Paatal Lok Creator Sudip Sharma Interview Amazon Prime Video

Amazon Prime Video’s latest original series Pataal Lok comes from creator Sudip Sharma, writer of acclaimed films like NH10, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya.

Sudip decided to try his hand at writing a series after a friend pushed him to watch HBO’s The Wire, which he says is one of the inspirations behind his show. It took him and his fellow writers Hardik Mehta, Sagar Haveli and Gunjit Chopra, close to two years to write the show and determine what they wanted to say. Paatal Lok follows the investigation of the attempted murder of a journalist. The show is a scathing commentary of our country today. It explores all the things in our society that is designed to divide, from caste to class to gender to religion and beyond.

Sudip feels the format of serialised storytelling has spoilt him with the liberties and scale it gives him as a writer. “I feel like I’d been writing short stories my entire life and suddenly I experienced what it feels like to write a novel,” he says. In a spoiler-filled discussion, Sudip spoke to us about Paatal Lok’s powerful commentary, that hopeless ending, and the possibility of a second season.

Warning, spoilers ahead:

Was Hathi Ram the most enjoyable character to write?

Yeah, he was. I kind of fell in love with the character and that rarely happens with me. I have a certain objectivity and distance from my characters but with him, for the first time, I felt this very clear connection. Hathi Ram is a mix of a lot of people I know. There’s a bit of my father in him, a bit of me, and also a bit of Navdeep Singh (director of NH10). But he’s also very real. He has faults. He can be sexist and violent, but he also knows when he’s crossed the line. There is this moral compass in him.

What also fascinated me about cops in North India is that in popular culture they tend to be seen as rude and incompetent and all of that, but we wanted to flip it. It’s always been us looking at him, and we wanted to do the reverse and look at us through his eyes. So he became the character that would drive the story.

Towards the end, when he’s suspended and sets out to solve the case alone, he wants to do the right thing. But he’s doing it for the sake of his career…

Yeah, he starts off as this guy just wanting to do it for himself, and in that sense, he’s almost selfish. It’s coming from a place of desperation. But over the course of this journey, I don’t think he develops empathy exactly because he’s always had it, but he’s just lost touch with it by virtue of his job and the place he’s in. He discovers it again.

The message at the end of the show is of hopelessness because the system wins, and justice doesn’t prevail. Did you ever consider killing him as a way to truly convey that we’ve lost?

No, not really. We wanted to have a very neo-noir-ish ending where the protagonist achieves his victory but it’s a futile victory which comes at a great cost, and he’s no longer the person he once was. The victory is mixed with this ugly taste of loss and realising it means nothing. What he has been able to achieve doesn’t amount to much in the real world.

You didn’t make Sanjeev Mehra the complete sell-out journalist that we often see. You get the sense he was good once and cared about what’s right. Was that a tough balance to strike?

To be honest, we did explore the idea of going the full sell-out way, but then we realised that in a world where, when you switch on the news, you get all these caricatures thrown at us, doing the same onscreen wouldn’t be interesting. If someone told me twenty years ago that this is what journalism would become, I wouldn’t have bought that. These guys were truly our heroes. Then came the idea of making him human, because these journalists in India have gone off the rails and now it’s just uninteresting to talk about.

He was the toughest character to crack. In fact, there were entire drafts of the script dedicated to getting his character right. He’s a very complex character and there are very unlikeable things he ends up doing but we also wanted that sense of empathy for him. We wanted the audience to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and just for a moment think ‘yeah okay, he turned out to be an asshole. But I can see where he’s coming from’.

If there’s one emotion that dogs convey, it’s loyalty. And somehow the character of Tyagi, despite being the monster that he is, is loyal. He might be the fiercest of dogs but he’s a loyal dog to his guru Masterji.

A running theme through the show is the idea of dogs. If a dog loves a man, he’s a good man. It’s the one thing that humanises Tyagi, and the thing that ends up saving Sanjeev Mehra’s life. Where did the idea come from?

If there’s one emotion that dogs convey, it’s loyalty. And somehow the character of Tyagi, despite being the monster that he is, is loyal. He might be the fiercest of dogs but he’s a loyal dog to his guru Masterji.

Even with Sanjeev’s wife Dolly, despite her husband being who he is, and knowing that he cheated on her, she still decides to be loyal, which fits in well with her love of dogs. There’s a line in the show which clarifies this whole thing – ‘If a man loves dog he’s a good man. If a dog loves a man he’s a good man’. That’s the larger thing we wanted to say – you can be a monster, but a little love is all we need to survive this world.

When Masterji was testing Tyagi, I really thought that instead of being asked to cut off his thumb, he’d be asked to kill the dog.

Oh god, no we would never have done that. In fact, that’s one of the cardinal sins in screenwriting – they say you can walk into a bar and shoot a hundred innocent people, but if your main characters kill a dog you’ve lost your audience.

You never show us Masterji’s face and keep him as this mysterious figure. Why is that?

That was a call we took pretty early on, to never show him. In fact, a bit of trivia is that in one of the Masterji’s scenes where he’s lying down, I’m the one playing Masterji. There were two-three different people who played him because we never show his face. There’s a line that one of Masterji’s henchmen says which is essentially ‘Masterji is a master of disguise and no one is allowed to see him’ and we wanted to somehow preserve that idea of this man that nobody has seen.

One of the best things about the show is the rich detailing in terms of the dialogue and locations. Some of the little things were so strange, it felt like they had to come from reality. Where did the Chinese soda machine come from?

It’s one of those old funky machines that used to be around back in the 80s. The way we looked at Hathi Ram’s house and his inner world was with an almost nostalgic sort of lens. The soda machine is a relic of the past and our production designer Mukund Gupta came up with this idea of the Chinese man and we all sort of fell in love with that man.

For me, the most important reason to do a show or any sort of work is to explore a land or a subculture of people. I’m a huge fan of The Wire. Just the way you can smell Baltimore in that show, and how it places you on those street corners. For me, if you can set a story anywhere, in any place, then it’s not a story worth telling.

Tell me about the haunting line on ‘Chota kaam, bada kaam and pura kaam’ was so specific. Did that come from real life?

Yes. That’s how things are unfortunately in that part of the world. There are these fixed rates that you hear about for these kinds of jobs and it’s one of those unfortunate anecdotes that one of us heard somewhere that we wanted to include.

Do you envision a season 2? Do you see Hathi Ram’s story continuing?

When we started, I was always clear that I would only do one season and that would be enough for this story. But to be honest, in the process of creating these characters and telling this story, an anthology became a possibility. I do feel Hathi Ram as a character has enough legs to take us down another road with a different case. So I’m completely open to it.

The character of Ansari has an interesting story in terms of how his religion is always held against him despite how bright he is. Was he based on a real person?

The genesis of Ansari’s character was a shocking statistic. I read somewhere that Muslims make up 1.5% of the Delhi police force. You’re talking about a community that makes up 13% of the state’s population and that’s a shockingly low representation in law enforcement. From there came the idea of what does it mean to be a rookie minority cop in these heavily radicalised times in a predominantly Hindu and Sikh police force? What does it take to gain your foothold in a place like that?

He was also the moral compass. Everybody is in it for personal motive. Ansari’s motive is almost naive, the motive of rookies to do good. He doesn’t have the cynicism of Hathi Ram and in a show as bleak as this, we wanted that balance. People like Sara and Ansari are our hope. If they go away, the world would be a much darker place.

What do you hope people take from the show? Is it a punch to the gut and a kind of wakeup call?

The philosophy of the show is really contained in the last scene and the song that follows. What we’re really trying to say is that it’s possible to get through all the darkness and grimness with just a little love. All you need is love. It might be a naive world view but if that gets us through this darkness then that’s what we need.

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