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Opinion: ‘Paatal Lok’ Is Indian Cinema’s New Masterpiece

Paatal Lok (2020) is a web series by Amazon Prime Videos and Clean Slate Filmz, and has received positive reviews by critics. This series is a good package of several fault lines of society, bringing confusion to the viewers and raises questions such as: whose story is it?, and who is the protagonist?

After watching nine episodes, I must say Paatal Lok is a treat to Indian web series and is absolutely a relief to viewers amid the lockdown. It brings peace to the soul, eyes and ears of the minorities of this country.

Paatal Lok is a story of hope for some, and despair for others. It has become a gateway to a grand cinematic vision in Indian cinema. It is different from the usual fare of films and web series we see in India, because it did not take the useless liberty of non-censorship, and did not curb anything while developing the story. Generally, Mumbai cinema comes out with a package that consists of entertainment, emotion, action, sex, morality etc.

Fortunately, this series is far from such hypocritic balance for which the credit goes to its producers and writers. The series has been created and written by Sudip Sharma, who digs out several ignored realities of India such as caste, class, gender, religion, corruption, corporatisation, emotion, humanism and many more things. The writer did not fall into the trap of constitutionalism. He has given free hand to deal with each and every aspect of the series.

The makers of Paatal Lok expose hypocrisies of the media, caste, class, gender, religion, state, government, institution etc. This hits the audience hard without making any compromises. Though the series starts with four contract killers who come to assassinate celebrity journalist Sanjeev Mehra and get arrested by the Delhi Police, it runs around the coding and decoding of the assassination. In this journey, the series develops its story and nails the issue of discrimination on the basis of caste, class, gender, and religion.

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This is the era of web series in India; OTT platforms are rising every day because of their uncensored content. But cinema-makers on these platforms end up making a complete package, which is a common trend in Mumbai cinema. But Paatal Lok did something very different this time – there is no balance, no compromise, no packaging and no comparison.

It is very unfair to narrow down the series to one protagonist and this is a peculiarity of the web series – you have the liberty to create more than one protagonist and Paatal Lok does that. Rather than clubbing the whole series in the name of one person, I must say, the writers have given the series several layers and protagonists.

It has a limited rosy and cosy effect – often used to make the screen rich and lavish. Story, cinematography, costume, acting, design, rawness and honesty, in this case, are what make the screen rich and create a new genre of cinema. It peels off the dirty layers of Indian cities as well as villages, yet carries a human side to all the dirt and filth. The most beautiful aspect touched by the writers is of finding out the why and how. The series does not give a certificate to anyone for anything; it just unlayers the reason behind every dirty deed.

The four characters – namely Abhishek Banerjee (Vishal ‘Hathoda’ Tyagi), Jagjeet Sandhu (Tope Singh), Aasif Khan (Kabir M) and Mairembam Ronaldo Singh (Cheeni) – who are assigned to assassinate the journalist belong to four different identities across caste, class, gender and religion. While tracing the history of the above characters, the series shows how, on the basis of these identities, they reached where they are.

There are other intersectional factors that lead to the discrimination of people of dharti lok (the Earth) and paatal lok =(Hell) by the people of swarg lok (Heaven). This can be understood when kept in context with the easy alliance between corporatised
media and corrupt government institutions, who serve the Swarg Lok.

At the end of the series, when DCP Bhagat, played by Vipin Sharma, meets inspector Hathi Ram Choudhry, he says, “This system looks completely rotten from the outside, but once you spend some time in it, you will realise it is a well-oiled machine. Every part knows its job well and the one who does not know simply gets replaced.”

The series creates a dialogue between the three worlds: Swarg Lok, Dharti Lok and Paatal Lok. The series is not just about Paatal Lok, but shows the unending wheel of exploitation run by Swarg Lok and Dharti Lok at the expense of the people in Pataal Lok who get crushed by it. It establishes a very clear relationship between the oppressor and oppressed.

Hathoda Tyagi becomes a serial killer to take revenge for his three sisters, who were raped by his own relatives. On the other hand, Tope Singh is crushed by upper caste people in his village, forcing him to take revenge. Cheeni belongs to Northeast India and is sodomised at a railway station. Kabir M, who is a Muslim, undergoes psychosis because of his religious identity.

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Paatal Lok is critical about the flowery representation of the nation and shows the vulnerabilities of the common mechanism including a common policeman and a young IPS aspirant. There are films and web series that are vocal about caste, class, gender and religion, but they always take a compromising position and do a comparison just to show that they have a balanced package. This series is vocal and not compromising, like in Mumbai cinema, where there is always a portrayal of ‘good Muslims’ and how they are different from ‘bad Muslims’.

The most surprising aspect of the series is its jibe on Islamophobia. This phenomenon of Islamophobia is common across most part of the world – Muslim minorities are getting targeted in many countries. India is also one of these countries – Muslims are targeted just because of their religious identity, and the very recent example is how Tabligi Jamat was made the scapegoat responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Islamophobia is prevalent in the political and civil society of this country right now. In the last few years, our cinema has also adopted flavours of Islamophobia in films and web series.

This is not to say that Islamophobia was not  true of India since its beginnings. In my opinion, Muslim and Dalits have rarely played lead characters. Muslim used to be the good and faithful friend of the hero, and the Dalit would always be the one getting saved from oppression by the hero, a  part of the Nehruvian project.

Post 1990, Muslims in Indian cinema gave space to villains, and their religion is specified because the reason behind their wrong deeds is their religion or their religious socialisation. This stereotype is always balanced with a good Muslim character. The attack in the US on 9/11 painted every Muslim with one brush, and the faith of Muslims across the world was put under a question mark.

But in the last few years, Muslim characters are being used just to show the villianry element of a film. If films have to show anyone who is a villain or terrorist, it was a Muslim. Every other person with wrong credentials must be a Muslim. Amid such an atmosphere, Paatal Lok is a treat to the Muslims of this country.

Along with its main character Hathi Ram Choudhry (played by Jaideep Ahlawat) and his junior cop Imran Ansari (played by Ushwak Singh), the characters of Imran Ansari and Kabir M touch issues of Islamophobia and how they work in the life of a petty thief and privileged police officer.

Primarily, the series is all about how to solve the case of conspiracy to murder. Because of the failed attempt by the Delhi Police, the CBI takes over the case and files the charge sheet with a fabricated case in the name of terrorism. Though Hathi Ram knows the truth, if you add the flavour of terrorism to any case, it gives them brownie points and becomes an open and shut case.

The series does not derive a filmy conclusion. Instead, it leaves the audience with a radical angle. When Ansari and Hathi Ram go to check the history of the four accused, the uncle of Tope accepts his crime, but he says he did not have any option because he was oppressed. On the other hand, the school teacher of Hathoda also says he avenged his sisters.

The series does not end up with the commentary of right and wrong. It leaves to its viewers to decide. We are very much keen to see and know the conclusion, but this cycle of oppression does not reach any final stage. It is just crushing through ages and that might be the reason why the writer finishes the series before it takes the case to the courtroom.

A country such as India has limited things to do with its system and administration – most of the things lie on the road of society. System, police, government everybody knows that kids are getting sodomised at railway stations, Dalits are being killed for riding a horse, Muslims are getting lynched for their food habits. Even then, the system is not delivering justice. This means it’s not just about the government; it shows the vulnerability of the whole mechanism. Despite so many forms of discrimination, people learn to live because they do not have an option.

Paatal Lok is a mind-blowing web series. Writer Sudeep Sharma has done a fabulous job and brought together numerous social fault lines, though he fails to deliver some of the issues to their end. Director Avinash Arun understands the dialogue between the three worlds, and keenly observes every minute detail. The producer of the series gave free hand to the writer and director, and helped them bring a masterpiece to Indian cinema. Paatal Lok introduced many characters and issues that did not reach any conclusion, and were left in abstractness.

Usually, we do hope to see the end in black and white, but Paatal Lok did not come up with any conclusion as such, and did not romanticise at all. It gives the hope of surviving in this system, maintaining the binary of the oppressor and oppressed.

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  1. MANISH PRASAD

    Impressive, the reality lies on the road of the society.

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