By Rachit Raj
Paatal Lok is a riveting example of fiction writing done right. It is a show that reflects our time without picking a side, but always maintaining a larger sense of an apocalyptic grimness in the viewers’ and characters’ understanding of right and wrong. The show teases us into thinking this is Amazon Prime’s answer to Netflix’s Sacred Games, but as the plot unravels like a delicious tale of corruption, contracts, killers, and compromises, one is forced to realize the dedication writers Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, and Gunjit Chopra have to define the show with its greyness, instantly detaching it from those shallow mentions of this trying to be an answer to a decidedly black-and-white world of Sacred Games.
The brilliance of this show can be found in its casting choices. In casting actors like Jaideep Alahwat, Neeraj Kabi, and Abhishek Banerjee, the show divorces itself from giving a glamourous role to an actor whose very faces gives the audience an unintentional spoiler. In Alahwat and Kabi the film gives us two actors we feel we know but we are never sure of.
The story starts with four criminals, headed by Vishal Tyagi (Banerjee), also known as Hathoda Tyagi, arrested and implicated in a potential assassination of Sanjeev Mehra (Kabi) a leading leftist journalist who has had a history of doing undercover operations, making several political enemies along the way.
On the other end of the spectrum is Hathiram Chaudhary (Alahwat), an inspector in Delhi Police stationed in the Outer Yamuna Branch, which he admittedly calls paatal lok. It is the kind of police station that never gets a significant case. This one is the first Hathiram gets in his long and largely insignificant career.
It is his one chance to make a mark, not for the world but for himself and his son, who is convinced of his father’s mediocrity. Their relationship, along with that of Renu (Gul Panag) forms a meticulous representation of a middle-class dysfunctional family while giving another aspect to Hathiram’s need to be on the right side of this case.
As the plot thickens and we get to see more of Mehra, his wife Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee) and the tangled complexity of his personal and professional life, the idea of paatal and swarg starts to turn on its head. The show is in continuous debate with itself. There is no swarg lok, it establishes quite early, but is there a better paatal lok?
Amongst all the characters, Vishal Tyagi has the most fearsome presence. Banerjee is absolutely brilliant with his piercing gaze as if years of submerged anger coming out in his gaze of hate, searing but also seductive. It sucks us in, forcing us to follow Hathiram’s quest for answers because in each of the four accused we see an innocent human pushed into a life of crime and corruption. They are all members of the paatal lok, but their presence there is proof that the world above that pushed them into this pit hole is probably worse than the paatal lok of crime and criminals.
Creator Sudip Sharma peppers the narrative with some fantastic political anecdotes. From a tearing glance at growing Islamophobia to the constant reminder of someone’s minority status, the power of the show’s political statement lies in its finer details. We are reminded (none better in an early dialogue by Mehra) that this is a different India. The show emphasizes that around 2014 something changed fundamentally in India, quietly reminding us that we are being told a story set in a time when truth and fake, criminals and innocents, journalists and bullets are closer than ever before, often blending doubtlessly into one.
Unlike a police procedural that ends with a certain sense of triumph, Paatal Lok ends with a grim, unchangeable realization. Hathiram, even in his most dynamic moments, is utterly powerless because the mastermind of the game is not a person but the system itself, and there is no escaping a system that works like a well-oiled machine, as described in the show by a prominent character.
Paatal Lok is a show that constantly challenges the moral code of humans. It gives us terrifying images and mesmerizing characters. They are all part of a larger design. They are all striving to find their own swarg and they are all irreversibly stuck in their own, customized paatal lok.