“Useless people, really” is how award-winning Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray had described the “noblemen”, i.e., the upper castes and upper classes in India.
At the beginning of every episode of both the series of Panchayat, you find a board hanging outside the local government office stating the names of the officials — they have the surnames Dubey, Tripathi, and Shukla — all Brahmins. Immediately in every episode, enters another official with the surname Pandey, another Brahmin. Therefore, not subtly but rather staunchly, this board epitomises the crux of the show, whose plotline goes from one Brahmin to another. In this regard, the series is quite diverse. It has tried its level best to have adequate representation — of Brahmins.
In the first season, it was established that Panchayat is based in a village in Uttar Pradesh — the breeding grounds for casteism. The local office is disproportionately controlled and dominated by Brahmin men, and even when the government reserves seats for women candidates, the Brahmin men regain power by making mannequins out of their wives, who then win the seats. And then comes the “outsider” in the local rural office — Abhishek Tripathi — an urban boy who has been posted in this village. Tripathi is an outsider to the rural area but is, of course, from inside the Brahmin community. This was paramount for the show to even exist. For the day he lands in the village, the Brahmin officials take Tripathi for walks, invite him for dinner at home and plot his marriage with their daughter — things possible only because Abhishek is a Brahmin.
In the first episode of the first season, as the Brahmin Pradhan or more accurately, the self-appointed Pradhan Pati loses the key to the rural government office; he is told by other Brahmins, including his wife Manju Devi, who is technically the Pradhan, that he should have kept it tied to his janeu — the caste-pride symbolising thread that Brahmins wear. This suggestion, both physically and metaphorically, demonstrates that the key, access, and power to the rural government office are tied to the Janeu, which everyone entering the office carries.
Since the first day itself, all the Brahmin officials support Abhishek Tripathi in his work and invite him to hang out when he is low. One wonders what would have happened if an individual from a marginalised or minority community had entered Abhishek’s position. In her Sahitya Akademy Award-winning book ‘Coming Out As A Dalit,’ Yashica Dutt elucidates on how upper-castes purposely mark SC, ST, and OBC candidates less in interviews, deliberately punish or disobey them on duty and heckle them for rightful promotions. Another glaring example of the same can be seen in their grotesque opposition to the Mandal Commission Report which had shown that OBCs are the least represented community.
Abhishek Tripathi hates his job and considers his salary of INR 20,000 per month to be below his stature. However, for any marginalised community person, that meagrely-paid job would most probably be a way to get out of years of oppression. The paper titled ‘Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012’ states that SC, ST, and OBC caste groups earn 21, 34, and 8 per cent less than the national average and that Brahmins earn 48% above the national average, owing to a casteist nexus at the place.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this further. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) ‘s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) database manifests that the proportion of employed upper castes decreased by seven percentage points between December 2019 and April 2020, and the corresponding fall for SCs, STs, and OBCs was exceedingly high at 20, 14, and 15 percentage points. Hence, Abhishek Tripathi experiences “problems” defined as “problems” specifically by the Brahmin community.
Throughout the two seasons, one notices Brahmins. They are everywhere. The director, the executive producer, the creative director, the associate creative producer, the assistant directors — and wait, when you would watch the end credits, you would notice that the nameless passers-by in the episode are also credited with their Brahmin surnames.
Only when the show has to depict itself in roles that Brahmins look down upon and do not want to associate with themselves, such as a marginalised man without a washroom, a politician who is a goon, a dancer, and a lovestruck but drunk auto driver — have the characters not been explicitly given Brahmin surnames. Among these cases, the powerful politicians’ economic aspirational status has been given a seemingly Thakur surname, and the destitute auto driver whom no one wants to end up being and whom Abhishek is uncomfortable with sleeping on his bed has been purposely given an OBC surname.
In the socio-economic climate of Uttar Pradesh, the women of the Nat community, a Scheduled Caste community, tend to perform on stage for meagre wages with no safety and are often at the end of violence and harassment from the upper castes. However, in all of these three roles, the dancer, the driver, and the politician have been performed by Brahmins in the show. But the show isn’t over yet. When the dancer needs some medical dressing after a scene of transphobia whose anti-LGBTQIA+ remarks haven’t been critically engaged within the show, Abhishek Tripathi, is cajoled by a bunch of corrupt Brahmins to drive the dancer to a nearby dispensary. The dispensary itself is named after another Brahmin doctor with the surname Tripathi. Throughout the show, one doesn’t meet minorities.
All across the two seasons, the show continues to be based in a Brahmin world and perpetuates an infantilising, misinforming, sexist, casteist upper-caste urban gaze on rural India. The sheer apathy and obstinate paucity of accountability that Abhishek Tripathy has towards rural India is an exclusive characteristic of privileged surnames such as his.
In the show, the Brahmin officials wrongfully decorate and misuse the rural school and government offices for their personal functions. If local government offices indeed run under the absolute control of Brahmins who use them for their wedding parties and where they and their relatives and friends stay, carry rifles, store and drink liquor, and then carry office chairs for personal use at their homes, then one can be sure that these Brahmins consider government property as their personal property. And one can most definitely be sure that reports of caste-based crimes would not be registered, let alone be penalised.
No SC, ST, or OBCs are a part of the council, and hence your anti-reservation remarks won’t come to your defence.
Laughter can be used as a form of resistance and also as a tool of brutality. It can be used to mock whimsical politicians and has also been used to protest, like while resisting Nazi Germany. Given this power, humour comes with a responsibility, which, if not inherent, needs to be consciously cultivated. Theories such as the arousal theory and incongruity resolution theory manifest that a laugh is not only a mere second of individual expression but is instead the result of societal culture and conditioning.
The ease with which the characters gel along is more because of the commonality of caste and less because of the presence of conscience towards the constitutional functioning of the local government office. Vishwanath Chatterjee and Abhishek Pandey play the sub-inspectors, Jayshankar Tripathi plays the head constable, Deepak Kumar Mishra plays the electrician, and even the father who wants to get his son registered is named Deenbandhu Pathak, while Jyoti Dubey plays the mother. The actor against whose name the Pradhan is mocked is Mithun Chakravarty.
As the episodes go on, the Brahmins mockingly tell the milkman to bathe, and even when the BDO calls someone on the phone, it invariably has to be a “Tiwari Ji”. When the two Brahmins in the office, the UP Pradhan and the Sahayak with surnames Pandey and Shukla, stop vehicles to collect contributions for the Akhand Ram Paath, the bus conductor is asked his name, and he replies, “Prajesh Mishra”. Meanwhile, the end credits of the episodes range from Chakraborty to Tiwary to Sharma to Jha to Chatterjee.
Through false objectivity and fabricated universality, Panchayat laughs at sexism and upholds casteism. One can see a visible difference between the house of the Pradhan Brijbhushan Dubey and the other houses of the marginalised who have not been mentioned by their social location nor has the cause behind this paucity deliberated upon.
Even in the instance in which Abhishek encounters a destitute man at the grocery store, who has not been paid his rightful wages due to the inefficiency and corruption of the so-called meritorious Brahmin council, Abhishek is comfortably apathetic and reluctantly involved in his government role. The Brahmin Pradhan has sacks of rice, litres of milk, and other riches at his house, way more than his family of three can consume even as the destitute man doesn’t even have INR 30 to purchase or rice to barter vegetable oil for cooking vegetables in his house leading to his child being unable to eat. The shopkeeper even has the audacity to direct the man to stop eating oil the way rich people are curbing its consumption. Systemically induced hunger cannot be compared to wilful zero-figure dieting. Only zilch conscience can draw such fundamentally baseless parallels.
Abhishek Tripathi mocks rural accent and flows with the corrupt, inefficient system. He chills about patriarchy, barring a couple of self-eulogising incidents where even as the women fight the battle, he is made the hero. The collective conscience and intelligence of any culture or individual can be gauged by the art it considers to be enjoyable and entertaining. Urban upper-caste viewers identify with this show terming it as a comedy because they identify with the same evasiveness and wilful unaccountability that Abhishek Tripathi has. All their lives, they have exploited rural people without even acknowledging their presence. And throughout the two seasons, again, the credits of the movie go from Chattopadhyay to Rao to Iyer to Desai to Deshmukh to Dwivedi.
In the second season, when Brahmins sell the mud extracted from the village in a corrupted manner, the mud rates are deliberated upon with a Tripathi, and the brick kiln owner then receives calls from some “Panditji” to whom he will give bricks.
The female representation of the show is solely upper caste and upper-class women who do not extend the marginalised any respect. The series touches on the demeaning regionalism perpetuated by those who use the more self-assigned superiority inducing “Main” on those who say “Hum” — both alternatives are used to refer to the self. Yet, the BDO office is again inundated with Brahmins on calls as well as nameplates, as the series normalises and, in fact, romanticises songs being played as women cook and men chill. Even when the Brahmin Pradhan’s family goes to meet a pathetic and prospective groom for their daughter, the groom’s father is referred to as “Pathak Ji,” indicating absolute caste-based endogamy.
When the Brahmin Pradhan Braj Bhushan Dubey, technically Pradhan Pati, faces opposition from rivals who question his corrupt practices in the second season, the opposition comes from another Brahmin, Bhushan Sharma, whose ego gets hurt. The idea that the marginalised can also question the system does not cross them.
And when Abhishek Tripathi’s friend Siddharth comes to the village, the Brahmin Pradhan listens to his first name, and then probes further, saying, “I understand your name is Siddharth. But tell me your full name.” The pradhan’s desperation knows no bounds when he learns that Siddharth only has his first name on his certificate, too. He then asks for Siddharth’s father’s name, to which also Siddharth replies with the first name. It is then that Abhishek Tripathi intervenes and mentions Siddharth’s family surname ‘Gupta’, that the Pradhan Braj Bhushan Dubey is relaxed and refers to him as “Gupta Ji.” The entire upper-caste group then hangs out together and asks Siddharth to join as well.
One wonders what would have happened if Siddharth was not an upper caste. Would he have been offered tea next, would he have been asked to leave, would he have been offered to sleep in the Brahmin pradhan’s house at night. But this intersection has been evaded and not dealt with. This upper-caste show doesn’t believe in bothering about how eighty per cent of the population would have been perceived and the kind of life the caste system forces them to live every day. In a later episode, when the other Brahmins remind the Brahmin Pradhan about Siddharth, the Pradhan is unable to recall him, and when he finally does, he refers to him as “Gupta Ji” and not as Siddharth. His caste is his sole identity.
Panchayat reinforces casteism under the cruel cloak of humour for the privileged. Linguistic commercialisation has been used to modify laughter — a tool of expression — into a tool of brutality. One is brought with ease with casteism; one is made comfortable with only Brahmins. Meanwhile, Raveena, Rinky’s friend, is played by Aanchal Tiwari. Rajkumar Bhaiya is played by Anup Sharma, the ward member has the surname Chakraborty, and again, the credits roll with surnames such as Kulkarni, Tiwari, Dubey, Pandit, Pathak, Mishra, Pandey, and Joshi.
Of course, so-called upper-caste critics, whose idea of India is purposely limited by their experience of elite, egocentric circles, are praising the TV series. That the upper-caste critics are praising this show itself is proof of the casteism perpetuated by the show under the mask of humour.
Even in death, there is caste, and the movie evades any discussion on it. Meanwhile, the credits again go from Tendulkar to Bhattacharjee to Trivedi to Sharma to Jha to Upadhyay to Pandey.
In the very first scene of the first season of Panchayat, as soon as Abhishek Tripathi enters the village, the Brahmin Pradhan Brijbhushan Dubey wholeheartedly welcomes him, telling his wife Manju Devi, “Most important thing; he is from our caste“. One wonders if the creation of the show was done on the same lines.
Featured Image Source: Amazon Prime