi’s US-returned friend visits the village. When Dubey asks his name, he replies “Siddharth”. Dubey asks: “Pura naam bataiye (tell us your full name)”. Siddharth replies, “Certificate my bhi kewal Siddharth hi hai (My certificate also says Siddharth). Dubey toasts: “Accha pitaji ka naam bataiye (Ok, say your father’s name)”. Siddharth replies: “Manoranjan”. Tripathi, who has understood village life by now, quickly adds: “Manoranjan Gupta”. Dubey then says, “Toh Guptaji hai aap (So you are Guptaji)”. Such experiences are very common in the Hindi heartland, and the show gets it absolutely right.

But Panchayat has also completely erased caste from his narrative. Many characters are identified by their first names. While we know that Pradhan-pati is Brij Bhushan Dubey, Up-Pradhan is Prahlad Pandey and Sachiv Abhishek Tripathi – all Brahmins – we do not know the caste of Vikas who run errands for Dubey and Tripathi. Dubey’s rival is identified as Bhushan, but his last name is not given to us. In a glimpse in the “Jaise ko taisa” episode, it is learned that he is “Bhushan Sharma” thanks to two words scrawled on the front gate of his home.

When villages in northern India are divided into caste-based tolas (hamlets), phulera seems unrealistically casteless. There are no Dalits, no Sonkars, no Paswans, no Rajbhars and not many OBCs. We don’t hear about “choti jaat” as quite often we see characters with no last name and characters with last name talking, walking and sometimes even having a leisurely meal together.

If the newly appointed Panchayat Sachiv was an OBC or Dalit; if, instead of Abhishek Tripathi, if he were Abhishek Paswan, Pradhan-pati Dubey and his wife Manju were just as inviting? Would Vikas, whose caste we don’t know, treat him the same way? Would Abhishek Paswan and Rinki Dubey still eat samosas together in a candy store? One can only wonder.

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One also wonders why the show’s creators – The Viral Fever (TVF), series director Deepak Kumar Mishra and writer Chandan Kumar – identified the castes of some characters and dropped the surnames of others in this village we are told that it exists somewhere near Ballia. Was that on purpose or just a simple mistake? Whatever the reason, it’s tantamount to a ‘box wash’.

Despite the authenticity of its script and acting, the glaring absence of underprivileged caste in the tale makes Panchayat anything but real. It shows a monochromatic alternative society, too utopian, too sanitized, too simple and too naive. If after watching the series someone starts to think that he or she knows about India’s villages, they will be in for a nasty shock. Just like the character of Ayan Ranjan, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 as the Brahman IPS officer is rocked by the harsh and brutal reality of caste oppression in the rural Hindi heartland.

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