On the surface, Amazon Prime Video India’s latest series Paatal Lok is simply about a Delhi cop (played insanely well by Jaideep Ahlawat) trying to solve the mystery behind an assassination attempt. But with every passing episode, it becomes abundantly clear that it is a carefully made deconstruction of the perpetual rot in India’s core which is made of communalism, casteism, class divide, and more, by Sudip Sharma’s team. So, prepare to get your mind blown.
I am not going to deny one very clear fact: Sacred Games was a cultural reset. The combined efforts of Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Varun Grover, Neeraj Ghyawan, Saif Ali Khan, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui changed the way India viewed serialised storytelling and started going bolder, grittier, and pulpier. It set a certain standard which many tried to reach and that whole process gave us shows like Mirzapur, Family Man, Delhi Crime, etc. But now someone has not only reached the bar set by Sacred Games but exceeded it by miles. That someone is, of course, the Anushka Sharma produced series, Paatal Lok.
Paatal Lok is created by Sudip Sharma of NH10 fame. It is written by Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Gunjit Chopra, and Hardik Mehta. All the episodes are directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy. The score is by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, cinematography by Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami, editing by Sanyukta Kaza, and production design by Mukund Gupta. The cast features names like Jaideep Ahlawat, Abhishek Banerjee, Niharika Lyra Dutt, Neeraj Kabi, Swastika Mukherjee, Jagjeet Sandhu, Ishwak Singh, Gul Panag, Anurag Arora, Aasif Khan, Bodhisattva Sharma, Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, Vipin Sharma, and more. The show focuses on the investigation of the assassination attempt of a reporter through the eyes of Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Ahlawat) and eventually becomes an analysis of what India is and what it means to live here.
The writing by Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Gunjit Chopra, and Hardik Mehta is simply off the charts!
Before we even see our protagonists, we hear Hathi Ram talk about Swarg (Heaven), Dharti (Earth), and Paatal (Hell) Lok and compares them to various sectors of Delhi. Then we see Hathi Ram and his right hand, Imran Ansari (Ishwak), in a police jeep with two other police officers as they respond to a complaint about domestic abuse. When they arrive at the scene, they separate the abusive husband from the wife. But when the police try to punish the husband, the wife starts heckling the police as Hathi Ram and Ansari look on. And with this simple little scene, the writers expose the thoroughline that’s going to define the series i.e. everyone in India is morally corrupt, while those who have some semblance of humanity are forced to sell their sense of morality.
So, how are we morally corrupt? Well, the answer is not simple. There is a complex array of topics that are involved which range from classism, casteism, communalism, misogyny, patriarchy, bigotry to negligent parenting, poor governance, lack of infrastructure, a proper educational system and the list just goes on and on. And guess what? The writers touch on every single one of those topics to paint a tapestry that can aptly contain the diversity of India. I know diversity has been turned into an overly positive word and it is a positive thing until we focus on the light side of inter-cultural crossovers. But when you turn the proverbial coin onto its dark side, you see the accumulation of the ugly values discarded by every culture that has been picked up by demons masquerading as humans and are being celebrated.
But you might be wondering about the mystery-thriller aspect of Paatal Lok? Well, I assure you that that is very much there, it is incredibly engaging and suspenseful, and makes for the base of this critique on our society. Each of the characters, Hathi Ram, Imran, Sanjeev Mehra, and even the secondary and tertiary ones have intricate arcs of their own (Which I don’t want to spoil for anyone). They have incredibly well-written dialogues that sometimes sound like that they have been improvised (Yes! That’s how natural the dialogue-writing is!). And since those character-driven journeys and the way they think and act are deeply connected with the places they hail from, the politics they’ve grown up watching, and the cultures they’ve been brought up in, we get a complete picture of the reality of our country. FYI it’s not pretty.
The way Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy switch between humour, hardcore realism, and giddy optimism is astonishing.
Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy do not hold back, thereby making Paatal Lok not at all for the faint of heart, and I think everyone should know that. I am not saying that just because of the gore, the nudity, the abusive language, and the sex. Yes, all of that are there and are used to elicit various degrees of emotional reactions. However, it is the heavy atmosphere and the level of discomfort that they conjure that might hit you in places you don’t want to be hit. I welcome it because I feel the level of boldness they show is a wake-up call. I think I am considerably progressive and even I got to see things from the disturbingly new perspectives that I didn’t know existed. So, just imagine what is going to happen to those who are oblivious to the ramifications of their religious, political beliefs, simple personal beliefs that haven’t been updated.
Now, it is one thing to load your script with subtext, themes, crisp dialogues, and complex narratives, and a whole another thing to present that on the visual medium in a coherent manner. The writing of the show walks a very fine line between the mythology of India and the reality of India. And it’s true. The same people who will send WhatsApp forwards about Lord Krishna or Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed or any other religious figure saying or doing something will also nonchalantly scroll through an entire segment of news depicting the violence and inhumanity happening in our country and not bat an eyelid. Arun and Roy show this weird mix of innocent ignorance and vile depravity with utmost honesty. They resort to the basics of filmmaking, nothing too flashy or distracting, and urge you, the audience, to breathe in every frame of Paatal Lok.
That brings me to the technical aspects of Paatal Lok. In my opinion, it is one of the most perfectly crafted shows I have ever seen. It has probably one filler episode (Fillers are usually put in a show to prolong the end or if the information that will be presented in it is not enough to take up a whole episode). But unlike other shows, the filler episode is as good, on a technical level, as the major episodes (In fact, if you binge-watch it, I think you won’t even notice which is the filler episode). Yes, the plot doesn’t go forward. However, we get a deeper understanding of Hathi Ram, Imran, Vishal, Sameer, and the plethora of characters that are present. And that level of impeccability is consistent throughout the show. The editing, the cinematography, the sets, the costume design, the score come together to make for an immersive experience and never overstay their welcome.
There’s not a single off-beat performance by the cast of Paatal Lok and Jaideep Ahlawat is functioning on another realm of acting.
Jaideep Ahlawat is an immensely gifted actor. And it truly feels like, for the first time, his acting chops have gotten tested and received the credit they were due. Physically he is an absolute beast of a person. He doesn’t fit the archetype of the ‘leading man’ that Bollywood has created through years of conditioning. But despite his physicality, he brings such a great level of vulnerability that you really feel for him. He plays a morally grey character (A very dark shade of grey) but you still fear for him and pray that he gets out of some tight spots and goes back to his family. And through his expressions, dialogue delivery, and body language, he paints this hyperrealistic picture of a man whose strength has been diminished due to his failures, misogyny, and toxic masculinity and can only be fixed through his journey of acceptance. As for the archetype, he basically says f*ck that regressive stuff, I’m going to act the sh*t out of Hathi Ram and you’re going to praise me for it.
Neeraj Kabi is, well, Neeraj Kabi. He’s smart, enigmatic, stubborn, conniving, and has this aura of fake confidence that his character uses to hide his shortcomings. You can see him be self-analytical about his political inclinations during his chats with Sara (Niharika). But as soon he sits in front of the camera (The one in his newsroom), it vanishes. It’s a very subtle switch in his alter-egos but it is effective as hell. Swastika Mukherjee’s Dolly is heartbreaking and she plays it in a way that it doesn’t feel caricaturish at all. Because, from afar, her problems might seem a little unrealistic and overdramatic. However, she brings a certain level of authenticity that makes you empathise with her. I so wish she did more primary roles like this because she obviously can and she doesn’t need to limit herself to Bengali cinema. Abhishek Banerjee and Jagjeet Sandhu are phenomenal. Trust them to really get under your skin. Ishwak’s Imran is like a warm hug and a walking mirror for the society to introspect about their Islamophobia.
There is a laundry list of actors playing tertiary characters who are as important to the primary characters and the plot. Some of the highlights are Aasif’s Kabir, Mairembam’s Mary, Gul Panag’s Renu, Bodhisattva Sharma’s Siddharth, Rishi Kulsheshtra’s Tokas, Vipin Sharma’s DCP Bhagat, Jai Malik’s Asif Basra, Manish Chaudhary’s Vikram Kapoor, Tushar Dutt’s Raju Bhaiyaa, Nikita Grover’s Manju Verma, Rajesh Sharma’s Gwala Gujjar, Shreedhar Dubey’s Amitosh, Sidharth Bhardwaj’s Anil Bhai, Anindita Bose’s Chanda, Rajesh Jais’ Shukla, Indresh Malik’s Talreja and so many more. And all of them are impactful in the little screentime they get. Heck, even the so-called NPCs in the show, the auto drivers, the chaiwallahs, and pedestrians have personalities and interactions that will stick with you. That’s the level of attention given by the showrunners and that’s the level of commitment to the roles provided by the actors.
I have never been to Delhi or Punjab or Chitrakoot. I have not met the kind of people that are in this show. The only thing that I know is where our country is, financially, culturally, and morally. And I think the showrunners of Paatal Lok used that to bridge (The name of the first episode is actually ‘Bridges’, so that makes sense) the gap between me and the story, the characters, and the themes of the show. I felt like I was with these characters on their respective journeys, sometimes hating them, sometimes liking them, sometimes finding shades of Chinatown, but never switching off. It has spectacular performances, with Jaideep Ahlawat clearly being the showstopper, immaculate direction, and pitch-perfect visual and narrative storytelling.
I sincerely hope that people watch it and start a discussion about who we are as Indians, where are we taking the country as individuals and as a society, and whether we are beyond saving, or is there still a chance to redeem ourselves?