Ever since I finished watching episode 8 of Paatal Lok, I’ve had two imaginary scenarios playing out in my head so let me just get this out of my system.
Scenario 1: Shoot inside a hotel room
Cinematographer [to the two co-directors]: So the shot will basically show the two of them in bed.
Bengali Director: I think we need to establish that the woman is Bengali.
Cinematographer: While they’re having sex?
Non-Bengali Director: Well, the first scene in the episode shows her in a bar, writing poetry, on a napkin. If that’s not Bengali…
Bengali Director: But she was wearing a salwar kameez. Also this scene is 18 minutes later. What if it’s slipped the audience’s mind that the character is Bengali?
Non-Bengali Director: Ok. What do you want her to say?
Everyone racks their brain to get into the mind of a Bengali woman having sex.
Bengali Director: I know! She can recite my favourite Tagore poem!
Non-Bengali Director: While having sex?
Bengali Director: It’s perfect! It describes the whole Eros-Thanatos thing.
Non-Bengali director: You just want to have your favourite poem in the sex scene, don’t you?
Bengali Director: It’s a very specifically Bengali kink.
Scene 2: The writers’ room for Paatal Lok.
Writer 1: …and then we show the guy and the Bengali woman having sex.
Writer 2: Hm. How do we establish her Bengali-ness?
Writer 1: Bro. The first time we saw her, she was writing poetry, on a napkin, in Bengali, in a bar in Kolkata.
Writer 2: Yeah, but in a salwar kameez.
Writer 1: She could say something in Bengali?
Writer 2: That’s not enough.
Everyone racks their brain to get into the mind of a Bengali woman having sex.
Writer 2: I know! Let’s have her recite something by RABINDRANATH TAGORE!
Writer 1: While having sex?
Writer 2: What could turn a Bengali on more than Tagore?
You know, the more I think about it, I feel bad for Shuklaji. Maybe he wanted to yell out some Hindi poetry, but no. Chanda’s got to get through her recitation of “Prohoroshesher aaloy ranga”… .
In all seriousness, I’m reasonably sure none of the above scenarios actually happened because very little of Paatal Lok, the new streaming crime thriller produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, feels like it was done on the fly. It is, for most part, a superbly written show. Sure, it takes the idea of sex being poetic to a whole new level and the show does present a somewhat simplistic and cliché-ridden take on journalism, but hey, I bet a police officer watching Paatal Lok would probably roll their eyes at how easily the investigating officers get the information they need. The point is that despite its flaws, Paatal Lok is perhaps the best of the procedurals produced in India so far.
A lot of Paatal Lok is drawn from the novel The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal, who used to be something of a rockstar in journalism and has since fallen from grace after he was charged with sexual assault and fraud. For whatever reason, neither Tejpal nor his novel are mentioned in the show’s credits. It is ironic, of course, that the depiction of the media and the star journalist are the most cringe-worthy parts of a show adapted from a novel by a journalist. (It’s still galaxies better than what was shown in at least the first season of Four More Shots Please!, but that’s not saying much.)
On a bridge in the Outer Jamuna Paar area of Delhi, there’s an unexpected encounter between four people in a car and a small contingent of policemen. The evidence suggests the four were hired to kill journalist Sanjeev Mehra, who is the face of a TV news channel that is struggling to get the ratings it needs. However, as investigating officer Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary and his sidekick Imran Ansari discover, the truth is a layer cake.
With Avinash Arun as a co-director (he made the exquisitely-shot Killa and was the cinematographer of Masaan), it’s not surprising that Paatal Lok looks as good as it does. Whether it’s a drab police station or a village fair with a ‘death well‘ filled with rushing, neon-accented racing cars, there’s a wonderful sense of geometry and colour in the cinematography of Paatal Lok.
Considering all the issues that Paatal Lok touches upon, the show could easily have been reduced to a set of lectures or rants. Caste: check. Social privilege: check. Gender bias: check. Islamophobia: check. Homophobia: check. Toxic masculinity: check. Rape culture: check. Fake news: check. (There’s more but I’ll stop here.) However, the writing team of Sudip Sharma (who is also credited with creating the show), Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra make sure that Paatal Lok, for all its commentary on social inequalities, is never preachy. Almost every detail and backstory serves the central plot and adds the effect of perspective.
(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)
I think my favourite episode is the third one (“A History of Violence”), in which Imran goes to Punjab to find out more about one of the accused (Tope Singh) while Hathi Ram goes to Chitrakoot to dig up the police records on another (Vishal “Hathora” Tyagi). In the show’s opening sequence, Hathi Ram explains to Imran how Indian society in general and specifically Delhi as a city are structured. There’s heaven, which is the realm of the privileged like Sanjeev Mehra. Then there’s hell, a netherland occupied by the poor and marginalised. Sandwiched between these two is the middle layer that Hathi Ram and Imran inhabit — far below the top, well above the bottom, and constantly out of place.
If Hathi Ram and Imran struggle to fit into urban social structures, in rural and semi-rural spaces, they stick out like sore thumbs. They’re also redundant as police officers because laws and the criminal justice system are irrelevant in these places where caste and class decide everything. Tope Singh and Tyagi’s past include episodes that are brutal but familiar. We’ve heard and read stories about incidents like these. Paatal Lok, written and made for an urbane audience, offers a reminder that behind the statistics and news reports is trauma suffered by real people. And it has consequences. The lower-caste boy whose act of defiance led to his mother being gang-raped grows up to be the man banging on his girlfriend’s door because violence is the only language he’s inherited.
In many ways, Paatal Lok is a very masculine show. There are very few women characters, though the show gets points for writing a transwoman character who isn’t sensationalised or fetishised. Not just that, they also cast a trans actor for the role so big props to them for that.
At one point, someone in the show says women are hired to accompany assassins because a car with only men in it looks suspicious. Add a woman and the same scene becomes less threatening. That’s what the women characters — all performing either supporting roles or extras — in Paatal Lok feel like: window dressing. There’s an inept woman constable; a womxn prisoner who has little to do other than weep; a housewife who badgers her husband and then gets slapped around (literally); and a journalist who has an affair with her boss. Eventually, some of these women end up with a little more to do and the journalist in particular gets a couple of zingers in, but that just barely blunts the male-centricity of Paatal Lok.
To be fair, one of the reasons Paatal Lok feels authentic in its north Indian setting is that it’s full of men who pepper their conversation with abuses that refer to penises, fucking and women. Much of the show is about machismo and the exhibitions of physical brutality and it’s telling that both the show’s hero and villain are products of male violence. Hathi Ram’s meekness comes from having grown up with an abusive father and Tyagi’s rage is channelled very intentionally towards savagery by Masterji. You see Tyagi with the dogs in the farmhouse and you can almost imagine a different future for him — that is, until he chops his thumb on Masterji’s command, to become a modern-day Eklavya. It’s a terrible demand to make of Tyagi because it’s so unnecessary. Couched as a test of loyalty, it’s violence for the sake of violence.
Mostly through Imran, who is effectively the show’s conscience and the only squeaky-clean good guy in the show, Paatal Lok conveys its distaste for the violence that is established as norm — boys will be beaten; women and children will be raped; the marginalised will be killed; the weak will be humiliated etc.
Yet what finally elevates Hathi Ram in his teenaged son’s eyes is that same violence. A few punches, kicks and swear words later (it’s interesting that Imran stands as a physical barrier between the violence and the boy), Hathi Ram is a hero to the same son who treated him with contempt earlier. The only way Hathi Ram can assert himself as an alpha is with a show of physical strength. Some may say that Hathi Ram’s alpha aura is dented when he later gets one tight slap from his wife, but the fact is he had hit her earlier. That she sees slapping him back as her only recourse is another cycle of violence. It’s also worth noting that while Hathi Ram slapping his wife is part of the man establishing his position as a patriarch, his wife slapping Hathi Ram is played for comedy. There’s an alternate fictional universe in which Hathi Ram comes home and his wife makes him sit down and watch Thappad with her.
For me, one of the most heartbreaking but hopeful stories in Paatal Lok is between the sadly-underwritten Cheeni and her childhood friend who finds ways to stay in touch with her even after she’s been taken into police custody. It’s a love story that is entirely the stuff of pipe dreams, especially considering the horrors that the two have survived, but it’s so tender and utterly precious in the ugliness that surrounds them. While it would have been nice if Cheeni had to do something other than weep and look scared, I’m so relieved she wasn’t subjected to a tasteless, voyeuristic, unnecessary and exploitative ‘reveal’ like the one Kuku had to go through in Sacred Games. In Paatal Lok, the non-mystery of her biological gender is dragged out for a few episodes and when she’s finally outed, it’s horrible, but the way it’s filmed is not graphic (relatively). The camera and the storytelling focus less on Cheeni’s body and more on how the men around her — particularly Hathi Ram and Tope Singh — try to establish their dominant masculinity.
Throughout the show, most men try to amplify what they consider their essential manliness when they’re around Cheeni and it’s almost always ugly. Three characters break this pattern. One is Kabir, who is also humiliated, victimised and stripped in order to establish his identity (religious in his case, as opposed to gender) and another is Imran. The real constant, though, is Cheeni’s friend. I ate two Snickers after the last, heartbreaking conversation Cheeni had with him in the courthouse.
It bears repeating that even the best of scripts can be reduced to a mess by bad or listless acting. Fortunately for Paatal Lok, most of its cast acts its heart out. No one overacts and everyone other than Neeraj Kabi as Sanjeev Mehra felt convincing. Jaideep Ahlawat as Hathi Ram is a treat to watch as he smoothly transitions from being the most progressive cop in the room to viciously assaulting a transwoman because he’s frustrated by his investigation. In a lesser actor’s hands, Hathi Ram could have come across as disjointed as he shuffles between meek and mutinous, kind and violent, offensive and terrified, but Ahlawat’s Hathi Ram feels real and complex. Abhishek Banerjee as the remorseless Tyagi also stands out as does Bodhisattva Sharma as Hathi Ram’s son, Siddharth. Nikita Grover as the woman constable who is basically the source of all of Hathi Ram’s woes, thanks to her love of pastries and being glued to her phone, is also excellent. Perhaps one of the more genius casting choices in Paatal Lok is that of getting bhajan singer and now reality tv star Anup Jalota as a UP politician. Gold.
So yeah, never mind that minor detail of the Tagore-spouting vamp, Paatal Lok is hella good.
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