“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.
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.
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.
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.