The first scene of Paatal Lok is Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary, played by Jaideep Ahlawat, initiating his junior, Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh), on the three worlds that coexist in Delhi. It’s also a fantastic introduction to the three worlds that the web series explores as well.
“Sabse upar swarg lok, jisme devta rehte hai”– the Delhi Elite: hotel owners, media personalities and politicians.
“Beech mein dharti lok, jidme aadmi rehte hai”– the middle-class survivors: policewomen and policemen, trying to do their job, trying to live by the state’s laws.
“Aur sabse neeche paatal lok, jisme keede rehte hai”– the bottom ranks of every social structure: the lowest classes, lowest castes, the non-binary LGBTQ+ people.
And Paatal Lok definitely navigates all three worlds with as much authenticity as possible.
Created by Sudip Sharma and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, Paatal Lok is Amazon Prime’s latest original web series, produced under Clean Slate Filmz–actress Anushka Sharma’s production house. It has a wild star cast as well, with Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Gul Panag, all the while giving equal footage to talented newcomers. It released today, May 15, and had all the best elements for an investigative drama, that come from Sudip Sen’s marvelous, messed up mind.
I won’t delve too much into the details. Paatal Lok starts off in Delhi, when 4 strange young people are convicted for the attempt to murder. They were to murder Sanjeev Mehra–played by Neeraj Kabi–who is a bigshot media journalist with debilitating TRPs. Handling these four convicts is assigned to Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary, a cynical washed-up cop, who is delighted to finally have a high-profile case under his jurisdiction. So, here are the people of the system, the three pillars of democracy, if you will. The media, the police, and the occasional politician who pulls the strings that make the police move this way and that.
From Delhi, the story travels with Inspector Chaudhari and Ansari to the interiors of India–UP’s Chitrakoot and Punjab–to discover how these four convicts are but products of a violent, oppressive system. The narrative never condones them for the things that they have done, but offers a very neutral perspective on the makings of a “criminal”. The most dangerous of the four is Vishal Tyagi who hails from Chitrakoot. He’s wanted for 45 murders and other crimes, and has a generally creepy, serial-killer vibe going on. Very stylish. Then there’s Tope Singh, a reckless Punjabi who joins the group of lower-caste rebels in his village, to fight against caste violence. Kabir M is the third one, a petty criminal hailing from Delhi who just steals cars and bikes to earn a living. He refuses to reveal what ‘M’ stands for in fear of being yet another statistical victim to hate crimes against Muslims in India. Mary Lyngdoh is the fourth convict, who hails from Nepal and grew up on the cruel streets of Delhi. She was born with male genitalia, but is a woman by self-definition, and is mercilessly thrown into the male prison ward.
They are the ‘keede’ of Paatal Lok; the lowest of the low, the scums of the system who are helpless and desperate to earn money, take revenge, and escape the cruelties of caste and class.
Where the Show Wins
Paatal Lok wins in its honest, engaging storytelling that is married with impeccable acting. It has the perfect mix of experienced, respectable actors, and newcomers who bring a rawness and innocence to their performance. The ones who stand out are Gul Panag (how we’ve missed watching her act), Ishwak Singh, Aasif Khan and Swastika Singh. Obviously, Jaideep Ahlawat and Neeraj Kabi perform with their usual finesse, grabbing their characters and digesting them whole, speaking with the correct dialect and holding their ground just like their character would. Abhishek Banerjee, who plays Vishal Tyagi, is so calm and meditative in his sociopathic tendencies, that I wholly believe he is incredibly dangerous. Even though he barely speaks, and rarely gives anything away, his silence is worthy of a thousand words.
Apart from the fine performances, the story and cinematography is super inviting. The story moves quickly (with a couple of caveats, which we’ll come to later), and doesn’t shy away from pulling out intricate narrative threads–only to tie them all back together. It shows us interiors of everybody’s life, from the idealistic, young news reporter to the old, famous journalist, from his anxiety-ridden wife to the cop’s son who is caught between school bullies and colony peer pressure. It takes us to the Hindi heartland–UP’s villages and Punjab’s caste-based violent acts, all the while showing us the cold comments of politicians that silence the media, and minority appeasment tactics taken up by the Police and Civil Services.
The smart use of camera builds up the thriller through the 9 episode, with single shot cameras that make us see through Hathi Ram Chaudhary’s eyes, to a circular shot between Hathi Ram adn Ansari that builds up the tension of their heated conversation, as they discover how the WHOLE thing–the entire crime of attempted murder that the 4 people are convicted for–is an ENTIRE set up. The 4 convicts, along with the cops and the media, have been puppeteered by politicians and Masterji–a metaphorical combination of a Naxalite fighter and Guruji from Sacred Games. They run the whole game in attempts to maintain and perpetuate their own power. The camera does not shy away from showing us the most jarring of violent acts–upper-caste men raping lower-caste women while the men sit around and weep, for there is nothing else for them to do. It shows us, zooms in even, on branis pouring out of skulls that have been bashed to pieces, and the cruel undressing of Muslims and Eunuchs in prisons, by the hands of policemen. The violence is jarring to watch, but also shakes us up from our own bubbles. This is how people are. This is how minorities are treated.
Except, the show is so self-aware in the characters who occupy it–the “minorities”. Neeraj Kabi’s Sanjeev Mehra even says, “all we need for a human story is a Muslim criminal or an LGBT character. Here we have both.” Like this, the media, police and even criminals of Paatal Lok are incredibly self-aware. The script isn’t afraid to point out how it may seem like it’s using minorities to propel the narrative forward, in fact it does the exact opposite. It doesn’t treat them like minorities at all; they are simply human beings who have lived hard lives, pushed to boundaries, been victims to hate crime, and struggled with immense poverty. Filled with symbolic imagery (policemen killing cockroaches, a young boy wearing lipstick, a Muslim cop told to be ‘positive and progressive’ in his Civil Services exam), Paatal Lok establishes itself as a series that demands you to think, and feel, about the very same reality in which we live.
Sudip Sharma wins in creating a show that fiercely tackles one of India’s cruelest social structures: the caste system. While the CBI and the media would like to believe that the murder was planned by the Pakistani ISI and Nepali terrorist groups, the real criminals are the oppressive forces of caste and class that allow for the rich and powerful political elite to use the poor as pawns in their own game. Caste division and poverty has made these 4 convicts who they are. It has also helped upper-class journalists like Mehra to become who he is, and policemen to remain who they are. The episode “A History of Violence” is my favourite as it shows us how the characters of the show are but parts of an endless cycle of violence–a history that goes way back, with roots in caste and class oppression. The police also aren’t heroes or villains; even the family man Hathi Ram is a harsh dictator in the interrogation room, using Islamic insults and gendered acts of violence to torture and beat up the 4 convicts. Anything to get the truth out.
Where the Show is Lacking
Paatal Lok is a man’s world. The women are complex characters, with Gul Panag playing the headstrong wife of a cop and mother of a troubled son, Swastika Mukherjee’s Dolly being the anxiety-ridden, dog-loving wife of a husband who has no love for her. There’s Sara, the young and idealistic journalist who is infatuated and then repulsed by Mehra, Mary, who identifies as a female but is constantly threatened by the men who refuse to see her as one, and Anuradha, the female constable who is ruthless as a cop and hardworking as a homemaker. Yet, they’re on the outside, forming the periphery of this story. The ones who jump right into it, into the middle of the sociopathic, rebellious, deeply troubled entangled narrative, are the men. The saints and sadhus, the criminals and lovers, the policemen and crooked politicians. I’d love to see more women in the middle of the mess.
Although the story is gripping, sometime between episode 6 and 8, I found myself zoning out. The episodes seemed to drag on a bit, and didn’t really connect back to the main 4 convicts until the last episode. I forgot the connections between the 4 of them and the politicians and policemen. The show needed to tie stronger threads to new investigative discoveries and the 4 convicts, for the whole series began with them.
But, we loved it anyway
Apart from that, I enjoyed watching Paatal Lok immensely. Kudos to Sudip Sharma and Clean Slate Filmz. It didn’t feel like yet another Sacred Games or Mirzapur. It felt fresh, original, and engaging.