Paatal Lok (loosely translated in English to the underworld or even hell, in the context of this particular story) is a nine-part web series that is produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate films and currently streaming on Prime.
In essence, Paatal Lok is a crime thriller with a cop as its central protagonist. However, right from the word go, it is evident how the writers have made a clear and conscious choice on picking a specific narrative style to bring this story to life.
The storytelling is strikingly dark, the screenplay is rustic, the visuals are often intentionally dreary and the score is heavy and dense. The triumphant end result is the truth laid agonizingly bare before the audience, without any palliative touches. In fact, as I made progress with Paatal Lok, I could make an immediate spiritual connection to Aravind Adiga’s famous Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger that also adopted a similar narrative texture to tell a powerful story.
The protagonist in question here is Inspector Hathiram Choudhary (the brilliant Jaideep Ahlawat), a veteran cop with the Delhi Police who has spent years posted on duty in an unremarkable part of the capital (he refers to this place as the territorial Paatal Lok)! He is going through what you would describe as a classic mid life crisis, desperately seeking validation and meaning from a mundane daily grind.
His big chance does arrive finally, when a group of four is apprehended at his Station for the attempted murder of celebrated TV journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi with a real star turn). Hathiram is entrusted with the case and asked to unravel the motive behind the attempted assassination. Along with the young IPS hopeful Ansari (Ishwak Singh) who is his investigating partner, Hathiram descends on the steps to Paatal Lok, where he expects to fish around for clues.
Hathiram is no super cop. He neither possesses the Sherlock Holmes genius streak, nor has access to fancy gadgets or gizmos. But he is sincere and has a reasonable physique. He is good with logical deduction and reasoning and is able to connect the dots where it matters. He takes uncomfortable, long overnight buses (not the fancy AC sleeper ones) to places where he thinks he might land leads and once there, relies on clamorous auto-rickshaws to take him around on his recces. Hathiram embodies the spirit of Paatal Lok and the realism that is so ingrained in its writing.
Paatal Lok’s story exists in the cross-section of the wide-ranging themes it studies and the sheer depth of its characters. In fact, a large chunk of the episodes is dedicated to render the ‘origins story’ of these characters. I have rarely seen such a close examination of each character’s evolution portrayed in such detail on screen. What makes it even more challenging here is also the sheer number of these characters.
We learn the story of a young lad who has suffered casteist slurs and oppression all his life, before finally deciding to fight back. We learn how another has unconstitutional notions of justice so deeply ingrained in him that he doesn’t think twice about committing gruesome murders, albeit to avenge another heinous crime against a loved one. There is another who has suffered religious oppression all his life as a member of a minority community. There are other stories too, like the one about an orphan abandoned at a railway station and a kid who has endured violent physical abuse from a parent right through his childhood.
Such a large investment of time in character study could have potentially stifled the rhythm of the narrative. But then, there are these little surprises and revelations that keep things chugging along. There is especially one about a major character’s sexual orientation that you don’t see coming at all. And finally, there is also a stunning reveal right at the end that really blows you away!
This is not to say that Paatal Lok didn’t have problems. I especially had some reservations about the sub-plot playing out around Sanjeev Mehra and the role of the media. Some of these sequences, especially involving the journalist Sara Matthews (Niharika Dutt) felt a little too contrived (take for example her treatment of an intern). There was a dialogue overload in some of these scenes. The casting could have been slightly better too, though Neeraj Kabi absolutely hits it out of the park in all of his scenes. I also had a few problems with the way the mob-politics nexus was portrayed. I sensed an overdose of clichés, without which also the messaging could have emerged with equal effectiveness.
Even with some imperfections, Paatal Lok is still a highly impressive attempt and a ‘coming of age’ breakthrough for OTT content in India. It is a slow burn and is no highway to hell. But this conscious choice of tempo clearly works, as it seeks to align to the pace of life in those supposedly nondescript parts of the country where the plot plays out. The truth laid out is indeed bare and it makes you uncomfortable. It makes you wish Paatal Lok didn’t exist for real. Well, it does. And it probably goes deeper. We will definitely see more of this abyss explored in Season 2.
Shrikanth is a Chartered Accountant, who keenly follows and writes about cinema when he is not crunching numbers or balancing ledgers! You can find more of his work at Non Linear Plot