Paatal lok is the latest in the list of OTT crime thrillers released for Indian audiences. After receiving rave reviews from the entertainment fraternity, the series received the usual push-back from the rising digital Hindutva right-wing. I read this long read on Swarajya which interested me enough to bing the show – if only to check my views against those of Swarajya. Though the language of the piece was full of standard digital Hindutva tropes, I was of the opinion that the writer seems to have a point. I watched the show hoping to answer the following questions.
- So how does Anushka Sharma’s production fare of viewer engagement?
- So how does this latest edition of Desi Crime drama fare against the likes of Sacred Games and Mirzapur?
- How valid are the claims of Hindu-phobia against it or of it serving another alleged offering of SUBTLE Left-Liberal propaganda as the Swarajya says?
Paatal lok is a Delhi based crime thriller which starts with the failed assassination attempt of a Delhi based TV anchor (no I won’t call it journalism) of a left-liberal orientation. The narrative is very smooth and engaging delving deep into the roots of crime and violence- communalism, casteism, and patriarchy. The protagonist Haathi Ram, played by Jaideep Ahlawat , is a hard-working, under-performing police officer. He as the moral compass of the story which serves us wonderfully in the dark and immoral world of Paatal Lok. Its Haathi Ram, who gives us the heading and heart of the story: The world is made up of 3 worlds — Swarga lok — Upper Class Lutyens Delhi, Dharti Lok — Middle class urban Delhi and Paatal lok — the dirty and dingy world, forsaken by even the gods. The inspector stuck in Paatal lok at Outer Jamuna Paar is desperate to crack the attempted assassination case to upgrade to Dharti lok.
The writers were extremely ambitious in attempting a gripping thriller which essentially serves as a backdrop for its core aim — social commentary( or as others would call it – propaganda). Having said this, the main story-line isn’t suppressed by the social commentary and its story arc doesn’t disappoint a bit. The show touches almost all fault lines in India — namely Caste, Religion, Sexism, Gender and Class, and their interactions with Violence and Power (which appears very inorganic).
The monstrosity of violence has often its origin in even more dehumanizing violence — be it social, political, or both. The past of Tope Singh and Vishal Tyagi showcases how brutal realities of caste and sex in rural India often spawn violence in individuals affected by it. Episode 3 depicting these stories is masterfully written and executed. Episode 5 — delving into the past of Cheeni and Kabir M is hard-hitting in a way that leaves a terrible taste in the viewer’s mouth. I personally found these character arcs a bit staged (Hindu RW could call them propagandist) and the result of deliberate framing (which it obviously is) — but they work wonderfully well on an emotional level — if one has empathy which isn’t compromised by prejudice. However, the Muslim characters are almost all caricatures of goodness personified under systemic hatred and that it ends up being a bit cringe-worthy
However, the most satisfying and perfect story arc is the family life of Hathi Ram. From the Ponzi scheming brother of Gul Panag’s character to Hathi Ram’s emotionally estranged son — all the threads are wonderfully woven together creating a typical middle class and dysfunctional family. The aspiration of Hathi Ram to enroll his son to a school with Uber-privileged school is the quintessential Indian parents’ dream of providing all privileges possible to their kids, going above and beyond their means. The husband-wife conflict couldn’t have been handled better given the story constraints and nature of the show.
The Hindu religious imagery always present in the background is very effective in differentiating Urban Delhi from the Desi Hinterlands of Chitrakoot. Unlike what some right-wing voices have said, the Hindu imagery doesn’t attempt to paint with a Hindu-phobic brush. On the contrary, the Hindu themes appear always as a garnishing agent and rarely as a plot device. Unlike Sacred Games, where the omnipresent Gaitonde introduces us to the mythological motifs, Paatal Lok characters themselves introduce and interact with these motifs. Though none of the motifs used are subtle — thereby needing explainers or deep thought. On the other hand, the convoluted caste politics with all this imagery is wonderfully confusing and pacy to follow towards the climax.
The Media narrative in Swarga Lok is a perfect example of the commercialization of TV Media, which has firmly shifted from reportage to Opinion grandstanding and virtue signaling. The troubled dog-loving wife of Sanjeev Mehra appears well written while his lover/protegee appears caricature-ish. The semblance of humanity/ loyalty left inside Donullia and Tyagi is nicely juxtaposed with loss of morality in Sanjeev Mehra, while his wife clings on to Savitri (the lovable stray she adopts) — who it’s revealed at the end is her and finally her husband’s savior. Other threads like media corruption, low level, and high-level political harassment of journalists, police brutality, and politics are all well-handled.
This isn’t a hard criticism, but one can’t ignore the fact the Paatal Lok touches almost all fault-lines in India not as a by-product of a story arc but somewhat independently by design. In spite of this, Paatal Lok works. It works due to the tight storytelling, nuanced characters, and realism, coherently woven into the social commentary and not the other way round — it wouldn’t have worked, had it taken the route of LEILA which ended up being propaganda masquerading as art. Compared to Sacred Games and Family Man — Paatal Lok exceeds in some areas but also falls behind in others, as it doesn’t set out to compete with these stories. On the whole, one place where I completely disagree with the Swarajya piece is that the Politics (propaganda) of the show is subtle. Its anything but subtle and the makers seem to have made the choice to ditch subtlety for political impact.
Technically the show is very good with some loud direction (I prefer subtlety in Direction and cinematography). On the whole, a 4/5 star to Paatal lok by me because it is not a 3 nor a 5. For those who have already seen the series, feel free to go through the spoiler-filled take HERE.