Paatal Lok is a nine-episode series, adapted from Tarun Tejpal’s critically acclaimed book The Story of My Assassins. Tejpal, ex-editor-in-chief of Tehelka, was accused of sexual assault by a colleague and is currently out on bail. Which is presumably why his name or the book doesn’t feature in the credits. An Amazon spokesperson said that Tejapl, “was not involved in any manner in any phase of the development and production of the show.”
I haven’t read the book but the show is terrifying and terrific. Paatal Lok is constructed as an investigative thriller. Four killers have been arrested for trying to murder Sanjeev Mehra, the head of a leading news channel and one of the country’s most high-profile journalists. The case has been assigned to a washed-out, mediocre cop who works in the Outer Jamuna Paar police station or what he calls Paatal Lok, jisme keede rehte hain. But the rather unfortunately named Haathi Ram Chaudhary, whose life has been a series of slights and failures, instinctively understands that this case can be a game-changer. Because it involves Sanjeev, a man from the upper echelons or what he calls Swarg Lok. Who lives and who dies in this strata of society actually matters. Aided by his fresh-faced junior Ansari, Haathi Ram tries to uncover the motives of the four assassins. Of course little goes according to plan and even less is what it appears to be.
Paatal Lok is the first series by Clean Slate Films, the production house run by Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh. It’s been created by Sudip Sharma, who wrote NH10 and Udta Punjab. Sudip has also co-written the series along with Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra. The show has been directed by Avinash Arun, who made the National Award-winning Marathi film Killa and Prosit Roy, who made the horror film Pari. This is a crew brimming with talent and their collective skills create fireworks on screen.
Paatal Lok is a tightly knit thriller with every episode ending on a cliffhanger, which forces you to keep bingeing. The suspense doesn’t flag but our perception of the characters shifts as the story unravels so that it becomes impossible to decide the good, bad and ugly. Paatal Lok means underworld so it would be futile to look for a moral center but what little goodness there is resides mostly in women, children and dogs. It’s telling that Haathi Ram is named after an animal. There is little humanity in the humans here.
This world and these characters are meticulously detailed. From the sullen stare of Haathi Ram’s teenage son to the Buddhist chanting that Sanjeev’s wife organizes to keep her husband safe to the vulgar, opulent office of a shady builder where the receptionist, dressed in a Greek toga, addresses guests with Talreja Pranam. The directors locate that thread of absurdity in the rampant consumerism of contemporary India. The narrative travels from Delhi to Chitrakoot and Punjab and the distinct accents, language and specific curses are one of the highlights of the show. There is one particularly horrific scene in which a character explains to Haathi Ram the various types of sexual crime that can be inflicted to settle scores – there’s penetration with fingers, rape and rape with murder. The last is appropriately termed: Poora kaam.
Haathi Ram belongs to the pantheon of memorable investigators that streaming platforms have given us, like Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games and Srikant Tiwari in The Family Man. Haathi Ram is a man who has spent his life dealing with violence and vice and yet he retains his honesty. His inherent dignity and sense of righteousness might be fatigued but it refuses to fade. Jaideep Ahlawat, an actor I’ve admired since his stellar turn in Gangs of Wasseypur, finally gets a role that matches his blazing talent. Haathi Ram’s face and his eyes seem bruised by the brutality he has encountered but he is still, every inch, the everyman hero. Despite the odds, Haathi Ram, like a modern-day Sisyphus, continues to push his rock uphill and probe until the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
Haathi Ram is up against formidable opponents, including the murderer Hathoda Tyagi, named so because he prefers to kill with a hammer. Abhishek Banerjee’s pitiless, furious gaze is guaranteed to give you sleepless nights. There’s also Neeraj Kabi, pitch perfect as Sanjeev, who is by turns, arrogant, afraid, entitled. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Sanjeev says: We used to be heroes, people like us. Then something about this country changed. Now we get trolled, killed, fired.
This is what elevates Paatal Lok from a skillful thriller to something bigger and more essential. Every turn of the twisted plot serves as a scathing commentary on the state of our nation. But this isn’t done with a sledgehammer. It’s done with economy and skill in the little moments. Watch the small slights that Ansari must endure at the station because he’s Muslim. He’s smart, brave and clearly headed for a bright future but within the majority Hindu force, he is a second-class citizen, who is reminded at every turn of his status. Paatal Lok lays bare the bigotry that has seeped into the fabric of this country. In a heartbreaking scene, the father of one of the accused asks poignantly: jisse maine musalman tak nahin banne diya, aap logon ne usse jihadi bana diya.
Paatal Lok showcases caste, corruption, greed, dirty politics. It explores the backstories of the lead characters, revealing the cauldron of poverty and hate that creates killers. This might not be new information but what’s chilling is how casually it all plays out. A key character explains that what everyone thinks of as a rotten system is in fact a well-oiled machine in which every part knows what his job is and anyone who doesn’t is simply replaced. There’s plenty of violence in the show but for me, this was the most frightening moment.
The violence gets gory and in places, gratuitous. This is an overwhelmingly male world in which heads and fingers get chopped off, brains are splashed on streets and even children are subjected to unspeakable brutality. The women are mostly collateral damage in the game for power and money being played by men. Gul Panag breaks the bleakness with her feisty presence as Haathi Ram’s wife. Swastika Mukherjee is also lovely as Sanjeev’s long-suffering spouse. These actors leave a mark in the little screen time they have.
The locations in the show are also characters – especially the river, which is a site for romance, violence, contemplation and excretion. In an early episode, a character trying to relieve himself exclaims with irritation that the cops, trudging the river for a key clue, won’t even let him shit in peace. It’s funny and sad. Avinash doubles up as DOP along with Saurabh Goswami for all 9 episodes. The two shroud this grim world in a green-grey palette, which is momentarily broken by bright lights. The climactic detour into a village fair is especially dazzling. As is the haunting background music by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor. And the editing by Sanyukta Kaza.
Paatal Lok is the type of storytelling that streaming platforms were made for – dense, layered, ambitious and ambiguous. I highly recommend that you make time for it.