During the extended lockdown period, Amazon Prime had released its new web series “Paatal Lok”. A gripping crime tale “Paatal Lok” was immediately binge watched and reviewed positively for its acting and storytelling. The web series directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy is a departure from the lame & garbage crime thrillers we have been watching over the years in cinemas and television.
An assassination attempt on an English media journalist–Sanjeev Mehra (played by the ever reliable Neeraj Kabi) and subsequent arrest of the four accused–Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee), Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu), Kabir M (Aasif Khan) and Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) is the basic plot of the series. However, when the investigation started much dirt was unearthed.
The series begins with Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), who is posted at outer Jamna Paar police station for 15 mediocre years is seen explaining his younger colleague Ansari (Iswak Singh)- the meaning of three realms-Swarg Lok (Heaven), Dharti Lok (Earth) and Paatal Lok (Netherworld).
In his police lingo, he refers to Lutyens Delhi as Swarg Lok (Ashoke Road, Aurangzeb Road, etc) where cases are managed and careers are made. The referred Vasant Kunj and Noida as the Dharti Lok where human live and Jamna Paar as the Paatal Lok where vermins (lower class people) live. He further explains that when people from Paatal Lok (read criminals) enter Dharti Lok crime happens.
So, when Chaudhary was handed over the case, he sees the high-profile case as an opportunity to redeem his life both professionally and personally. However, initially what seems an open and shut case; Hathi Ram’s investigation pointed towards a sinister and deeper conspiracy.
As the inquiry progresses, different layers of these three realms are unraveled and later gets connected. In the nine episodes, the series through its brilliant storytelling exposes an opportunistic Media, reflects current political discourse and its undertone and displays India’s deeply rooted class& caste dichotomy.
Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary & his family represent and live the middle-class dream. They send their son (Bodhisattva Sharma) to a posh school in Delhi in pursuit of better future. However, the boy faces ridicule at the elite institute due to his lower middle-class background.
When Inspector Chaudhary first meets Sanjeev Mehra-a big shot in the Media industry, Chaudhary expresses his admiration by mentioning that both his son & Mehra went to the same school. A kind of self-validation that somehow there is a link between the two persons with contrasting status background.
Sanjeev Mehra- the 9’oclock prime-time showman of his news channel is the antithesis of Chaudhary in class status. Mehra, who is losing his grip in his own channel & about to be sacked; receives the news of his attempted assassination as an opportunity to get back at the owner (Akash Khurana) of the channel.
He is helped by the ruling establishment who later comes up with a cock & bull story of ISI plotting his killing. Mehra knowing fully well the loopholes of the story uses it to his advantage and refrains from questioning the establishment.
It reflects the convenient narrative of our times, where usual suspect is a particular religion or a country (Read Pakistan). Hathi Ram’s colleague “Ansari”, a young IAS aspirant and very much part of the system too does not escape from this narrative. He is taunted and sometimes his loyalty questioned due to his religious identity.
Kabir M (Aasif Khan), a petty criminal and one among the four accused arrested is falsely implicated as jihadist along with other three. No one bothers to challenge the story; not even Mehra, who previously had exposed many a corrupt and powerful on his way to become an influential journalist. In fact, he profits from the story and reestablishes himself as the prime time star.
Kabir M and Ansari face religious discrimination, Mary Lyngdoh aka Cheeni (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) faces both sexual harassment and racial discrimination because of her Mongoloid features and queer identity. The people from Northeast face similar discrimination in mainland India. “Apart from being called “Corona”, “Chinese”, “Chinki”, India’s Mongoloid looking people were spat on and called “coronavirus”. In the series, Mary Lyngdoh is passed off as “Nepali”. Because, in reality, India can’t distinguish between people from Nepali origin and Mongoloid looking people from their own country.
The path to criminality for Vishal Tyagi (aka Hatoda Tyagi-as named after his killing weapon) and Tope Singh passes through their caste identities. When Tyagi’s sisters were raped due to a land dispute, Tyagi takes revenge by killing his three cousins to avenge his raped sisters.
The region from where he belongs–Bundelkhand, taking revenge is normal and one’s dharma. Since, he belongs to Gujjar caste, he was given protection by a Gujjar Godfather of the region and in return, Tyagi offered his loyalty. Abhishek Banerjee hardly utters few words in the entire nine episodes, but his dead look demeanor has spoken thousand words.
The other accused, Tope Singh’s (Jagjeet Sandhu) story, much like Tyagi’s is connected with his caste identity. He grew up as a low-caste Manjaar boy in a Punjab village dominated by the Jatt upper-castes. It was expected of him to be subservient to the Jatt boys and follow the social norm. But, one day, tired of their humiliation & bullying, he mercilessly stabs three Jat boys. Victim of caste-based violence, the two characters belonging to the backward caste, enter into the crime world.
Tyagi & Tope Singh is a rude reflection of the rigid caste-based society that perpetrates discrimination, misogyny and violence. While Tyagi’s sisters were raped apparently due to his lower-class status, Tope Singh’s resistance of upper caste bullying & humiliation met with his mother getting raped by several upper caste Jat men.
“Paatal Lok” is thus a riveting tale of class, caste & contemporary politics of India. The kind of India that we may not like to see, but it very much exists. Perhaps, that’s the reason a section of the society is upset with this crime thriller. However, notwithstanding its criticism, netizens have already given its verdict-and it’s a must watch thriller, you should not miss.
The writer is a public relations officer (PRO) at Tezpur University. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Opinions expressed are writer’s own and do not express the views of his employer.