If I had to describe Sudip Sharma’s Paatal Lok, directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, in one word, I’d call it haunting. It’s a very disturbing show, but the brilliance of it lies in the fact that even though it is what it is, it keeps you glued, and how! I do not, and cannot, binge watch shows. I tend to get tired after a couple of episodes, but when I sat down to watch Paatal Lok, I watched it in a go, regretting not watching it on Friday, the day it released. But, better late than never. I have never been as invested in an Indian show. I had watched even the wonderfully made Delhi Crime and Leila over a period of time. But this was different.
I can’t do gory cinema. Visuals of murder, especially when there is a lot of bloodshed haunts me for days so I tend to avoid that as much as possible. Of course, with time, I push myself to watch those films too, but there’s always a constant shutting of the eyes. But while watching Paatal Lok, there was nothing of that sort. I didn’t twitch or move from my seat even for a second. I was that engrossed.
On the surface level, Paatal Lok is about an assassination, adapted from Tarun Tejpal’s book The Story of My Assassins. But layers beneath it’s about the problems in our country – those we are able to see and those we aren’t. Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) is the one who has been attempted to murder. The case is given to Hathi Ram Chaudhry (Jaideep Ahlawat), who lives his life regretting failures – at work and at home.
We sit in air conditioned rooms and watch this beautifully crafted show, and at the same time the harsh realities it throws light on take place in the world around us in those very hours, minute by minute. Apart from the problems of hierarchy in the police system, the role of media in our society, Paatal Lok deals with many more social realities. In fact, there are so many issues that Sudip Sharma has tried to dealt with, that some of them go missing. Midway they tend to get forgotten, but not much is lost here. Even the forgotten realities are so minutely written, that if you have an eye for it, you will take that from this show.
Domestic violence, the differences between the haves and have nots, child abuse, sexual harassment, exploitation, prejudices against Muslims – these are just some of the issues spoken about and dealt with in the show. I don’t want to give anything away, but look out for scenes where the show talks about Cheeni’s (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) past. It’s haunting, to say the least. You wouldn’t want any child to go through that.
The biggest genius of Paatal Lok is that none of these social realities are shown as brutally as the show shows the murders. These realities come silently, in whispers, highlighting that even in real life they come silently, and are often ignored. The cinematography (Saurabh Goswami and Avinash Arun) plays a very important role here, where a lot of the crimes are shifted to the side of the frame, telling us that these things keep happening as we go on with our lives.
Hindu prejudices against Muslims is an important motif in the show. One of the characters, Imraan Ansari (Iswhwak Singh) is always subject to it. But in most cases, he’s used to it. He is a cop and wants to become an IPS Officer. In a Hindu dominated workplace, he has to listen to people passing comments on him being a Muslim. When he goes for a mock interview, one of the other candidates tells him that he will get selected because the board will want Muslim representation, irrespective of merit. In another scene, Hathi Ram and Ansari are questioning one of the accused’s father. What he said, broke my heart:
jisse maine musalman tak nahin banne diya, aap logon ne usse jihadi bana diya
Some episodes in, you feel that the show is convoluted, which it is. But from the third episode onwards, you get a hang of things. It’s a little difficult to catch up, but there’s not much to complain about here. It’s a brilliantly written show and performed with a full show of talent.
Jaideep Ahlawat as the leading man, Hathi Ram Chaudhry is out of this world brilliant in Paatal Lok. You might remember him from Gangs of Wasseypur and you definitely remember him from Raazi. Hathi Ram is a rejected man. He himself doesn’t feel it in him to be able to do anything. He’s a regular man, who has mostly only seen failures. He deals with issues at hime – with his son and wife – and at the workplace – with his bosses. Ahlawat brings to the table all the nuances Hathi Ram deserves. It’s a very well written character, backed by excellent performance.
Neeraj Kabi is a veteran in the arena of web shows. He knows what he’s doing. As the almost always entitled media figure, Sanjeev Mehra, Kabi shows what he’s made of. He handles the two faces of Mehra (at work and home) with a certain ease. And his chemistry with Swastika Mukherjee (who plays his wife, Dolly) is exceptional.
Abhishek Banerjee as Vishal Hatauda Tyagi is by far the most haunting character I have seen in recent times. He’s the guy who played the possessed friend of Rajkummar Rao in the horror-comedy, Stree. Banerjee’s gaze are something I will remember and think of for a long time. It scarred me, and that is a true of an actor. As the main “bad guy” he walks with a certain slump and there is a constant gloominess that surrounds him. Even when he is around dogs, and at his happiest, you know you may want to maintain distance from him.
Ishwak Singh plays Ansari, and he plays him with utmost dedication and conviction. There’s a beautiful boyish charm about Singh that he perfectly lends Ansari. He’s devoted, charming and meticulous. What adds to his persona, and innocence is his smile. Watch out for him in the moments Ansari blushes. He comes as a saving ray of hope in this otherwise dark thriller.
The women are given a backseat. But, it seems like a very careful decision. The naming of the lead actor as Hathi might be a reference to the fact that there is no humanity in men. We see hope in the women and children (and of course, Ansari). They are the light. But even in the backseat, all of these women shine. Swastika Mukherjee, Gul Panag and Niharika Lyra Dutt are all phenomenal. The former two stick to domesticity, while Dutt plays an opinionated journalist. Even Anindita Bose (who plays Chanda) stuns in a very small role.
But there is one woman who takes the steering wheel into her hands – Anushka Sharma. Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz (with brother Karnesh Sharma) has always made bold choices. And Paatal Lok is their boldest choice. Backing content like this is important. Because to be honest, this is the kind of content that needs to be made, that needs a strong voice. And if Sharma can be the voice, so be it. We won’t complain.
All in all, Paatal Lok is a show that you must not miss. It’s everything that we complain Indian shows are devoid of.
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