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“Paatal Lok Shows The Hypocrisy Of The Urban Middle Class”

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“From the outside, this system might look rotten, but from the inside, this system is well-oiled machinery”- DCP Bhagat

Amazon Prime Original Web series Paatal Lok is making news nowadays. On one hand, it has received a lot of praise but is also being called being ‘Hindu phobic’ and left-wing propaganda. The web series has become a meme factory for netizens who have found a lot of dialogues and scenes which resonate with our contemporary situation.

The nine-part web series based in Yamunapar Delhi has been created by Sudip Sharma and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy. It stars Jaideep Ahlawat, Gul Panag, Neeraj Kabi, Swastika Mukherjee, Ishwak Singh Jagjeet Sandhu, and Abhishek Banerjee among others, who come together to deliver a very powerful performance.

The show makers have been able to weave together elements from caste-based discrimination, mythology, media, politics, class, toxic patriarchy, and masculinity, communalism, bigotry, criminal-police-politician nexus, etc. to bring a gripping investigation thriller. A multi-layered and nuanced story backed by impressive and powerful performances, Paatal Lok- which according to Hindu religious beliefs is the netherworld inhabited by demons and lowlife-  is a true ‘objective’ reflection of contemporary society.

The story is simple and common: There is an assassination attempt on a prominent citizen. A ‘looser’ policeman and his colleague are assigned the “high-profile” case. Their investigation takes them into the heart of rural North India which is replete with feudal social structure and power struggles. The investigation also exposes the Criminal-Politician-Police nexus and how ‘plots’ are manufactured to serve political purposes

The makers of the web series have perfectly employed the literary device of ‘backstory’. Almost all the major characters have a back-story which takes us into their personal history which also is a commentary on the society where they come from respectively. The Shakespearian phrase “past is the prologue” has been applied brilliantly throughout the show. The story of Tope Singh is the story of caste relations and notions of patriarchal feudal ‘honour’ in Punjab; the story of Kabir M. is the story of how Muslim community has been criminalized for their religion and even if they shed their ‘Muslim Identity’, the ‘Muslim Identity’ will not shed them.

The fate of Kabir M. is the embodiment of Sahadat Hasan Manto’s famous answer “I am Muslim enough to get killed”; the story of ‘Cheeni’, is the story of everyday racism faced by people from North-Eastern states, the story of child abuse and everyday discrimination which transgender people face and of the stigma attached with it; the story of Vishal aka Hathoda Tyagi is the story of the extreme vulnerability of women in rural India, the practice of honour killing and lack of understanding of mental problems; the story of Hathiram Chowdhury is the story of a single father deprived of sex, trying to raise his son.

The device of ‘backstory’ is employed to reaffirm a pearl of common wisdom that “nobody is born a criminal, it is circumstances which turn a person into a criminal”. Paatal Lok looks into the ‘circumstances’ in which people become ‘criminal’. But, it does not stop here; the social circumstances which Ptaaal-Lok uncovers are not some impersonal forces, rather they are embedded in the very structure of our society, i.e. Caste, Communalism, Feudal notions of honour and property disputes.

A Dense Depiction Of Social Issues

Paatal Lok Review In Hindi
Paatal Lok Review In Hindi

As far as depiction of social issues goes, Paatal Lok is a dense cinematic text. It covers everyday life of women from lower middle classes who try to speak English and ‘love’ their sons to the point of spoiling them, problems faced by children of lower-middle-class background in elite schools, everyday inter-departmental politics, the careless and extremely unprofessional attitude of the police, the phenomenon of fake news, WhatsApp university, mob lynching, beef, child abuse, communalism, Batla House, everyday racism and sexual abuse, rampant homophobia, the extremely vulnerable lives of street children, mental health issues, class hatred, caste, and gender-based discrimination, social banditry, etc. It shows how different forms of social stratification, norms, and behaviour reinforce and re-constitute each other.

The series covers and reflects on a lot of issues that have an immediate contemporary ring to it. There are scenes and dialogues which seem too familiar.

Even though the shooting of the web series took place in 2019 and script was written before, the show successfully depicts the communal character and bias of Delhi Police, which became evident during the February 2020 Riots. This bias exists not just on the outside but also inside the police force. The show perfectly depicts how minorities should discipline themselves by the mainstream narrative. When the Muslim aspirant is asked a ‘politically loaded’ question of whether minorities feel unsafe or not, during a mock IAS interview, the aspirant is advised to take a “positive and progressive” approach to answering the question.

The BoisLockerRoom incident brought to light how sexism and ‘rape-talk’ are common among the school-going children. The incident shocked a lot of people as the participants of the chat room belonged to elite English medium schools and therefore it was perceived as an “aberration”. But if one goes to Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, rape-talks and everyday sexual harassment are quite common among the school-going children. The makers of Paatal Lok have been able to capture and bring out this horrific ‘reality’ in a manner that can only be called depressing.

Paatal Lok also reflects upon the inner tension in contemporary ‘English- liberal’ media, which at one point of time provided the hegemonic model for Journalism. In a completely changed scenario, where the object is not reporting, but creating a sensation,  judgments, and aligning with power, the erstwhile doyens of ‘liberal journalism’ are in a fix; they have to choose between their career and ethics of journalism.

In midst of all the chaos and darkness, there is the beautiful love story of Queer ‘Cheeni’ and Kaliya; two street children who grew up together against the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’. Their love story is perhaps the only part of Paatal Lok which gives you some hope and solace.

The Show Brings Out The Hypocrisy Of The Society

A lot of netizens have praised the series for showing the ‘reality’ or in words of Gul Panag, the series “unravels the inconvenient truth of society”. But the question is, what is the truth and reality of society? Who decides that something is an ‘inconvenient truth’?

What is referred to here as ‘the reality’ or ‘inconvenient truth’ is the everyday life of lower and marginalized segments of the population? This obsession of the upper and middle classes of society, with ‘reality’ and the ‘inconvenient truth’, which gets expressed every time a ‘dark and rusty’ cinema gets released, shows that the ‘reality and truth’ for a majority of them have become a ‘commodity’; a source of entertainment!

This fictionalized ‘reality or truth’ which the urban middle classes consume with all passion and emotion is contradictory to how this class has behaved in recent times to the plight of migrant labourers and criminalization of Muslim community and other issues which Paatal Lok has covered.

The ‘reality and inconvenient truth’ which Paatal Lok brings out are not about showing caste-gender-religion based discrimination or the police-politician-criminal-business nexus. All these things are common knowledge. Instead, Paatal Lok brings out the hypocrisy which lies at the heart of contemporary society and its custodians.

The base consciousness across different sections of society remains the same. The thing that changes is the expression and manifestation of that consciousness. Hindi abuses take an English form and the communal consciousness which is expressed through slangs like ‘katua’ to address Muslims among lower-middle classes, becomes the ‘image of the community’ among upper sections of the society.

The ‘Right’, The ‘Wrong And The ‘In-Between’

inspector in paatal lok series

This series brilliantly reflects on how the question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is subsumed under the concept of professionalism, aspiration, and self-preservation in contemporary society. The question of ‘doing the right thing’ is merely a stage of life determined by the availability of opportunity for any individual. Hathiram Chowdhury is not motivated to discover the ‘truth’, instead, he is out there to prove himself.

For Sanjeev Mehra, exposing a top politician and businessman is not about ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’; it’s just about making one’s career. In the end, no one cares for ‘justice’; what matters is a career, aspirations, and upward mobility.

There are few scenes and dialogues which are too powerful to be ignored. One is when Hathiram Chowdhury takes out his frustration upon Queer Cheeni and beats her mercilessly; just because she is a transgender. Later Hathiram is momentarily haunted by the episode, but it’s just momentary!  Another is a dialogue by Kabir M’s father when he says that “I did not allow my son to become a Muslim and you people (police) made him a Jihadi terrorist!!” This scene is an answer to all those who think that Muslims should stop ‘being Muslim’ to ‘integrate’ with the majoritarian society.

The popularity of the series has also invited some criticism from the different ideological points of view and concerns. It has been accused of being ‘Hindu phobic’ by the right-wing eco-system, for showing Muslim as a victim of the system (which essentially is Hindu) and society and at the same time by showing Hindus as criminals- a reference to ‘Duniya’ (who comes from Gujjar community) aka Masterji who more than a criminal is like a ‘social’ bandit, a Robin hood figure, and embodiment of power worshipped by the poor. On the other hand, Paatal Lok has been criticized for showcasing extreme forms of caste-based, gender-based and racial discriminations in a way that normalizes the social structure which propagates these different forms of discrimination.

If we just go around walking in our neighbourhood, we will come across almost every form of discrimination and power relations which the makers of Paatal Lok have captured. In the last few years, we have come across almost every scene of Paatal Lok in an around us. We know how Indian citizens from North-Eastern states have been called ‘Corona’ and spit upon during this ongoing pandemic and they referred collectively as ‘chinki‘; we know how Dalit community has to face discrimination on an everyday basis; we have seen the criminalization of ‘Muslim’ identity itself; we have seen BoisLockerRoom; we have seen homophobia, victim-blaming, child abuse, criminalization of transgender persons, honour killings, the apathy of state machinery, etc.

Paatal Lok does not give you a happy ending which we are accustomed to, instead, it is just a mirror of our society; a true reflection, and therefore it’s quite depressing. At the end of the day, it is up to the audience as to what will remain with them after any cinematic or literary experience ends. What will haunt their minds after the show is over?

If the audience, most of whom are going to be upper-middle sections of society as the subscription of Amazon Prime is Rs. 999, is not able to develop any critical reflection and empathetic approach to marginalized social groups and their ‘realities and truth’ depicted in Paatal Lok, it is not the problem of the creators, but lack of empathy of the viewers.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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