Jitendra Kumar Interview – Then an IIT product, now a digital star

Jitendra Kumar Interview – Then an IIT product, now a digital star

Jitendra Kumar a.k.a Jeetu Bhaiya was like one of the many students in the popular show Kota Factory (where he played a teacher), hoping that an admission in an IIT would lay a foundation for a secure future. He did manage an admission in the IITs after a lot of struggle (IIT Kharagpur) and the institute did pave a path for him, but in the direction, he had least expected it to be. It was the place where his acting dreams came alive and he got to know his heart’s true calling. Life, expectedly, was a roller coaster ride since then with many highs and lows. But here he is, tasting the joys of pursuing his dreams and getting paid for it handsomely. His persistence finally paid off through a series of digital appearances and the much-acclaimed feature film Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan. Panchayat, his latest show on Amazon Prime Video, is just the icing his career needed and no wonder, he’s on cloud nine. Jitendra Kumar in a freewheeling chat with LetsOTT.com bares his heart out…

Kota Factory, Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan and your recent show Panchayat have gone onto receive unanimous appreciation. You must be thoroughly overjoyed…

I’m happy about these successes. Panchayat has enjoyed a great reception in this hour and the lockdown is giving me more time to savour it. The PR exercise is keeping slightly busy but I’m glad it was received with great warmth. It’s not a regular show and we didn’t expect the audience would lap it up so unanimously. We knew it would strike a chord with a section of viewers. It was a pleasant surprise to hear everyone liking it and I’m glad to have been a cause of their cheer in this uncertain hour.

All these projects were essentially stories that tried to convey a larger thought about life in a lighter vein. (following your heart – Kota Factory, discussing homophobia – Shubh Mangal…, elaborating urban-rural disconnect - Panchayat) Do you make it a point to choose such stories?

It wasn’t our intention to drive a message. The attempt was to give it a humorous exterior and we packaged the messages through characters and didn’t try to make it obvious. Stories are often a reflection of what the writer perceives and the actor interprets the role given to him based on his experiences. All said and done, humour is the pill through which we can discuss many philosophies and ideas. Take it out and the response may not be the same.  The choices of all the above-mentioned outings were rather organic. I wouldn’t mind doing a slapstick comedy or an action film either.

Take us through your shoot for Panchayat at the village in Madhya Pradesh…

The shoot was difficult because of the weather conditions. We had shot for the series in March 2019 (for over four months) when the temperature rose up to 43 degrees. However, the script kept our spirits high – it was light, humorous and not intense. The eclectic cast comprising a mix of established and young actors including Raghubir Yadav sir, Neena (Gupta) mam, Chandan Roy among many ensured a healthy environment. The writer Chandan Kumar and the director Deepak Kumar Mishra made us feel very comfortable. The mood was upbeat always, it helped us focus on work and deliver our lines well. Getting an entire team from Mumbai to work in such extreme climatic conditions was a challenge, but everything was managed so efficiently.

Panchayat highlighted the indifference with which urban youngsters look at villages. It was so good in offering a reality check to many of its younger viewers…

Yes, indeed! Urban development has been happening on a large scale over the last two decades. Villages too have begun to lose their native flavour owing to this. Many villagers have migrated to the cities for work. A show like this was important in reminding the beauty of villages to the younger lot and the charm in leading a life by the countryside. People living in the villages have a rosy idea about cities as they migrate. We (the city-bred lot) hardly have a connect with villages though. Even if we do, it’s like a mini-tour or a holiday where we have little understanding of the lives there.

Despite belonging to a small town, I never got to see a Panchayat all my life. The show’s arrival was timely and has made people more aware. ‘Woh gaaon mein khuli hawa, simple life, family ke saath jeene ka mazaa kuch aur hai’. Being in an agriculture-dependent economy, the focus of youngsters on development in villages could be the difference between the ‘developing’ nation we are and the ‘developed’ nation we want to become. Reaping richer dividends out of agriculture could end many problems in the country including unemployment.

Incidentally, the lockdown has taught has a lot about how our lives are intertwined with the villages…

Lockdown offers us a lot of time to think about this - our misjudgements in the past, the wrong we did to the planet, the road ahead towards the future. I’m happy that Panchayat gave us the time to remember our roots, reminding how our lives are inexplicably tied to the villages – be it vegetables, milk and several aspects that complete our day. We should also make the effort to give back something to them. Little initiatives like these can make the country a better place to live. We have underplayed many such aspects about the villages in the show too, albeit in a funny context. After a long time, people have got to watch a series with their families. This generation of parents who know the value of life in the villages have appreciated it a lot, which is rare and has given me immense satisfaction.

Hindi film stories/shows set in a village have either been excessively syrupy or gory. Panchayat miraculously was able to tread the middle-ground approach…

Panchayat proved that many kinds of stories can exist in a small town – they needn’t always be overly sweet or melancholic/dark. Simple people leading a happy life without any vested interests can also live in the villages. I grew up watching many television shows in the 90s like these – simple stories full of characters that have an uncanny sense of humour. The onset of OTT platforms has marked a rise in content that have explored either the difficulties faced by a small-town guy in a city or stories revolving of crime and gangsters in a village backdrop. We were trying to avoid many such stereotypes while making Panchayat.

Was the idea always to tell the story of a village through a Panchayat office?

We initially only thought of an official set up in a village and also considered the backdrop of a hospital, school to tell the story. The Panchayat setting was locked because it is something that affects a villager every day, also offering an opportunity to introduce viewers to a gamut of characters with various shades and discuss village politics in a lighter vein. The writer and the director visited a lot of villages, met many sarpanchs and came back with many interesting stories. When we heard the script, we felt it was too light-hearted, that not much was happening in the sequences – it was only during the shoot that we realised the realism in the script and its setting. Many incidents at the shoot in the village were very similar to what was happening in the script and our team had great fun chatting about it every day. I thought the show reflected the simplicity and the innocence of the villages without much fuss.

Like Abhishek Tripathi in Panchayat, did you dream of a regular corporate career as you joined engineering?

Yes, it never materialised though. When I joined IIT Kharagpur, my aim was to take up a corporate career. Engineering began as a dream for me. As reality dawned upon me, I realised engineering jobs are very few in the country and that many students shift to IT careers for a living. Over the years, I lost interest in engineering, studied less and understood the subject even lesser. I was very confused about my career. I was doing theatre since my engineering first year though and was an active part of the college group called ‘Hindi Technology Dramatics Society’ where I performed in at least 3-4 plays every year. Isi mein mera zyaada dhyaan rehta tha... I knew that I really enjoyed acting but had little idea about making a career out of it. I got in touch with my seniors (who became actors after engineering) who gave me clarity and motivated me in many ways. TVF is the acting school that made me what I am, through which I was introduced to many actors who helped me and my craft evolve.

From Permanent Roommates to Panchayat, TVF has played an integral role in shaping up your career…

I agree. In fact, I am a part of TVF’s core team. Many of the co-founders and partners in TVF were my college seniors. We were a bunch of friends wanting to make a name for ourselves in the film industry, act and tell stories (the way we know it). Committed to our dream, we came together for TVF (including Biswapati Sarkar, Arunabh Kumar, Amit Golani) in 2012 hoping our stories would have takers as well. I was part of the second video (which wasn’t received too well) and the internal response within the team wasn’t favourable for my later videos too, after which I left TVF briefly. I went onto do a civil engineering job in Bangalore, only to realise I wasn’t cut out for that. I was so pessimistic that I thought I wasn’t fit for anything in life and should at least make an attempt to learn acting. I couldn’t make it to the acting school of my choice, but it was the same time when my videos (made during my early days in TVF) were uploaded and earned a fantastic response. It was a reality check for me that motivated me to pursue a career in acting.

I returned to TVF in 2013 and have become a permanent team member. The short videos gained in popularity and gave us the confidence to make shows in the longer format – the success of Permanent Roommates (first web series in India) and the response for our humour, filled us with a lot of self-belief and assured us that we could pay our bills with it too. Year after year, we went onto making good shows including Pitchers, Bachelors, Tripling, Kota Factory and now Panchayat. I find my comfort zone in the work TVF does. It’s a place where we respect each other’s work, take inputs and have fun – the team spirit is unmatched. We don’t take pressure as we work, there’s no fear and there’s freedom.

Many of your personal experiences at Kota and later at IIT Kharagpur must have proven very handy for your role as a teacher in Kota Factory…

Many members from TVF’s core team are products of IIT who were acclimatised about how exhaustive the coaching for admission can get. Everyone had a story about their IIT preparation and the times they spent in Kota during their 11th and 12th grade. Kota Factory was a story we were very passionate about and one we wanted to tell it at the right time. The writers of the show, Abhishek Yadav, Sandeep Jain, Saurabh Khanna were very well versed with the struggles of getting into IIT and about the life in coaching institutions. However, many years had passed since they went through those experiences, due to which they spent a lot of time researching about it and understanding the changes in the culture, the teaching paradigm according to syllabus changes. Life of a student used to change as per the exam patterns.

I was in Kota between 2006-08 and a lot had changed about the place in 2018 when we shot for Kota Factory. The inputs for the role came from the writers, but I knew the emotion of the character. I used to mimic my teachers a lot when I studied in Kota during the 15-minute breaks. I even taught Physics in Mumbai for a brief duration to pay my bills. I observed the student-teacher equation in many institutes, across Youtube videos and personalised the portrayal with my experiences as well.

The lockdown must have been a welcome break from work, especially that you’ve been working nonstop from the last couple of years…

It has been a breather. I have been continuously shooting since 2018. Bachelors, Gone Kesh, a project for Yoodlee Films, Kota Factory, Cheese Cake, Panchayat and Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan kept me really busy for the last year and a half. I took brief breaks in between, but I wish the lockdown break happened for a pleasant reason. I am getting time to think about myself, environment, trying to be in a good mood and taking stock of the reception of Panchayat. It hasn’t been easy, but the success of the show has kept me going.

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