Faithful representation of reality without censoring, or “putting a raw from of life in a reel setting to portray and ‘not embolden’ discomfort in the society” through any visual art is what we understand as uncensored realism and cinematic symbolism. In India, we rarely get to watch such visual art that uses the above art techniques to address ailing issues in our society.
In less than a week of its release, Amazon Prime’s web series Paatal Lok stood at par in terms of utilising these techniques in a very captivating manner, taking the audience to a new level of noir-fiction drama with its realistic portrayal of social filth, rooted in the soul of India. However, with so much popularity that it gained, certain communities of our society are not happy with how certain things have been shown in the web series.
A viral 10-second clip from the series turned the table towards criticism, with thousands of posts and petitions being circulated on social media against the creators of the web series. The protest is for a dialogue that allegedly is a racial slur made towards the Nepali community, profiling them in poor reputation.
This happens in the second episode when, during an interrogation in one of the police stations in Delhi, a female constable (played by Nikita Grover) slaps a transgender character Cheeni or Mary Lyngdoh (played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), an accused of an unattempted crime, and swears her with “Nepali randi” (Nepali whore) just because the character has ‘Mongoloid’ features. The dialogue used in the scene that has been being widely circulated on social media has caused an uproar within a section of people, along with political parties joining the protest.
When I saw the clip, I was outraged and in no time, I shared it on my social media handles and joined my community members with demands such as “mute/delete the scene”, tagging everyone from the production team to seek a public apology for using such words. However, within an hour, I recalled one of my film appreciation classes.
A long time ago, not over two years, a professor had taught us about uncensored realism and cinematic symbolism in contemporary Indian cinema and said, “This technique will put you in discomfort as it highlights the reality of our social system.” Further, I recalled an interaction with noted filmmaker Adoor Gopalkrishnan back in college, when I asked him about intriguing techniques used in cinema, to which he said:
“...this might embolden if you watch a small clip, but the entire narrative will be understood when the viewer watches the visual art thoroughly. Everyone’s perception of art is different, but the message consumed will be the same. We can look at a scene in three unique ways, depending if they are an audience, a critic or creator.”
Keeping all these in mind, I watched the series to understand the context in which the derogatory words had been used. When the series ended with Inspector Haathi Ram Choudhary (played by Jaideep Ahlwat) throwing ice candy at the dog, my opinion towards the earlier discomfort changed.
I understood where we lacked and what made us misinterpret such an engrossing visual art. Throwing light on the cinematic techniques, Paatal Lok is a series intertwined with a very intriguing yet discomforting portrayal, which lifts the underlying issue of Islamophobia, casteism, racism, violence against women, child sexual abuse, press freedom, transphobia, and the corrupt system rooted in our social system.
This web series offers us an insight into the struggles of people on whom we discriminate and pass judgement on a day-to-day basis, knowingly or unknowingly. I felt that the series has a similar discourse to that used in Kamal Haasan’s enduring Tamil hit Hey Ram, released two decades ago.
The scenes portrayed in the movie still stand validated in today’s setting. However, the entire symbolism is not emboldening either. If everything sets in with the cinematic technique, then what went wrong in Paatal Lok and why is the Nepali community against it? Based on a small clip, how can we judge the entire web series?
Keeping the argument in perception and focusing on the Nepali audience, a certain section within the community is outraged with the usage of those two words. “Words that appear in the second episode are insulting to the entire Nepali community,” said the lawyer who served a legal notice to Anushka Sharma. One of the community members, who denied watching the entire series for projecting the community in a negative light, said, “These two words further reinstate the stereotyping of people from the Northeast”.
“If they stereotype the community but forget to show how a member of the community feels after the slur, we do not see any intention of them other than normalising stereotype against the community,” opined another person. “Bollywood has called us with unique names and identities, but this is a new low,” expressed another member on his social media.
“It has hurt our sentiments by glorifying negativity and questioning the dignity of our daughters, mothers and sisters,” writes a member. “For the sake of creative freedom, we should never consume such content that is racist and xenophobic,” said another member of the community.
If we go by this logic, it will anger any member of the community when a community is projected with such negativity. For a community that has been victim to racial profiling through visual art in the past, scenes like these further inflict pain. Now, the community members have served a legal notice to the producer and want them to mute/delete the scene, and blur the subtitle with an unconditional public apology. It will be interesting to see how things will take turn.
However, commentators posit that it justifies the dialogue in the scene to an extent, but the word could have been different, if there were a choice. They say that the web series is trying to portray the dark side of the Indian system. A noted film critic observes that the creators should not have used such politically incorrect words, which further crystallise the existing poor reputation of the community. However, a commentator pointed out that this web series, through many hate elements shown, is a work of fiction that lifts the stereotypes and does not encourage the audience to bring hate into play.
One Bengaluru-based writer in an opinion piece argues that, “even if you intended to uplift and raise social awareness about a vulnerable minority, you should have used carefully-crafted, politically-correct words. We [Nepali community] have been abused and labelled with so many nicknames, that every negative portrayal hurts us, demeans us and gets us terrified.” A certain section of scholars focuses on how negative branding and usage of such catchphrases can create a problem: “We recall a brand with its taglines and catchphrases, making it easier to remember,” admits one scholar.
The user who first reported about the scene through his Instagram said, “All of my past fears re-emerged because those two words were like a demeaning catchphrase, which recapitulated what females from our community were already accused of and frequently branded as. Anyone who has experienced bullies and unpleasant nicknames can understand — catchphrases are much ‘catchier’ and sink deeper than the underlying context in which they are expressed. That’s the reason all the people who shared concern, speak only one point — such targeted generalisation was not needed.”
However, one commentator centres her argument towards the politically-motivated propaganda being carried out by a certain political column against the creators of the web series and said, “Visual arts should be watched open-ended. Why are people mobilising themselves based on one small clipping? Why spread a propaganda and confuse the general Nepali population who doesn’t even have access to Amazon Prime to understand the reality? Such outrage is because of politically-motivated propaganda, and this concerns me. It roots everything in mob mentality, without being inquisitive about the issue in-depth.”
We cannot conclude this debate without breaking down the creators’ point-of-view and the demand of the script. The previous argument on the perception of visual art through uncensored realism and cinematic symbolism comes into course to justify their side. I reached out to my close friend who is involved in making short films in the Bengaluru circuit and started with an example of Thappad, an Indian drama that questions the complicity of women who make compromises.
He asserts, “Thappad is a movie that revolves around a legal battle by the protagonist against her husband for one slap. The slap in the movie does not encourage any husband to slap his wife. It is a mere portrayal of the issue happening for real.” He goes on to say that words used in any visual art can be perceived in two ways: first is the usage of derogatory words towards the community with a derogatory belief, and the second is pointing out the social filth with reasoning such as why this should not be a desirable form of communication.
He points out, “If you binge-watch Paatal Lok and try to analyse the words used in the second episode, you understand that it has nothing to do with projecting the Nepali community in negative light. There is nothing wrong in the script as it is only trying to break the stereotypes this community faces in reality. The entire series is based on the underlying subaltern issues through breaking down stereotypes. Nothing is encouraging.”
In the series, throughout the nine episodes, the story goes forward by breaking down the reality of the social system in India. As the story unfolds further with Inspector Haathi Ram trying to find out the past of the four accused of an unattempted assassination of left-liberal journalist Sanjeev Mehra (played by Neeraj Kabi), it brings out the layer of social stigma that every character in the web series has been a victim of.
A few examples of this are the lynching of Kabir M’s brother by right-wing activists at a railway station after a co-passenger mistakes it for beef. The scene highlights instigating mob-lynching towards a certain community for the choice of their food; or the way the last name of sub-inspector Imran Ansari (played by Ishwak Singh) is used throughout the series, getting him profiled for being a Muslim; or how Kabir M gets killed because of the confusion that arises with his last name; or how Cheeni in her childhood gets raped by a ‘beggar mafia’ — the scene is not encouraging child sexual abuse but is a portrayal of such evil treatment happening with children; or how Tope Singh’s mother gets raped by an upper-caste and how his family faces severe consequences when he kills three upper-caste bullies; or how Sanjeev Mehra faces political force for his editorial independence; or the vandalism faced by the Chitrakoot-based crime reporter for his reportage on a big-fat politician.
Each scene is an honest attempt by the writer to bring in the underlying stereotype faced by everyone in India, intertwined in the web of hate, crime and violence.
On the other hand, claiming that it has projected the Nepali community in an unpleasant light without understanding the whole context is where we lack the understanding of what is reality, and ends up making it a mob mentality. These things shown in the web series are just another day in our lives.
The symbolism used throughout the web series is a portrayal and “not an encouragement”, pointing towards the discrimination happening for real in the “other India,” different from what we see and hear. If one adds every element together, we get to see visual art, grabbing the attention of everyone, and comprehensive of classic cinematic techniques. Every scene, word, and dialogue used in the script offers us sensitisation of such day-to-day discrimination.
“The usage of the word by the lady constable is not trying to promote or put the community in an unpleasant light, but is a portrayal of what already exists. In the community’s case, it is how the women are subjected to accusation and how they are branded. Don’t we carry this tag with us in the mainland?” observes a media practitioner.
She further says how the series is a striking reality, pointing to discrimination faced by many on the basis of what they look like, what they eat, wear, how they walk, talk etc. “What is more harmful is the mobilisation towards negativity just by watching a small clip and not considering the big picture of what the series wants to convey. One cannot jump to a conclusion based on one small clipping,” she added.
The protest by a small section of the community on the dialogue from a minor scene, without trying to look into the whole context, will further fuel confusion amongst the general population. Those who do not have access to the OTT platform will then argue based on what is viral on social media. This small section within the community could have sensitised the general population on the reality instead of spreading confusion by sharing the 10-second clipping.
“These people (core protestors) know the reality. They know the enormous picture, but will still protest because it will be the best moment for them to gain political support through their baseless argument. With this act, they are inciting hate towards creators and this is what the web series is all about. Do they care for women or is it just another drama for their political gains and national headlines?” she claims.
However, differing from the protests, I hold the view that this crime thriller is an attempt to highlight the stereotypical mindset through a very intriguing odd of the socio-political filth ingrained in our system in our everyday lives, emphasising on how reality works.
After understanding all three sides of the argument, two questions come to my mind and they are: was it defaming or an attempt to point out the “other side” of India whom we do not give any attention to because we have never been subjected to it?Whatever remains here is the criticism on the series; the argument based on cinematic techniques and what the actual truth is.
Now, let’s get back to what Gopalkrishnan said, “Understand the context and the enormous picture.” What does he mean? Was he trying to say that negative mobilisation based on one scene is harmful? The answer to this remains how the content is being consumed. If every visual art has to release a clarification in parallel to every scene or dialogue used, we will reach to a certain point where there won’t be any art form; forget about realism and symbolism.
But again, when viewed through a community’s perspective, a certain aspect does not set up right and it feels that the “freedom of expression” is being abused by the creators, subjecting the community in bad lights. Besides, the commentators feel that words could have been better politically crafted.
But what we miss out at large is the demand of the script and the creators’ perspective. If we miss out on the symbolism used throughout the series, the creators are at loss because their audience failed to understand them. The question is about how visual art is being viewed and consumed? With so much criticism that the Paatal Lok team gained not just from the Nepali community but from other sections as well on the portrayal of various scenes and dialogues used, it seems the message of the web series didn’t reach them.
The entire argument lies on the ground of content consumption. Let’s get back to the issue and understand why there is mass opposition to the web series? With so much clarification on the dialogue being put on social media, does it still put the Paatal Lok team at fault? Is it a politically-motivated propaganda of one section of people against the creators? Does it make an argument that the audience is not yet ready to understand uncensored realism and cinematic symbolism? Has the usage of the two words put the Nepali community in poor reputation? Everything lies in how we perceive art!
Note: The article was originally published here!