Paatal Lok: Noir at its best

When their earthly time was up, the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi, leave the kingdom and walk towards Indralok, or heaven. On the way a stray dog joins them. As they ascend the mountains towards their destination Nakul, Sahadev, Arjun, Bheem and Draupadi fall from the peaks. Only Yudhishtir and the dog remain. After a perilous trip they reach the doors of heaven and Indra himself is waiting there to welcome Yudhishtir. The Pandava asks Indra about the dog’s fate. The god says that the skinny old dog has no place in heaven. The just and noble Yudhishtir says that he would not go to heaven if the loyal dog is not allowed there and he turns to go. Just then the dog transforms into Yamadharma, from whom Yudhishtir was born. Dharma blesses Yudhishtir and he goes to heaven and finds that his siblings and wife are already there.

What’s Paatal Lok got to do with this Mahabharatha story? To know that you’ll have to watch the Amazon Prime series till the end. But here’s a clue. It’s got something to do with a dog.

The latest Hindi series from Amazon Prime has become a rage and rightfully so. I started to watch the first episode and couldn’t stop until the closing credits of the last one. And it was the best eight hours spent on a web series in recent times. The gritty, honest and engaging crime thriller is arguably the best of its kind in India. Loosely based on Tarun Tejpal’s 2010 novel The Story of My Assassins, Paatal Lok tells the story of an under-appreciated honest policeman Haathi Ram Chaudhary, played brilliantly by Jaideep Ahlawat, who is assigned a high-profile case that turns his life upside down.

The series begins with the special team of the Delhi police apprehending four alleged contract killers on the Jamuna bridge in South Delhi. Haathi Ram and his subordinate Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) arrive at the spot and the special team head DCP Bhagath (Vipin Sharma) orders him to take the culprits into custody. It is later revealed that the four people were in the city to assassinate a famous TV journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi).

Bhagath entrusts the investigation to Haathi Ram and orders him to report to him directly. The police officer who had been side-lined for almost his entire career sees this as an opportunity to turn his career around. Haathi Ram puts all his energy, experience and intelligence into this case. Little does he know that this case would take him through the dreadful underbelly of casteism, politics and official corruption. As the case puts his career and life at stake, Haathi Ram sets out to prove everyone, including himself wrong.

Half of the credit for the series’ success is owed to the exceptional writing and direction. Created by Sudip Sharma and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, Paatal Lok is a product of in-depth field research. Writers Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra, led by Sudip Sharma travelled across Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to perfect the script. And result shows. The first scene of the series has Haathi Ram pouting gyaan to civil service aspirant Ansari about swarg (heaven), dharthi (earth) and paatal lok (hell). And those who are from Delhi or have lived in the city will instantly agree to his world view. Lutyens Delhi is swarg, Vasant Kunj and Noida are dharti and Jamna Paar is hell. This metaphor also points to India’s rigid caste system and the class system. Both are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them.

The writers touch upon various ills that fester in our society. Sexism, regionalism, casteism, bigotry, blind ambition, greed, political opportunism, classism, homophobia and transphobia are all discussed in the nine-episode series. These issues are unravelled through the lives of the four accused. Vishal ‘Hathoda’ Tyagi (Abhishek Bannerji) is a dreaded killer from UP who turns to a life of crime after avenging the rape of his sisters. Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) belongs to a hated lower caste in Punjab and had to leave his village owing to caste war. Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) or Chini is a transwoman who is a victim of regionalism and sexual assault from childhood. And Kabir D (Asif Khan), whose religion makes him a default criminal for the police and media. Through these characters’ backstories we get to see the reality of the country that’s still shackled to societal evils sugar-coated as culture, which are passed down through generations.

And the next half is a no-brainer. It goes to the actors, especially Ahlawat, who cements his status as one of the best in the business. Ahlawat has been active in the industry for a decade and has mostly done villainous roles. His performance in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) as Shahid Khan earned him rave reviews and the industry found a new actor to join the league of Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Manoj Bajpai and Irrfan Khan. He followed up with impressive acts in various blockbusters, but Haathi Ram cements his status as performer of international standards. The character of Haathi Ram is complex. He is intelligent but naïve, brave yet subdued, honest yet pragmatic, strong yet vulnerable. And Ahlawat executes every emotion perfectly and owns every scene. He blends into Haathi Ram—accent body language and all—with great perfection and his struggles, his survival and his triumph can be felt by the audience.

Kabi plays the opportunist journalist well, though his character’s method of anchoring does not go well with the cacophonous style in today’s time. Gul Panag is good as Haathi Ram’s loving yet unappreciative wife. Ishwak Singh shines as the soft-spoken, intelligent Muslim cop Ansari who has to overcome the religious prejudice in life and career. Swastika Mukherjee’s role as Sanjeev Mehra’s clinically depressed and neglected wife Dolly was a tad irritating in the beginning. But she soon turns into a person that deserves respect. Niharika Lyra Dutt’s character Susan Matthews started off as a cliched young journalist enamoured by her famous boss. It could have gone southside, but the writers give the character a strong arc that redeems her from the follies of the past.

With strong writing, direction and exceptional performances, Paatal Lok offers great thrills to those who love crime genre. It is at the same time an inspiring under-dog story that has its foundations on reality.

Our verdict: Must Watch.

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