Pick of the Week: Paatal Lok
Produced by Anushka Sharma's Clean Slate Films for Amazon Prime, Paatal Lok tells the story of a cynical inspector tasked with investigating a high-profile assassination attempt that leads him into the violent and dark realm of the underworld. A binge-fest waiting to happen!
“A man who loves dogs is a good man. A man who is loved by dogs is a good man”.
Paatal Lok sums up the grey in which humanity treads its existence in these two lines. How do you really judge a man for the crimes that he has committed? Is it right to centre their lives on that one tragedy that turned them onto the downward path of ‘paatal’ (hell)?
A celebrity TV anchor, Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) is the target of a group of killers. The case is handed over to a worn out and cynical cop, Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaydeep Ahlawat). What follows is a peeling off, layer by layer, of the rotten onion that is the Indian political and administrative system, at the hands of villains from the UP badlands. Directed by Avinash Arun (Killa) and Prosit Roy and created by Sudip Sharma who also wrote the Sharma starrer NH10, the series spins off episode by episode into four divergent, broadly tied stories which dive deep into crime’s entrenched ruthlessness; stories also rooted firmly within the surrounding socio-political culture that breeds hapless criminals, who are often themselves victims of vengeance and violence. A vicious, forsaken cycle.
In recent times, Indian mythology has found a crevice in cinema through which it has subtly manifested and seeped into contemporary culture. Like Netflix’s Sacred Games, the magnificent film Tumbbad or Voot’s Asur before it, Paatal Lok too, takes philosophical inspiration from the folklore and myths that permeate through every village, childhood story and bad political speech in this country, and fashions them into a black hearted crime thriller. The word ‘paatal lok’ means the nether-world, or hell, the exact opposite of ‘swarg-lok’, or heaven. In between lies the ‘dharti lok’ for people, like you and I. The show deals with the dichotomy between these three levels, with the protagonists of each level (if you can call them that) trapped, and having to ferry themselves to-and-fro from one level to another. It is through them that we are slowly led into the shadows of morality, which, with every episode become increasingly difficult to navigate, as they rise up beyond the pataal lok.
But instead of becoming a series of loosely referenced and flat, obvious metaphors and explainers, the series’ engrossing story and stellar performances (down to the smallest role) takes us into the darkness at every level of this three tiered universe, laying out clever parallels between the English-speaking world of the journalist Mehra and the foul-mouthed and corrupt world of Hathi Ram, Ansari and the convicts. It would not be totally out of place to quote Sartre in this scenario: ‘Hell is other people’.
No character is completely devoid of a hell within themselves either. As a morally ambiguous, ambitious journalist determined to make the most of this opportunity, Neeraj Kabi delivers a delicious performance. The main antagonist of the series, Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) is a man who speaks for perhaps 30 seconds in the entire show, but has a presence that steals a considerable part of its spotlight. But it is undoubtedly Jaydeep Ahlawat to whom this series belongs. As Hathi Ram Chaudhary, a beaten down, exasperated but experienced cop looking for that one case which will get him to the top, Ahlawat is outstanding. He brings a measured authenticity to Hathi Ram’s constant tussle with what life has put on his plate, whether it is his rebellious teenage son at home or his years of being pinned down by a cop he thought was his friend. Even the classic old-cop-teaches-rookie pairing of Hathi Ram with newcomer Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) boldly goes far beyond the trope, delving into the discrimination and stereotyping that have indeliby left a mark on the character’s, as well as the nation’s psyche.
Religion, caste, misogyny, corruption and violence: these are seen, swallowed and spat out onto someone else by people comprising every level, whether it is the high status South Delhi localities or crude, rural areas of Chitrakoot and Punjab. When we travel through the bylanes of each of the four accused, we are again taken into four separate worlds where caste discrimination, child sexual abuse, discrimination against transgender people and corruption take centre stage everyday. These backstories don’t redeem the four accused, but shield them from the simplistic ‘villain’ stamp. Instead, they are used to reveal the foul constructs of society, which have ultimately created these outlaws, by establishing again and again as a fact in their lives - the system will not help you.
The show’s intricate carving however, is also what makes it convoluted. And so there are some loose ends left, especially Hathi Ram’s backstory, clunkily summed up in 15 seconds and which unfortunately shows only a singular dimension of his life. Nor do we see Sanjeev Mehra’s backstory. But what is so satisfying about the show is that it shows us that there is no easy way to fix the system, there are no sudden saving graces that will magically propel it towards uniformity and justice. What also really caught our attention was how effectively the series manages to keep a hold on contemporary India’s narrative; cynical (a projection of which we find in Hathi Ram’s personality), a rotting pile of carcass if you see it from afar, but in actuality, as DCP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) says, ‘a well-oiled machinery.’
Paatal Lok is an intense, impressive shot fired from Amazon Prime and touting it the "Sacred Games of Amazon Prime" does injustice to this gritty tale about the Delhi crime scene. For one, it rumbles in a far darker and morally grim world than the more mystical and stylishly retro-fitted Saif starrer. But it also leaves its audience, who has arrived at the finish line swinging their blades, cutting through its beyond redemption mess of a setting, with some deep and complex questions - What does it really mean to be ‘good’? Can we all be ‘good’? Or does that deep seated rage, threatening to jump out one day, a hell of our own making, leave us to burn in our own fires?
Available to watch on Amazon Prime. Directed by Avinash Arun whose directorial debut Killa won the Crystal Bear Award at the 64th Berlin International Festival in 2014. He is also a cinematographer with films like Masaan, Killa, Hichki, Drishyam and Madaari to his credit. Co-director Prosit Roy made his debut with the Anushka Sharma starrer Pari. He has assisted with renowned filmmakers such as Vishal Bharadwaj, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra and Ashutosh Gowarikar on films like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Phillauri and Delhi-6.