The recently aired web series Paatal Lok has created a strong buzz after its release as viewers and critics seem to praise the series alike. While the thriller does seem to offer a profound reflection on the complex nature of modern Indian reality, this shift towards the complexities of Indian social reality itself is not new and has been in the making for at least a decade or more. Movies like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Dangal (2016), Aarakshan (2011) to movies from the rising stars like Ayushman Khurana, Rajkumar Rao, and Deepak Dobriyal, in addition to web series like Bhaukal (2020), The Family Man (2019), etc.—all participate in a new aesthetic of modern Indian. These narratives are turning towards the lives of communities that have hardly been the subject of India’s cinematic universe.
Paatal Lok successfully converges a plethora of socio-political and cultural issues that plague the modern Indian society with a very realist aesthetics. Its plotline brilliantly weaves multiple tensions around the lines of caste, class and gender discrimination in addition to highlighting issues of youth cultures and struggles and aspirations of middle-class families.
One enjoys the Haryanvi desi dark humour as well as the good-for-nothing unemployed and spendthrift brother-in-law of Hathi Ram. The story thus touches upon the lives of almost all Indians of our times in all age groups, from children to older ones. In the following passage, I will, however, point out a major ideological tension that seems to pervade the entire narrative and which is identifiable with a neo-conservative response to many major problems related to Indian social reality. The series in that sense can be understood to be deeply regressive in its depictions of many issues related to caste, and its imagination of liberal politics.
One of the most common urban readings of caste has always blamed the emergence of Dalit politics for reintroducing caste in urban societies which are thought to be casteless spaces. All expressions of caste atrocities are then relegated to the countryside where the traditional order is still thought to be the dominant reality. Dalit scholars have argued that such a reading exposes a conservative bias as urban spaces too continue to be caste-infected but never exposed as such.
We have been additionally aware of numerous caste atrocities in urban spaces. But, this conservative narrative has become commonplace in recent Indian cinematic narratives and was also utilised in Ayushmann Khurana’s Article 15 where the village once again becomes a site of caste atrocities.
In Paatal Lok, caste atrocities are brought to the surface but only within this frame which fails to respond to the more subtle and powerful challenges of caste in urban spaces. The reason why this frame is considered less relevant is that caste atrocities in villages have been the dominant subject in the last many decades, what has not become decipherable is the presence of caste in modern urban spaces.
In Paatal Lok, one sees another interesting addition to this conservative bias which seeks to rescript the rise of Dalit movements across the country as quasi-militant organisations. Chandra Sekhar Azad’s Bhim Army is one case in consideration which has been consistently blamed for supporting violence to fight caste injustice.
But anti-caste and Dalit movements, far from being quasi-military organisations, have been artistic and socio-cultural movements. It is due to this character of a strong ideological and epistemological challenge that Dalit movement and anti-caste movements are often called silent revolutions.
Paatal Lok by choosing to select the depiction of Dalit and anti-caste movements primarily as quasi-military organisations, silences the original, and more substantial “Educate, Agitate and Organise” character of Dalit movement to which Dalits remain committed above everything else.
This quasi-military response serves the upper-caste urban audience as they often term the emergence of low castes as threatening to their status quo. Hence, till now, we have never had a biopic made on the lives of many struggling Dalit writers who have fought a progressive battle with education. One cannot still think of making a biopic on Omprakash Valmiki’s life Jhootan but can easily consider in Dalit politics a rise of another troubling quasi-military organisation.
This is simply a politics of representation and appropriation which Dalit intellectuals have been fighting for long. Thus, early on the narrative is set in such an ideological frame that it seeks to castigate/hide the progressive streaks. Tope Singh’s uncle’s views are worth considering regarding these anti-caste organisations. He says that “When a man has no way out, he bears it all in silence. But you show him just a tiny bit of hope; hope—it’s a bitch.”
While Tope’s uncle has been able to mix well with his hopeless life in the aftermath of the atrocious event in his village, but it is actually Tope’s future, born out of this hope, which has remained arrested within the narrative. This brings out the neo-conservatism I am talking about, and this ideological strain will be reinforced on many accounts within the narrative, as we will see. The character of Sukkha is emblematic of the many street protesters that rather unnecessarily keep crowding the plot, but is ultimately put to a brutal end.
Communities come to possess identities which are sometimes ascribed rather than earned. The case of Muslims as suspected communities globally is one such example. Paatal Lok’s another conservative response comes to the surface with the depiction of Gurjars as Dacoits.
This community has a long history of being type-casted as dacoits, thieves, goons and ruffians ever since they become troublemakers for the colonizers. They were moved into the jungles to fight guerrilla wars as the British continued to suppress these communities with Criminal Tribal Act. It’s worth quoting these sayings from the colonial historian Sir Risley to indicate how long the community has been stereotyped, he records: “A house in ruins is better than a village full of Gurjars… When the Dom made friends with Gurjar, he was robbed of house and home”.
These colonial stereotypes continued in the Indian cinematic universe where movies like Mela minted the social image of this community by type-casting it as terrifying villains. Gujjar, in the film Mela, is thus a memorable character. Even in the recent trends in Indian cinema, while there has been an attempt to engage more critically with different communities, like Muslims in Paatal Lok, Gurjars continue to be utilised as props of evil in movies and series like Jila Ghaziabad (2013) and Bhaukal (2020), etc.
Another interesting stereotypical prop is the representation of Gurjar villains as being holders of a traditional Kshatriya duty who are responsible for administrating Brahmanical dictates, a prop amply used in Paatal Lok. Gurjars are mainly identified as these hypermasculine muscle suppliers for the dirty politics that usually characterise politics in northern India. However, the reality is not really like that as sections of Gurjars continue to be progressive, and it is precisely the disregard to the progressive character of these communities that Indian cinema has always disregarded, and in turn, itself remains conservative in representing these communities.
This is again the same politics of representation that Dalit communities face, where their progressive people never make the subject of mainstream stories.
In order to be really progressive, Indian cinema needs to stop appropriating and minting the stereotypes of different communities and start representing the struggles of progressive sections of these communities. And above all, they must not go ahead and establish traditional links of these communities within a Brahmanical framework. The villain Dunalia Gurjar would have been more dreadful had the series not placed him within a Brahmanical spiritual order, but rather in the local deity culture as is common in the Gurjars, who worship their own ancestors by calling them “devtas” and deities like “bhoomi”.
To stretch the point further, this artistic politics of representation works as a conservative aesthetics of appropriation by which these communities and their social image are sullied as dangerous, threatening, and uncouth. So, what happens with the son of Hathi Ram in his school, when his father’s rather traditional name “Hathi” becomes a way to ridicule the presence of his lineage in the modern school, actually becomes the very real practice in which the children of these communities are then treated in schools.
They are asked questions like, do Gurjars really supply muscle power to politicians; why do Gurjars do such dirty politics; were your ancestors really dacoits and mafias? These works of fiction (Paatal Lok) are not then ideologically innocent; they are meant to effect certain emotions and sentiments into the very fabric of reality.
Hence, one must look at how the name of Gauri Lankesh becomes an ideological trope to give a solid realist effect to the story. But this effect is obtained by a deliberate and carefully implanted ideological move. The show breaches its own contract with reality because, as a work of fiction, it purports such resembles as mere coincidences, but as we see in this series, it’s simply not a coincidence. If the series itself is making such radical claims to reality, then why would it not be questioned on the grounds that it participates in a real politics of misappropriation and misrepresenting identities by referring to real communities like Dalits, Gurjars, Jats, etc
Hence, one must look carefully at the implication of the politics of identity in these cultural narratives. Similar consideration must be carried out on why in the gang of Raju, we are only told about the caste of Hathi’s son, who is a Chaudhary and is verging particularly and more so than others on the verge of criminal fascination with the gun. The caste of Raju and other friends is not revealed, and this narrative silence is not simply innocent.
Hathi ram is the protagonist because he sets the framework within which the narrative will play, namely a world that is being divided into three domains, swarg lok (heaven), dharti lok (Earth) and paatal lok (Hell). This division resonates with the class divisions of the most powerful, the middle and the least powerful of all. The conflict of this series will then unfold in having the creatures of pataal lok crawling up to the swarg lok, intertwining the people of dharti lok, and thus causing cracks which can permit the entry of marginalised into the upper echelons.
In this case, it is a party of Dalits who had wanted to make it to national politics that sent these creatures into the swarg lok and dharti lok. But in the end, a coalition between Bajpayee and Gwala Gujjar reflects the shaky bonds of their political aspirations, and we are not told much beyond that as the series ends with another seemingly innocent silence. What we are told again towards the end is the conservative rhetoric of maintaining the status quo delivered by DCP Bhagat. Bhagat tells Hathi Ram,
“This system looks completely rotten from the outside, Chuadhary, but once you spend some time in it, you realize it’s a well-oiled machinery. Every part knows its job well. And the one that doesn’t simply gets replaced. But the system never changes.”
It is this fate which Hathi Ram must accept and so do other characters like Tope Singh, whose attempt to free himself from caste discrimination ultimately land him in jail within the narrative chosen primarily by a neo-conservative narrator—a narrator who believes that the system is above all, and each one has their proper place in it.
Tyagi’s love for dogs is dubious for it needs legitimation from his guru. It’s a love that has no confidence in its own existence but rather seeks legitimation from his master, a kind of unrequited love. The entire plot is then hinged on this loyalty of Tyagi to his master. If Tyagi had believed in his love for dogs then he would have returned immediately without thinking over it twice, but he is ready to kill Mehra only if his guru could give him permission to override his feelings. Hence, Tyagi’s devotion ultimately lies in Master Ji’s sanction.
This makes Tyagi a full reincarnation of Eklayva who was loyal to his guru, who had obliterated his talent on his guru’s behest. Eklavya’s obliteration is thus not in the act of cutting his thumb but in believing his guru as such. His obliteration is then required and planned by his guru so that the system can be saved from his extraordinary power to challenge the status quo and making a low born change the system.
Tyagi, as a creature of the underworld, must find the same fate where his decapitation spells his death. His death will look as if self-caused, but in reality, Tyagi was being set up, it was all about killing Tyagi’s might, meaning the system not only decides what is evil but also provides conditions to eliminate them.
That’s how a piece of perfectly oiled machinery troubleshoots its many ills and as such can only be considered a conservative doctrine of preordained spiritual mechanism. Hence, Tyagi’s birth and death are encapsulated in spiritual oracles. Towards the end, Hathi Ram says “Tyagi might be a monster but there was still some humanity left in him.” One may ask what died with Tyagi—his monstrosity or his humanity? One may also ask as to what actually is human about this brutal murderer; the answer is quite Freudian in a sense.
Hathi Ram calls him human because Tyagi’s love for dogs meant that he is still bound by relations and feelings of love. Freud argues in Civilization and Its Discontents that humans, without the limitations put forth by civilization, are basically destructive animals. They are human only because they are bound by codes of human social existence.
So, the narrator locates Tyagi’s humanity in a condition of bondage to social norms in essence. As such, it is a conservative doctrine, in opposition to liberal humanism which locates humanity in an individual’s ability to break free from encumbrances placed by nature and society. Hence, in Tyagi’s case as well, we come across a conservative underpinning to his moral capacity.
In Hathi Ram’s perspective, who is also the protagonist and the narrator of this world, it was his humanity. But then this means that Hathi Ram himself must remain couched within his conservative worldview, maybe as a lowly trouble-shooter who is run by his bosses. Hathi Ram accepts his position; his knowledge as a narrator is coloured by a conservative perspective but poses a subverted understanding of the system. He has learnt that there are three divisions of the world, but not from scriptures but from WhatsApp. Therefore, on many accounts, there is a strong overarching neo-conservative ideological character imbued in this series which the progressive readers must identify.
Hathi Ram remains an interesting narrator with his subverted vision. He is both free and bound; he is free because he is not bound by original scriptures but by rules that seem to have no authenticity about them. That’s why he is able to break free from them, but he must come to accept the shortcomings of his ‘vantage’ point. Towards the end, he is successful in regaining the confidence of his son, symbolising a harmony a moment of patriarchal legitimation of power.