This is a ride through hell that you won't forget easily.

Paatal Lok web series poster playing on Amazon Prime Video
Flix Review Friday, May 15, 2020 - 10:37

This world is actually divided into three worlds, a cynical middle-aged cop tells his naïve sincere subordinate in Paatal Lok, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. There is swarg lok (heaven) where the rich and famous live, dharti lok (earth) when the ordinary middle class live, and then there is paatal lok (purgatory/hell) where society’s lowliest live. Insects and vermin who commit petty crimes, those no one really cares about.

But sometimes, these ‘insects’ from hell enter into respectable homes in dharti lok and ‘bite’ human beings to cause a ‘kand’ (scandal), like the Aarushi kand or Nithari kand. Investigating kands gets you the promotions, he concludes before casually checking up on a man beating his wife in the street.

The otherwise low profile Outer Jamuna Paar police station and Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) are both suddenly in the spotlight when four criminals are arrested in their jurisdiction by a team of senior officers after a car chase. One of the four is discovered to be a brutal hitman Vishal Tyagi, or Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) from Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, because he murders his victims with a hathoda (hammer). While Vishal is a notorious criminal who has committed 45 murders, his accomplices include Tope Singh/Chaku (Jagjeet Sandhu) from Punjab, Kabir M (Aasif Khan), and Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), each with his or her own backstory.

During the interrogation, one of them breaks and reveals that they were supposed to target a celebrated journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). Sanjeev, unknown to anyone, is on the verge of being fired from the channel he built due to poor ratings, and his investigation into a highway contract scam that leads back to his powerful employers. Since honest journalism didn’t get him far, and ‘bitten’ figuratively by meeting his possible killers, Sanjeev starts using his brush with death to survive in the business.

As Hathiram and his subordinate Ansari (Ishwak Singh) start investigations, they travel to Chitrakoot, Punjab, and across New Delhi, investigating the history of the four accused, tracking clues and discovering that there is much more than what meets the eye. Information keeps getting leaked to the press, promising leads fizzle out, the case is transferred abruptly to the CBI who turn it into a terrorism issue, and one of the four accused is killed in custody.

But with every setback, Hathiram gets even more invested in the case. As he journeys into the netherworld of injustice and despair that gave birth to these four youngsters, he realises that the those is heaven have a hotline to hell that bypasses the moral compasses of earth.

Paatal Lok’s basic premise is reminiscent of Sacred Games. A beleaguered overlooked cop, his loyal right-hand man, an unexpectedly high-profile case that offers him a chance to change his destiny, and a mystery that takes him deep into a nexus of murky conspiracies. But the deja vu passes quickly. Creator Sudip Sharma, his team of writers and directors Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, draw you into a gritty, well researched series that resolutely avoids the traps of melodrama and titillation that so many other web series have fallen into.

The series combines features from a police procedural and suspense thriller, layering it liberally with mythological references. Though this season has just 9 episodes, Sudip builds a vast, complex canvas that tackles issues of caste discrimination, honour crimes, poverty, child abuse, gun violence, corruption, journalistic ethics, Islamophobia, and political game play.

Reports about the show reveal that it was shot across 100 real outdoor locations in Punjab, Chitrakoot, Delhi, Rohtak and even Ahemdabad. In spite of its many outdoor scenes, there are no scenic village shots and rustic chic décor. Instead we sweat with Hathiram and Ansari inside a crowded state transport bus, live in shady motels and deal with resourceful cub reporters who double up as informers and help articulate English-speaking journalists understand the bigger picture.

The many subtle and not so subtle instances of discrimination against Ansari who is an aspiring IPS applicant, a lower caste leader’s red shoes that are reminiscent of Phoolan Devi’s red band, a certificate that explains a man’s circumcision as surgery, and homes across socio economic strata in Delhi that echo the show’s theme of heaven, earth and hell, are all fantastic touches that bring nuance to what could have been a simplistic tale.

The dialogue is crackling too, incorporating multiple accents and local dialects of Hindi from across India, respecting diversity and not allowing north India to be whitewashed with a Punjabi-esque accent. I personally enjoyed the reference to the story of Hiranyakashyap who was caught between two gods from heaven, quite like Vishal Tyagi who is given a new identity by a mysterious forest dwelling leader who he reveres. Thanks to his protection, Vishal is never caught for his crimes, until Hathiram, (the name of a Vishnu devotee) changes his fate. There is also a scene where Sanjeev, clearly an amalgamation of many popular English news journalists in India, appears on a news bulletin and mouths lines like “I see you, I am not afraid, you can attack me but you can’t stop me” which sound eerily similar to Arnab Goswami’s recent rant after he was supposedly attacked by goons, and the many times he has portrayed himself as a victim.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and rather disturbingly similar to fiction in this case. Jaideep is absolutely brilliant as the potbellied, cynical but still hopeful Hathiram Chaudhary who grew up with an abusive father and is trying hard to be a better man.The little touches given to his character, like tucking his shirt in nervously, apologising to Ansari when he uses the word katva during an interrogation (katva is a crude reference to a Muslim man), and asking his son to cover his ears while he rants with the choicest expletives, imbue his character with dignity, realism and smidges of humour and charm.

Jaideep is ably supported by Ishwak as the mild and idealistic Ansari who knows what he is up against but decides to remain hopeful. Gul Panag is unfortunately miscast as Hathiram's wife, but she plays her underwritten part well. Neeraj, another seasoned actor, is effective as Sanjeev but is not completely convincing as a journalist gone rogue. The part perhaps needed someone just a little more glamorous, or dubious to be an effective foil to Jaideep’s man next door appeal.

Abhishek as the cold-blooded Vikas will give you the creeps and though he has virtually no lines, the actor manages to hold your attention. Casting bhajan singer Anup Jalota as a Hindu upper-caste politician is a genius move and he surprises you with a good performance.

Paatal Lok is an ambitious web debut for Anushka and Karnesh Sharma’s production house Clean Slate Filmz. Apart from a few dips in pace, it's a gripping series that delves deep into the murky foundations that hold up the holy bastions of our democracy. Watch Paatal Lok this weekend... it’s a ride through ‘hell’ you won’t regret.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.