The character that actor Jitendra Kumar plays in his new web series, Panchayat, that of Abhishek Tripathi, has drawn strong comparisons with Shah Rukh Khan’s Mohan Bhargav in the 2004 film Swades. In the film, Khan comes back to his native village after quitting his job with NASA, to ‘light a bulb’, while in the web series, Kumar heads to a small village called Phulera in Uttar Pradesh, as the panchayat sachiv. Life in Phulera is a far cry from his otherwise urban life, which includes shopping in malls and posting selfies on Instagram.
“The comparisons were inevitable. But I am very happy about it, as I am a huge fan of the film. It left a deep impact on me. I even have a framed poster of the film — the one with SRK sitting in a boat surrounded by local villagers — in my home, and which I now constantly look at, given the lockdown,” says 29-year-old Kumar, who was last seen in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan — India’s first ever mainstream gay love story.
Panchayat, which has been produced by TVF and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has received rave reviews for its realistic portrayal of rural life, and also for offering an insight into governance at the grassroots level. The show had been on the cards since 2017, but kept getting delayed. “For me, it was a huge learning curve, as it broke my perceptions about how a panchayat actually functions. Earlier, I used to think the elders sit around a tree in a circle and that was it. There is a charpai and it’s all a very solemn affair. But there is a lot more to it. There is a proper office, and a lot of paperwork,” he says. Panchayat has Kumar playing the lead alongside veteran actors Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta in pivotal roles.
The show, which has eight 30-minute episodes, has broken the stereotypical portrayal of rural India in the mainstream. It doesn’t sugarcoat the problems, or reduce the rural space to a song-and-dance escape, like in mainstream Bollywood films. Nor does it go the other extreme where everyone is killing the other and converses only in expletives, a staple of many of the films by directors like Anurag Kashyap and Abhishek Chaubey. “A lot of narratives with small towns and villages were coming in, but none of that was in a ‘simple’ and ‘feel good’ space. The idea was to reestablish the connection with the hinterland,” says the actor.
Small towns and their shenanigans are very much in the wheelhouse of Jitendra Kumar. His screen avatars — be it Jeetu Bhaiya (Kota Factory) or Munna Jazbaati from the eponymous comedy sketch show —both produced by TVF, have ensured him a huge fan following. His hassled, beleaguered look has now become a trademark of sorts. He feels that it has made him quite relatable with the masses, and is happy with this calling card. “After the shoot of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, the team was sitting together along with director Hitesh Kewalya. During that discussion, I got miffed with something and had this irritated expression on my face. Hitesh commented, ‘Tujhe irritated dekh ke bahut maza aata hai’. And I guess that’s the entertainment factor people now associate with me, and I am quite happy with it. It’s working for now,” he says. “I would get stressed about being typecast, but now I have started to enjoy it. I make sure that even in the same brief for a character, I do something new. We all need to reinvent ourselves constantly and I have a long road ahead of me.”
Born and brought in Kairthal, near Alwar in Rajasthan, Kumar says he had no aspirations to become an actor. He was on track to be an engineer, and is armed with a degree in civil engineering from IIT-Kharagpur. Acting offered him an escape from the monotony of academics. “Theatre and drama in college made me feel good about 2 and also helped to not feel guilty when I would perhaps not study. After watching me in college, my friends pushed me to take up acting as a profession,” adds the actor, who was introduced to TVF by fellow IIT-K alumnus Biswapati Sarkar.
Also Read | Panchayat review: It takes a village
For now, Jitendra Kumar is revelling in the adulation that his work has received. If these were normal circumstances, he would’ve been flooded with scripts for new projects, but given the lockdown, he is spending time at home, surrounded by film posters of Swades and Charlie Chaplin, his go-to films.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines