This series on Amazon Prime Video could be what we need right now, to incite a wave of serious introspection as to where we fall in the political arena.
The first thing that struck me when watching the series was the restraint of the setting and the cast. Paatal Lok is based on a book The Story of my Assassins by Tarun Tejpal, written for the screen by a team of young writers making strong inroads into dramatic writing in India. The unapologetic audacity to show things as they are feels refreshing in this age of ever-increasing euphemisms.
The first episode opens with a high-profile arrest of four suspects during their failed assassination attempt of a prominent journalist. The DCP's office makes the arrest based on an anonymous tip and hands over the case to Inspector Hathiram (played by Jaideep Ahlawat), who is desperate for a break in his career. Tired of being put down by his superiors, Hathiram begs the headquarters for the case to be assigned to him for he could prove his mettle before it's too late. As he digs deeper into the case, he enters a vortex of deep uncertainties and unfathomable discrepancies.What follows is a brutal rendering of the show's controlling idea of the three worlds: Swarg Lok, Dharthi Lok and Paatal Lok. The amalgamation and yet, the segregation of these three worlds as shown, is downright scary.
When you look at it as a screenplay, the story opens with the inciting incident and does not meddle at all with any expository information – because the exposition is the show. And this is one of the finest examples on how to exploit a device like flashback/backstory to its fullest. As Robert Mckee says "Story is metaphor for life; and to be alive is to be in seemingly perpetual conflict." I think Paatal Lok is a perfect example of the saying Nothing can move a story forward except through conflict. There are twists and turns every 5 minutes of an episode, which subsequently ends in a cliffhanger.
What actually takes the show from nice to great is its pragmatic handling of highly sensitive political content. Sensibly navigated matters like Islamophobia, dangerous right-wing nationalism, menacing caste oppression, the pretentious progressiveness of the left, the convenient disregard for the LGBT rights and the facade of bureaucracy; each one of them hits the mark. Even the slightly subtle ones like the cop asking Kabir if he is a madrasi when he says his name is just Kabir M, or politely stating that toxic patriarchy exists not just in slums but even in Swarg Lok (the Mehras); all of these are carefully woven into the screenplay so not to sound like a preacher's sermon.
The C.N.Annadurai government in 1968 in Tamil Nadu passed a circular to all government offices in which he directed to remove all religious idols, portraits or anything remotely pertaining to a particular religion and to refrain from doing any worship or poojas in the work place as the state is unwaveringly secular. But even today, to what extent it is practiced is what stings. Ansari's (Ishwak Singh) subtle variations say a lot in the scene where the police constables hold a pooja in the station. The interest lies not in what is said, but in what is not said. Every character however small makes an impression, thanks to the painstaking attention to detail.
Jaideep Ahlawat gives his career-defining performance as an exhausted cop with modest ambitions in life. As we start to gain insight into an average cop's life, the character becomes so palpable that we start to empathize with him, which is what any makers would want a protagonist to achieve in the first episode or the first few minutes of a film. I loved his reaction every time he comes home exhausted and finds these boxes of Chinese absurdities or equally annoying crazy cranberries that his wife serves him instead of tea. But in the process, he is also not designed to be a virtue signaling cliché (thank god!). He curses, drinks on-duty, is tempted when a woman is offering herself and he even harasses a couple in a lodge when he has no reason to; it's beautifully treading along the lines of gray. And other actors like Abishek Banerjee, Vipin Sharma, Swastika Mukherjee and Neeraj Kabi are all convincing with their coherent performances. The writing is like what Vipin Sharma says of the system, well-oiled machinery; everything falls in place contributing to the superstructure of the show.
Aristotle writes, in Poetics, "In a story, a convincing impossibility is always preferred to an unconvincing possibility." Paatal Lok is that rare commodity that is both possible and most importantly, convincing. It's the smallest of details and gestures that excites us; like the climax scene where Hathiram barges into Sanjeev's office and confronts him, he stops a toy that is moving in front of him on the table before he starts speaking. He is a cop, for God's sakes, he does not like meaningless distractions or understand sophistication;this even reflects in an earlier scene when his brother-in-law's excitedly hands him a drink from his fancy Chinese machine and asks him what it is, he says "soda" with a straight face. He does not know what the fuss is about. You could go on and on listing these beauties but I wouldn't want to spoil them for you. The remarkable richness in subtexts is what makes the viewer to come back and watch it again. Nothing is what it seems.
If you don't like to squeeze your brain dissecting a show and looking for deeper meanings, you still end up with an extremely engaging thriller. It is like that fantastic short of Dibakar Banerjee's in Ghost stories; if you get the subtext you are in for a treat. If not, you still get the treat. It's a win-win. It's not something that is targeted to a specialized segment of cinephiles; it's as mainstream as it can get. (Hell…it starts with a car chase) I wonder why it did not get even half the acclaim and regard like Sacred Games did. I understand that it lacks the big names like Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane. Maybe even the OTT platforms are not exceptions in the scheme of being star driven to a large extent. Being less stylized with a modest cast is not the reason you'd want to miss this gem of a show.