Paatal Lok On Amazon Prime Review: A Brave, Bracingly Filmed Leap Into India’s Heart of Darkness

Creator Sudip Sharma constructs a riveting nine-episode anti-procedural (unofficially) based on Tarun Tejpal’s The Story Of My Assassins
Paatal Lok On Amazon Prime Review: A Brave, Bracingly Filmed Leap Into India’s Heart of Darkness

Creator: Sudip Sharma
Writers: Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Chopra
Directors: Avinash Arun, Prosit Roy
Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Niharika Lyra Dutt, Swastika Mukherjee

A ghastly incident has left the upper echelons of the police force speechless. But one of the most memorable moments from Delhi Crime – a tense police procedural based on the 2012 Delhi gangrape – features a cop speaking. During a crucial road trip, a peripheral subordinate (Gopal Datt) explains to his driver how such crimes are caused by simple economics. His reasoning is sharp; we sense that he's made a career out of observing rather than obstructing abuse. "The long drives back home give me time to think," he concludes. This image – of a philosophical middle-aged cop dispensing unwarranted wisdom ("gyaan") to a pair of ears below him in an invisible class system – is integral to the public perception of North Indian law enforcement. The last six months have only reinforced the all-bark-no-bite vibe.

In many ways, this image explains why Paatal Lok – a riveting nine-episode anti-procedural (unofficially) based on Tarun Tejpal's The Story Of My Assassins – shifts the central perspective from the book's narrator, an ambitious journalist, to that of a veteran inspector. The arc is steeper; reportage is a narrative subset of policing. The story of a journalist and his mistress investigating a failed assassination plot on him becomes the story of a working-class cop investigating a high-profile case in which four suspects are arrested for an assassination attempt on a famous journalist. To make the truth as murky and inaccessible as one chased by snoopy civilians, the officer is suspended early on: he must navigate the pyramidal maze of power and corruption with little help. Apart from turning an elite downward-looking gaze into an earthy upward-looking one, the shift also gives the omniscient cop a chance to endure the words of his own theories. This is his long drive back home – in someone else's car.

Paatal Lok, too, opens in the language of the Datt character. On a patrolling round, Outer Jamuna Paar Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) narrates his Whatsapp version of Hindu cosmology to a fresh-faced Muslim rookie (a sincere Ishwak Singh): Delhi, like the universe, is divided into the three worlds of Swarg (Heaven: Lutyens' Delhi), Dharti (Earth: Noida, Mehrauli, Vasant Vihar etc) and Paatal (Netherworld: where "insects" live). The police have no role to play in Swarg; powerful gods suppress powerful secrets there. But promotions are earned when they solve scandals (the Aarushi case) that result from insects 'biting' the people of earth.

The grammar of foreboding begins here: Chaudhary soon gets his interspecies scandal, but spends the series correcting the folly of his words. Towards the end of his opening monologue, they enter a ghetto, only to haplessly watch a wailing woman direct her fury from an abusive husband to the constable who manhandles the husband. "May your body rot with insects," she cries, prompting a visual cut to a cockroach being squashed in a hotel corridor. Sonchiriya, co-written by Paatal Lok creator Sudip Sharma, opened with a gang of dacoits stopping at the sight of a rotting black snake – a mythical foretelling of death – before their leader is felled in a dramatic gunfight. The cockroach of the netherworld never stands a chance in Sharma's strikingly bleak series, given that its fate is decided by those walking in hotels and speaking on podiums. Minutes later, just like the dacoits, the four assassins – baaghis (rebels) of society's making – walk into a trap, on a bridge that connects Delhi's lower worlds. If Sonchiriya examined the spirituality of salvation, Paatal Lok exposes the futility of it. There is no winning in hell, just different degrees of losing. 

An outstanding Jaideep Ahlawat plays Hathi Ram Chaudhary like a man who knows he is sifting through the wreckage of collateral damage. The final reveal barely makes sense, because it's not supposed to matter. In that sense, the series epitomizes the ways of the bureaucratic villains it hints at.

Densely packed social dramas tend to use a genre device – murders, manhunts, terrorist plots – to convey a broader picture of the other India. The protagonist's journey enables the writing to expand on deep-rooted themes of poverty, caste, Islamophobia, victimisation and gender oppression. Paatal Lok goes one up, or down, by using a protagonist who seems to realize that his own journey through the trenches is a sweaty distraction from an ominously distant conspiracy. An outstanding Jaideep Ahlawat plays Hathi Ram Chaudhary like a man who knows he is sifting through the wreckage of collateral damage. The final reveal barely makes sense, because it's not supposed to matter. In that sense, the series epitomizes the ways of the bureaucratic villains it hints at.

While a government declares war to divert a nation's attention from its own failures, Paatal Lok dissects the anatomy of failure to hide – and thus reveal – the muddled war at the top. It rages and rants and ebbs and explodes, while reminding the viewer that the suffering of pawns is pointless to the larger kings at play. And it remains bracingly political in how the entire narrative – composed of desperate people who think they're making a difference – is a smokescreen of elaborate detail. For instance, the backstories of the four criminals are depicted in a distinct manner. Each segment subconsciously unfurls like a dramatized recreation, louder and more stylized than the present-day parts, almost as if to evoke the news-package sensibilities of Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), the targeted TV journalist who exploits the saga to resuscitate his own primetime career. If not for the demise of his left-liberal idealism, that's how Mehra might have presented them on his show. Kabi's cultured performance camouflages the corny writing of the media bits.

A "hero" like Chaudhary then manages to personalize the ambivalence of watching good monsters and bad angels. He knows that he isn't a model human being. In the early interrogation sequences, he is particularly violent with the Muslim (Ahlawat subtly flinches at his own racist slur with the rookie, Ansari, looking on) and trans characters. Every time his domestic life is thrown into disarray by his wayward son, he obsesses harder about the unlikely mission – not driven by a righteous sense of duty but by the desire to become a better person, so that his boy, too, doesn't turn into a victim of circumstances. His rage at home is both funny and despairing, specifically in a scene where his status as a man with nothing left to lose dawns upon him: On a rickshaw ride, he curses the world and its mother before asking his son to cover his ears. As a result, Chaudhary goes from a tame cop fetching bones to a wild one digging up skeletons. 

The canine metaphor isn't incidental. For a show that critiques the heavens, Paatal Lok swims in the undercurrents of Hindu mythology. Some of the dialogue and camerawork – especially a surreal chase that culminates with Chaudhary leaping into a carnival's Well of Death – go out of their way to highlight religious symbolism. But it's the running motif of stray dogs that breaks new ground. Long considered a link between the netherworld and earth, dogs have often been used as a marker of dormant humanity in misfits. A recent example was Manoj Pahwa's hostile-cop character in Article 15; his fondness for mutts informed the sinisterness of his psyche. In Paatal Lok, the broken characters are so disillusioned by people that they are dominated by their love for dogs. The most boyish of the accused calls himself a "kutta" while flirting with his cat-eyed girlfriend. The eeriest of the four – a cold-blooded killer played with silent menace by casting director Abhishek Banerjee (Ajji, Stree) – shows a narrative-altering affection for dogs. He shares traits with their primal nature: survival instinct, boldness, and an irrational loyalty towards a master. A link to earth: Dolly, Sanjeev Mehra's needy and anxious wife. She adopts a stray despite Sanjeev's allergies; her bond with the female dog compensates for lack of one with her husband. Swastika Mukherjee humanizes Dolly beyond the snooty stereotype; there's an inherent fragility about the Bengali actress that distinguishes this supporting role from the rest. 

Late in the series, an interstate bus runs over a dog on the highway. Chaudhary steps out and observes the roadkill: It's between two regions, two worlds. The sky is dark. The driver shrugs, but for once, the inspector has no wisdom to dispense. He is speechless. A lot of human blood is spilled, but the sight of a gutted dog – like a mangled cockroach – feels far more daunting in context of the visceral primitivity of Paatal Lok. It's a wild country, but no country for the wild. 

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