In his introduction to the crime noir anthology Delhi Noir (2009, Akashic Books), editor Hirsh Sawhney bemoans the lack of crime fiction emerging out of Delhi, the capital of India. Mumbai and Calcutta have their own stalwarts, Sacred Games, Feluda, Manto, Byomkesh Bakshi etc, he says. But there’s nothing such for Delhi. Reason?
“Good crime fiction, however seductive and pleasurable, forces readers to reckon with the inequity and cruelty inherent to modern societies. It’s only natural that Delhi’s book-buying-and-publishing citizens would avoid such writing. Any insight into their hometown’s ugly entrails would threaten their guilt-free gilded existence and the bubble of nationalistic euphoria in which their lives are contained. They are too dependent on the power structures and social systems intrinsic to the city—embassies, government offices, and corporations; rural poverty and illegal immigration—to risk looking critically at these things.”
Sudip Sharma’s Paatal Lok attempts to position itself in that space. Four people are arrested for the conspiracy to murder a senior journalist, and a down-and-out cop is assigned the task of solving the investigation. Cue pandemonium.
The show makes it clear at the outset that there’s a lot beneath the surface here. The title, Paatal Lok, translates to Netherworld. The idea is that the poor and the criminals are like insects from The Netherworld, coming to bite the residents of the living world (Dharti Lok) and disturb its balance. And those who are at the top of the food chain, the rich, the politicians, the connected, are in Heaven, Swarg Lok.
The show explores how the mechanics of our society ensure that the wheel of oppression keeps on rolling. There are parallels with Article 15, the Anubhav Sinha film from last year. Like the film, the show explores the impact of ideas such as rural inequality, caste equations, and violence against women as a tool. And on top of these, it factors in the power of organised religion. And thus, it goes from being a mere whodunit to a whydunit. This is not to say that the unravelling of the mystery isn’t in focus here. Like all good mysteries, the answer is always close, but hidden extremely well.
The writing is consistently excellent throughout the nine-episode run. Many times, shows start at a great pace and then slow down or get muddled around the midway mark. But – like another Amazon Prime show this year, Afsos – this show balances that well. The pace is comfortable, never out of control, and each episode ends with a strong cliffhanger. Incidents and threads that are seemingly strewn around get tied up at the end to exceptional effect. One of them, in particular, was a proper Eureka moment for me. The screenplay is taut. Rarely is an unnecessary beat thrown in. There’s no digression for digression’s sake.
The acting is top-notch across the board. Even the smallest parts have been well-portrayed, and that’s a joy. Credit should go to the casting director too, apart from the actors themselves. It was while watching the show that I learnt that Abhishek Banerjee, the actor who plays Vishal Tyagi, is also its casting director. I was like, whoa!
The production design is superb too. I liked the fact that during a particular flashback scene, set 15-20 years ago in the hinterlands, the bike used is Hero Honda CD100/CD100 SS. That bike used to be a staple back in the day. Another instance is of an upscale exotic hotel/history museum. This one really drives home the Swarg vibe.
As for the characters, Paatal Lok gives a depth to most of the main ones. What we see them as in the beginning is not enough to understand them. And though I’ve read criticism that the show is biased for/against certain groups, I think it manages to bring out the inherent contradictions in India, the country, and the people who make up its various worlds, sharply. It doesn’t shy away from delving into the darkness that permeates society. Showrunner Sudip Sharma (Udta Punjab, NH10, Sonchiriya) had mentioned in an interview to Film Companion that he liked telling the stories of rural India, which has a lot of untold and unseen tales. Here, he and his team do a marvellous job.
The one character we are constantly with is Hathi Ram Chaudhary, the inspector investigating the case. He’s played by Jaideep Ahlawat, best known for playing Sardar Khan’s father Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur. The cop has never had a chance at investigation, in forever. And after a lifetime of nonachievement, he doesn’t want his son to view him as a failure. He’s not perfect, which is part of the charm. But he has goodness at his core. His dry humour and witty one-liners are hilarious. We root for him because of his desire to solve the case and his underdog status. Speaking of underdog, dogs are a recurring motif throughout.
The one shortcoming I felt was that there aren’t enough strong or central female characters in the story. True, Gul Panag’s Renu is strong, and Sara is iron-willed as well, but by and large, it’s the men doing everything.
Ultimately, the show is about a crime and the people behind it, how connections work across societal strata, and how honour and ethics can mean many things to many people. And in exploring those multitudes is how Paatal Lok shines. It provides a look into the multiple Indias beneath the veneer, and forces us to sit up and take notice. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Where To Watch: Amazon Prime.
Genre: Crime, Drama.
Viewer Guide: Strong language, bloody violence, sex and nudity.
Featured image courtesy.
Have you watched Paatal Lok? Planning to watch? What are your thoughts on the show? Tell me in the comments section.
Thank you for reading.