Paatal Lok, the latest Amazon Prime original series from India, that premiered this weekend, is the kind of powerhouse show that justifies a binge watch or "quaran-streaming". That style of viewing, which is seen as a badge of honor nowadays, as if one had climbed Mt Everest without oxygen, is not usually my cup of doodh-wali Nescafe coffee, preferring instead a two hour movie over a 10 hour slog. as is evident from the ratio of reviews of movies versus series on this site. The longer format can be a blessing or a curse depending on how it is handled. Season 2 of Netflix's Sacred Games (2019) was an example of how bloated and overindulgent it can get, the series equivalent of Parkinson's Law that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Paatal Lok, which I'm sure must have been greenlit by Amazon after the wild success of the great Season 1 of Sacred Games (2018), on the other hand threads the needle perfectly, continuously propelling the narrative forward at warp speed, peeling off layer after layer of the mystery, but takes advantage of the time at its disposal to paint a detailed richly textured portrait of each of its characters.
Produced by Anushka Sharma's production house, Clean Slate Films, whose debut film NH10 (2015) trod the similar terrain of New Delhi and the badlands of the Hindi heartland, Paatal Lok is inspired by Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka fame's book The Story of My Assassins. Prima facie, Paatal Lok is a police procedural like Netflix's Delhi Crime (2019). It starts with four men being arrested on a bridge in Delhi and charged with the crime of conspiracy to murder of a prominent TV journalist/anchor. The case is handed over to a cop from the Outer Jamunapaar area of Delhi, Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary, who views Delhi and its environs through a black and white mythological lens, of the Lutyens Swarg Lok populated by gods, the middle class Dharti Lok inhabited by people, and the rest of the underbelly as Paatal Lok overrun by demons. That becomes the jumping off point for a story that expands outward in space and time, from Punjab to Chitrakoot in Bundelkhand on the UP-MP border. It explores everything from overt as well as inherent religious bigotry to sexism to modern day TV journalism to politics to corruption, all pervaded by the underlying original sin of India - caste, and the lottery of birth into which, pre-determines the course of one's life even in this day for the vast majority of Indians.
Inspector Hathi Ram is played wonderfully by Jaideep Ahlawat, who impressed as Shahid Khan in Anurag Kashyap's magnum opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and as RAW trainer Shahid Mir to Alia Bhatt in Raazi (2018). Although he is the protagonist, unlike say a Salman Khan or Tiger Shroff film where everything and everyone is grist to the mill serving only to pay obeisance in every frame to the almighty hero, Paatal Lok fleshes out each character, their backstory and the events that shaped their lives and thinking. The ensemble cast of sterling actors includes Neeraj Kabi, who was Parulkar in Sacred Games, as the TV anchor Sanjeev Mehra, Gul Panag from Dor (2006) and The Family Man (2019) as Hathi Ram's wife Renu, Rajesh Sharma from Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), The Dirty Picture (2011) and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and many more wonderful roles, as Gwala Gujjar, and Abhishek Banerjee, who was hilarious in Stree (2018), here playing the silent but horrifyingly explosive Vishal aka Hathoda Tyagi. A certain "bhajan samraat" who surprised the reality TV watching world a couple of years ago with his May-December romantic relationship causing jealousy pangs in millions of middle-aged men, also makes a cameo.
A couple of lines and scenes that give a glimpse of the subtle ways this show throws light on everyday Indian society stand out. In the first one, Hathi Ram who has a great relationship with his Muslim junior Ansari and stands up for him against the overt Islamophobes in the department, nevertheless during a heated interrogation shouts out a bigoted slur to a suspected Muslim detainee, a slur that I have heard employed all my life, when referring to Muslims, by many of my friends and colleagues referencing a specific anatomical religious practice. When the two later confer, the junior for whom this is a normal occurrence, calms the repentant senior down with the pragmatic, "Kaam to ho gaya na sir". In the other scene, a reporter when asked why he ran away from a cop says, "Police se sirf chor nahi bhaagtey hain, kabhi kabhi sach bolney waaley bhi bhaag jaatey hai". This kind of writing consistently elevates Paatal Lok from the standard fare that mistakes uttering an expletive as being a stand-in for earthy and real.
Paatal Lok is a journey into the heart of darkness and the netherworld that most of us either don't inhabit or choose to ignore, but watching it and appreciating its creation is swarg-like.
May 17, 2020