Gullak on SonyLIV belongs to TVF's new brand of soft nostalgia, family binge-watching, and small-town slowness
Until recently, the binge was a necessarily solo activity. Now, however, we are in the middle of the ‘smart TV’ boom. Parents are looking for things they can watch at home, but with their children watching, too.
'Gullak' is the Hindi word for a piggy bank but it is so much more than that. For middle-class, Hindi-speaking kids, the gullak represents hope, the kind that is cobbled together through years of incremental optimism. In an era where flamboyant digital payment czars dance for their employees onstage, it may be difficult to imagine this degree of emotional significance attached to an innocuous coin box.
But for the The Viral Fever (TVF) show Gullak, the second season of which released this month, this inanimate object assumes near-mythical proportions. In a very well-thought-out writing choice, the gullak is the narrator of this story, that of the Mishras, a contemporary North Indian, middle-class nuclear family.
It is never specified exactly where in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or Jharkhand (you get the drift) the Mishras live. Likewise we are never given a first name for Mr Mishra (the superb Jameel Khan who played Asgar in Gangs of Wasseypur) or Mrs Mishra (Geetanjali Kulkarni, every bit as brilliant); for the purposes of this story, they are “Mishra ji” and “Aman ki mummy” respectively. Mishra ji works at the state electricity board while Mrs Mishra is a housewife. The elder son Annu is an unemployed young man, and it is implied that his less-than-ideal academic track record is to blame. Younger son Aman is a bit of a simpleton. He is afraid he is going to fail the upcoming board examinations, and struggles to keep up with the fast-paced repartee emanating from the rest of his family.
As expected, a lot of their internecine squabbles and feel-good bonding moments have to do with economic tensions (scrimping on the electricity bill, penny-pinching while shopping for wedding gifts and so on), and that is where the gullak-narrator (Shivankit Singh Parihar) comes in.
Gullak strives to tell us an everyman story. If the narrative strokes feel broad, they are designed to. Mrs Mishra will continue to be the pragmatic, indomitable maternal figure. Annu will continue to trust the mystical powers of ‘jugaad.' Aman will never be much smarter than he is right now. The point of these characters is not growth or evolution; it is to create a metonymic representation of the North Indian middle class. Again and again, the narrator reminds us he is telling us in-stasis “kisse” (anecdotes), and not a full-fledged "kahani" (story), insisting that “jo badal jaaye woh kahani” (if it changes, it is a story!). The lack-of-change is rather the point. All happy families, after all, resemble each other as Leo Tolstoy said, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way.
Another TVF show Yeh Meri Family (on Netflix India) was a similar experiment, only not as convincing as Gullak. It had the additional constraint of being set in the '90s. Together, three TVF shows — Gullak, Yeh Meri Family, and the charming Panchayat (on Amazon Prime Video India) — form a loose trilogy of mostly feel-good stories from small-town or in the case of Panchayat, rural India. In doing so, they resemble an earlier generation of ‘small canvas’ shows in India: Malgudi Days, Wagle Ki Duniya, Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne, and many others.
By now, most streaming services have realised the immense sales value of nostalgia. We are not just talking about period pieces like Taj Mahal 1989 or Yeh Meri Family here. We are talking about TV shows from the '80s and the '90s, currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and so on. Prime Video even has a selection tab called ‘Throwback TV’ in India — you can watch Shaktimaan, Malgudi Days, Raja Aur Rancho, and several other ‘vintage’ Indian TV shows from the '90s.
The big reason why the TVF trilogy resembles some of these vintage shows is slowness. Yes, slowness, that thing you might have forgotten about in the middle of the latest season of Money Heist or 13 Reasons Why or How To Get Away With Murder, modern-day entertainment behemoths built on one guiding principle — do not let the audience peel their eyes away for a second. The amount of plot per second is off the charts for all of these shows.
David Denby once gave Christopher Nolan a backhanded compliment by saying his movies try to conjure “an air of constant climax." If you look at the streaming landscape right now, you realise that so much of contemporary television adheres to this ADHD-like sensibility (I do not mean to suggest it is necessarily an affliction, merely that the restlessness is comparable).
Not so for the likes of Gullak. Slowness is hardwired into these stories, which is why they often end on a note of contemplative silence. At the end of every episode, more or less, the Mishras find themselves back to square one, so to speak. They have neither squandered their position nor received a windfall. The wheels of middle-class existence continue to rotate at leisurely pace. The ornate plotlessness, punctuated by iconic domestic images (like Mrs Mishra’s sil-batta or grindstone, which she claims lends an extra flavour to the coriander chutney; she is not wrong), add up to a kind of super-affectionate parody. You know, like the way we parody a famously irascible uncle in family gatherings. It develops an air of immediate intimacy which any TV creator would kill for.
It is said that novels, ultimately, are about controlling the passage of time — with ‘anecdotal’ TV like Gullak, the point is to ‘suspend’ the passage of time, to trick your brain into enforced slowness.
Think about similarly cozy Western sitcoms like One Day At A Time; why do you think it was named that? In an earlier era, you watched the beloved members of your favorite onscreen family every week — and this was like a calendar ritual.
So many tropes in Gullak capture something elusive yet indisputable about middle-class North India. Like the shaadi episode, a little marvel by itself, a comedy of manners that reveals more about North Indian social mores than any number of Mirzapur set-pieces. We are told that Mrs Mishra’s brother Pinky has invited the Mishras to his daughter’s wedding — however, the wedding invite does not have ‘sehparivaar’ (along with your family) written on it, which Mr Mishra perceives as a deliberate slight. He decides not to go to the wedding.
“Chhota sheher sirf naam ka chhota hota hai. Par ego? Ego bohot bada hota hai. Itna bada ki nikat bhavishya mein agar United Nations Ego Index naamak koi cheez banaaye, toh hamaara desh ajeevan top pe rahe!” (A small town’s small in name alone. Egos are huge around here. Big enough that if United Nations were to create an ‘Ego Index’ sometime soon, our country would be perpetually on top of the list.)
Weddings in India (especially North India) are the sites of so many little machinations like these. A delightful section in this episode features Annu riffing on the concept of the ‘shaadi register,' a list of all the wedding gifts given and received by the family. Those relatives who have insulted you in the past will be given gifts slightly more expensive than the ones they have given you — it is one-upmanship and a show of nobility simultaneously. By which to say, it is small-town shitbaggery of rare caliber, quite worthy of my home states of Bihar/Jharkhand (either of which Gullak could easily have been set in).
People who grew up in largely affluent parts of the country, like Defence Colony (Delhi) or Cuffe Parade (Mumbai) might identify with shows like Made in Heaven or Four More Shots Please!; I would not know. To me, those characters and their problems are not particularly interesting. I, however, was born in Darbhanga (Bihar) and grew up in Ranchi (Jharkhand), and therefore my world was always closer to Gullak than Made in Heaven. It is a question of perspective. Many among TVF’s array of creators (Biswapati Sarkar et al) belong to smaller towns, and it is therefore no surprise that they have created some authentic, compelling portrayals of these places.
Finally, shows like Gullak also serve an important purpose now — communal binge-watching. Until recently, the binge was a necessarily solo activity. At best, you and your partner could watch things that you both like. Now, however, we are in the middle of the ‘smart TV’ boom. Parents are looking for things they can watch on Netflix, Prime, and Disney+ Hotstar, but with their children watching, too.
As such, most of the big-name Indian OTT shows of recent times — Sacred Games, Mirzapur, et al — are not really ‘family entertainment’ in the traditional sense of the phrase (regardless of your or my personal levels of prudishness, this is a fact). In this scenario, Gullak or Panchayat, for that matter, presents a viable alternative.
Gullak is streaming on SonyLIV.
All images from Facebook.
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