Art

Ghar Waapsi and the Shape-Shifting Art of Breaking Free

In a pre-pandemic world, the term “ghar waapsi” (homecoming) carried negative connotations. There was an air of resignation about it: People don’t return home, they retreat. We don’t leave hometowns; we leave them behind. Moving out from that childhood bedroom, from that familiar colony and neighbourhood, was an act of evolution, but moving back was mostly considered a sign of deficiency or defeat — by big-city life, adulthood, love, the pressures of identity and individualism; by living itself. “Retired hurt” is the cricketing analogy my father uses when he notices me visiting him for longer than usual. The analogy implies that the batsman isn’t dismissed on the pitch – he is only back in the pavilion to recuperate, regroup and replenish his capacity to survive. This is 28-year-old Shekhar’s (Vishal Vashishtha) reading of “ghar waapsi” when he loses his job in Bengaluru in the opening minutes of the new Dice Media series. He’s soon back in his hometown Indore, hoping to make it his pavilion until he finds a new job. He is itching to continue his innings after this unscheduled break. The camera is on him as he adjusts to his old-new environment, finds love and fresh purpose.

But the transformation of Shekhar is rooted in his ability to recognise that – despite being the restless hero of his own narrative – he is the self-involved supporting character in stories that should be no less than his. He didn’t just visit Indore once a year; his parents and two younger siblings watched him leave once a year, too. His presence is temporary, but it’s their permanence that gets affected. The opening titles supply this line of thought. Not only do all the cast names appear below one collective credit, “Starring” is abbreviated to “*ing”. As if to suggest everyone is the asterisk of someone else’s existence. Everyone is a “they” in someone else’s space.

Covid isn’t part of the story, but the show itself embodies our renovated perception of the titular term. For better or worse, the last two-and-a-half years have humanised the concept of a homecoming.

This democratization of perspective – where Ghar Waapsi manages to celebrate the act of conforming without glorifying it; where the term is an ode to escaping and breaking free at once – is a rare triumph in an era that equates distance traveled with personal progress. It could have very easily regressed into a statement about roots and tradition. Over its six episodes, though, Ghar Waapsi reveals a post-pandemic shift in culture and social dynamics. Covid isn’t part of the story, but the show itself embodies our renovated perception of the titular term. For better or worse, the last two-and-a-half years have humanised the concept of a homecoming. Millions returned home in pursuit of survival and stability, riding out lockdowns with not just stranger-like family members, but also memories of a bygone time. The fear of death – combined with a constant negotiation of space – has made people more alive to the world around them. As a result, moving back is now no longer limited to the one who returns. Parents, childhood friends, relatives and siblings – who were previously looked at as peripheral characters in other coming-of-age journeys – are now acknowledged as the protagonists of their own long-form stories.

A few years ago, I’d have dismissed Shekhar’s rediscovery of home as a reckless pipe dream: One that perhaps conveys the wrong message for small-town kids who aspire to shed social shackles. But today, in 2022, I see that security is not the same as safety; one person’s break is another’s livelihood. Shekhar is in debt in Bengaluru, trapped in a cycle of capitalism and urban isolation. The jobs he strives to get are simply devices to sustain social notes of progress. He is only strengthening the shackles. By having second thoughts about this path and by ‘staying’ in Indore instead of just visiting, Shekhar is legitimizing a new normal. He is choosing self-fulfilment, which takes courage to do in a country that often fails to distinguish between yearning and nostalgia.

I like that the writing in Ghar Waapsi remains honest and grounded. It presents Shekhar as a character that doesn’t need a peg – like renewed patriotism (Swades2004), rural charm (Panchayat) or artistic voice (Tamasha, 2015) – to stop sprinting on the hamster wheel. Early on, in the first few episodes, Shekhar helps resuscitate his father’s failing travel agency; he also shows interest in his brother’s crises, his mother’s health and his sister’s love life. This, for him, is a distraction from all the rejection emails he’s getting to the job applications he’s made. It keeps him occupied. But towards the end, he realises that the life he once envisioned for himself – dream job, big city, live-in relationship – is actually a distraction from the man he really is. His transition is defined by what he doesn’t want, which in turn nudges him closer to what he needs. Shekhar starts to doubt his own language of moving forward, but his slow-burning affection for his hometown doesn’t mean he’s moving backward. He mends bridges with each of his family members one by one, yet their compatibility isn’t fixed overnight.

Ghar Waapsi isn’t perfect, of course. At times, it succumbs to a neatness that is reminiscent of shows made by The Viral Fever (TVF), when it clunkily tries to connect the macro with the micro. Like when Shekhar’s life lessons become job-interview speeches, or when his enlightenment at home inspires a crucial presentation at work. Some metaphors are too staged, like when the foodie father sounds strangely particular about his jalebis only so that his wise friend can draw a parallel between his clarity and his children’s desires. But the series cleverly features all the beats and tropes of what is commonly considered ‘winning’ in life: Shekhar impressing his future boss at a random campus; Shekhar convincing his girlfriend to move in with him; a montage of Shekhar nailing a product brief against all odds. That the final episode upends our notion of success, after showingcasing all its ingredients, is a testament to some perceptive performances.

The cast is excellent all around, especially Atul Srivastava as a gentle Pankaj-Tripathi-esque father and Ajitesh Gupta as Shekhar’s crude but hopelessly loyal best friend. Eventually, it’s Vashistha’s turn as Shekhar Dwivedi that drives the wordless empathy between the show’s lines. I haven’t seen his work before and from the looks of it, that’s entirely my loss. It’s a miracle he’s been hidden for so long. There’s a distinct everyman warmth about his face that prevents Shekhar from becoming yet another iteration of an impatient Ayushmann Khurrana character, an anxious Jitendra Kumar hero or even a quiet Ranbir Kapoor drifter. A moment in the first episode demonstrates his range. Shekhar is invited to a relative’s home and it’s only while speaking to a local girl, alone, that he realises his family is secretly playing matchmaker. Without saying a word, his face gears through all stages of cognisance. In the latter episodes, even his rage feels both talkative and mild-mannered at once – a trait that helps us tell Shekhar’s entitlement from his inherent goodness. The shadow of turning 30 years old looms over the narrative, but Vashistha’s performance ensures that Shekhar’s age is incidental to his awakening.

Beyond the Indian titles, the series brings to mind some of my favorite culinary stories. Which sort of makes sense, because food is perhaps the most fluid medium of self-expression. Where a cook comes from is more important than where a chef goes. The first one is The Hundred-Foot Journey, in which a gifted Indian immigrant rises through the cooking ranks of a quaint French village, leaves to become the hottest chef in Paris, but quits the spotlight to return and run his family-owned restaurant in the village. The film, which stars Om Puri and Helen Mirren, isn’t about this young man – he is simply a moving piece in the larger marriage story between belonging and togetherness. The second one is the life of Masterchef Australia Season 14 winner, Billie McKay. McKay returned to the fans-and-favorites format this year as a rare contestant who never went on to make something of herself despite winning the title seven years ago. She quit her apprenticeship under a famous chef in Britain, went back to her farm, married her partner and started a family. As it turned out, stepping away from a professional career hadn’t hampered her talent one bit. After becoming the first double-winner in the history of the show, she spoke about opening a dessert restaurant near her farm.

For once, this conveyed an intimate understanding of ambition – and its relationship with personal identity – rather than a blatant lack of it. This doesn’t mean that McKay’s family ‘stopped’ her in any way. Perhaps she chose to have it all, rather than sacrifice the past at the altar of a future. Shekhar’s father refuses to let him get too involved in his agency because he fears his son might settle for less. He keeps telling Shekhar to concentrate on his own fate, his job search, his life, thus relegating himself to a dispensable piece of history whose only job is to fade away. All he wants is for his son to aim for the stars. But Shekhar goes against the grain and opts for balance – which is, ultimately, the only way of turning an asterisk into a star.

Ghar Waapsi is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.

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