Four suspects are apprehended for a conspiracy to murder. Their target is Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), a reputed news anchor at a Delhi channel. At the Outer Jamuna Paar police outpost, much to the chagrin of his senior officer, Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), a pot-bellied policeman with poor prospects, is assigned the high profile case.
Over nine episodes, the story unfolds at two levels – the elite upper-middle-class Delhi world of the news anchor whose dual lives comprise of an anxiety-ridden, dog-loving wife Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee) at home and the power-play of a newsroom. The more graded and immersive storyline is from Hathi Ram’s perspective. Ahlawat acutely captures Hathi Ram’s frustrations as he sees an opportunity slipping away. The juxtaposition with his home life, where he returns to a supportive and sorted wife (Gul Panag) and a rebellious teenager, round off Hathi Ram’s character to make him relatable and human, unlike Sanjeev Mehra’s pomposity.
Hathi Ram doesn’t catch a break, in his personal or professional life, but he’s determined to earn the respect of his family and peers. He purposefully takes on the investigation, heading into the badlands of Bundelkhand and the surreal turf of Chitrakoot. Assisting him is a rookie cop and officer-in-training Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh). It’s a chaotic investigation as the police run helter-skelter, following red herrings and weak leads, while unravelling a complicated conspiracy.
Side plots about affairs, abusive fathers, homeless children and the intrinsically sloppy investigation affect the narrative rhythm, distracting from the case at hand.
After a slow start, the series hits its stride around episode three as the origin stories of the four suspects are uniformly presented. But the momentum of a meaty middle is short-lived. The pace changes again, spluttering along to a saturated concluding episode.
Creator Sudip Sharma, who has loosely based the story on Tarun Tejpal’s book The Story of My Assassins, has said that the key players represent three classes of society and also three worlds: earth, heaven, and hell (paatal).
Beyond the plotting of a crime, Paatal Lok explores issues of caste and class and the implications and inequalities therein.
There are some sly references to headlining making news and a touch of satire such as Hathi Ram’s wife Renu’s sales entrepreneurial endeavours and visitors to a builder’s office being greeted with a ‘Talreja pranam’ before a man in a Roman toga serves them blue drinks with little cocktail umbrellas.
Ahlawat and Singh make a good team, even if they have scant regard for police procedures, as do Ahlawat and Gul Panag, as the parents dealing with everyday domestic issues. Abhishek Banerjee is all kinds of sinister as Vishal ‘Hathoda’ Tyagi, who gets his street name from his murder weapon of choice. Jagjeet Sandhu, Aasif Khan and Mairembam Ronaldo Singh play Tyagi’s three accomplices, Tope Singh, Kabir M, and Cheeni, respectively.
Directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware and Prosit Roy, Paatal Lok lands somewhere between Delhi Crime and Mirzapur but doesn’t quite get the urgency of the police investigation of the former or the grit and messiness of the latter.
The series builds in the occasional episodic hook and doesn’t adequately cultivate an interest in or concern for the primary characters. But the textured topography, production, cinematography and some fine performances work hard to achieve a serviceable crime drama.