“Jise maine Musalmaan tak banane nahi diya, use aapne jihadi bana diya,” cries the father of an accused in an alleged assassination attempt case of TV news anchor Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) in Amazon Prime’s new original series Paatal Lok. The accused Kabir has never been circumcised after his brother was beaten to death over suspicion of eating beef, even though he pleaded it was chicken.
In another scene, a Brahmin politician in Madhya Pradesh’s Chitrakoot, in order to secure his vote bank, has food at a Dalit’s house. Later, he bathes in Gangaajal to “wash off his sins”. A journalist tries to expose the politician’s hypocrisy which ends up getting the media office smashed by goons.
These instances of Islamophobia and casteism respectively, won’t even bewilder you because these are the news stories which we consume daily. Spice it up with violence, abuse, poverty and corruption - and you still won’t bat an eye. The news which we consume have made us - the privileged - immune to it. We either outright ignore or tweet something sympathetic with a trending hashtag.
In a scene, when Inspector Haatiram Choudhury (Jaideep Ahlawat) questions Tope Singh, one of the four accused in the aforementioned case, as to why he threw his mobile phone in the river. Singh, nonchalantly denies having done it. Choudhury points at the TV screen and says, “Ye TV par teri maa ki sagai dikha rahe hai b****d.” Tope simply says, “TV vale kuch bhi dikhate hai saheb.” This and a string of other scenes in the 9-episode show are swipes taken at real-life TV news anchors and channels who peddle hate and fake news, day in and day out, having reduced news into nothing but nuisance.
Paatal Lok, created by Sudip Sharma, is not only a scathing commentary on the times we live in but also dives deep into the nexus between the hooligans, politicians and security officials. Directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware and Prosit Roy, the series puts the dark hinterland of India at centre stage. Here, 45 people are killed by a hammer and no police can intervene. Here, a lower caste woman is raped in front of her family who can do nothing but weep. Here, a sexual predator preys upon homeless children without any remorse. It's the wild.
Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary of Outer Jamuna Paar police station is assigned the case. Chaudhary, an ageing cop who has never got his due, finally gets to prove himself. Sanjeev Mehra, the morally ambiguous mediaman, sees his own assassination attempt as a chance to revive his dooming career. There is Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) assisting Chaudhary, occasionally studying to become an IPS officer and mostly facing the ire of being “the other”. There are a host of other characters lying around like pieces of a puzzle. Does Chaudhary crack the puzzle or does he get played? The answer to this question is safely tucked away in the final episode.
Without divulging any details about the well-paced script, the character that terrified me the most was Vishal aka Hatodha Tyagi. Played by Abhishek Banerjee, the psychopath is sure to send shivers down your spine. Sanjeev’s wife Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee) was another standout performer in the series and interestingly there is one small thread which ties the psychopath Tyagi and panic-stricken Dolly - their love for dogs - which plays a major role at the end.
The seasoned performers, Ahlawat and Kabi, are a treat to watch. The duo proves it yet again that you don’t need to be a “star” to helm a show. Gul Panag, Niharika Lyra Dutt and all the others in the supporting cast have done a fantastic job. Credit must also go to writers Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Chopra, music composers Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor and producer Anushka Sharma.
Paatal Lok, on the surface is an investigative thriller filled with gory scenes and abuses but if you look deeper, it’s much more than what meets one’s eye. The show addresses larger issues still prevalent in today's India since eons, which is impossible to depict on the big screen owing to the CBFC guidelines and fringe political elements. The idea of OTT platforms is to get the consumer invested in the content and leave him asking for more, and Paatal Lok does just that. Binge it NOW!
Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Ishwak Singh, Gul Panag, Jagjeet Sandhu, Swastika Mukherjee, Vipin Sharma
Director: Avinash Arun Dhaware, Prosit Roy
Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)