So I binged into Paatal Lok all night, quite later than everyone else, because I often feel subtle anxiety to watch something that most of the people seem to like overwhelmingly. Well, there is no second thought about the facts that the series is well made and extremely gripping, however, I am to a great extent taken aback looking at how the story hijacks minority narratives by leaps and bounds. And amidst all the mammoth appreciation for being ‘bang on’, I am appalled by the fact that there is so much to it that has remained unnoticed, even by the politically sensitised bunch.
This is not a review of the series. Neither it reflects on the making, nor on the technicalities, performances, story progression, aesthetics, per se, and, at the same time, this article is meant to scrutinise all of these factors through a political lens. This is an intersectional feminist reading of the Amazon Prime series called Paatal Lok.
On the surface Paatal Lok appears to challenge the status quo and question the hate-mongering against the minority, however, while trying hard to be sensitive towards the atrocities faced by the religious minority, especially in the contemporary times, it ignores the agency of the caste minority, and rather plants them as the primary problem elements of the story.
The system is even depicted as gender insensitive, which was, in some instances, a bit stereotypical, but still, it was there. So how did this go wrong to this extent with the caste question? Because maybe, just maybe, religion and gender are hotcakes at the moment; you can sell them to the people at the drop of a hat, while constructing a story that still upholds majoritarian privilege, in a way or the other; and people will still fall for its an apparently progressive envelope. This isn’t how you should show solidarity for the minority, then again, popular culture.
Yes, there are major issues with a prominent party in India that represents the caste-minority, and the same is vehemently relatable with the minority party that’s been depicted in the series Paatal Lok. However, it isn’t about showing the system as it is. The system isn’t a trickle-down flowchart, but complex machinery and the existence of the grey areas within minority politics does not mean that one may put the majority and the minority on the same plane, and totally ignore the fact the minority has been at the receiving end of the systemic violence for ages, which still is extremely pertinent. It is important to check which side you are taking, whose story you are telling, and a neutral one does not exist.
So here is the choice made by in the series, Paatal Lok: it successfully builds sympathy, both at a community and at an individual level, towards the caste majority, ‘and’ an OBC police personnel, Hathi Ram, co-opted into the majoritarian system, while his family is very much into majoritarian religion, which has been well established from the misc-en-scene of his house.
The series revolves around a fake encounter, that’s been staged by the minority party, in a very, very similar fashion to that of the infamous Ishrat Jahan case of 2004. So, on one hand, the cast minorities are portrayed as the biggest opportunists in the plot, on the other hand, Hathi Ram, who’s very much co-opted into the system, is righteous through and through, and doesn’t even touch a woman when he has all the advantage to have her. Even Hathoda Tyagi, the character amongst the ‘criminals’, who’s grabbing the most audience sympathy, is an upper caste righteous man.
If you’re going into the argument of the liberty of an artist, then feel free to stop right here and move on. For me, liberty is synonymous with responsibility, and for an artist with mass outreach, doubly so.
While Paatal Lok narrates the story of a minority party staging a fake encounter, let us care to remember who were political forces that instigated the fake encounters and institutional murders? Who killed Tulsiram Prajapati (2006), who denied Veerappan of his medical rights (2004), who killed Sohrabuddin Sheikh (2006), who killed Sadiq Jamal (2003)?
There was a common factor behind the allegations against most of these individuals. The same kind of allegation that’s been brought against the writers, lawyers, scholars, and activists arrested over The Elgar Parishad Case, and stamped with UAPA. So why on earth was it absolutely necessary to paint a minority party as the mastermind behind a fake encounter when the real stories often are just the other way round? Is it how we challenge the status quo and create art of resistance – bypassing the instances of human rights violation of the overwhelmingly majoritarian state as something that a minority party could do?
Also, the narrative of Hiranyakashipu was hijacked and aptitude on Tyagi. So, the mighty, omnipotent, gifted emperor from the minority clan becomes an upper-caste man here who gives all his life to minority politics, and additionally, gets betrayed by the minority in the end; Hathi Ram being the Godsend who’s neither a friend nor a foe to Tyagi, who detests and sympathises with Tyagi simultaneously. But Tyagi being an upper-caste man himself, what is Godsend for him again? LOL!
Last but not least, it’s not the presence of gore or grotesque that bothers me. I am very much in favour of gore and grotesque expression of art (maybe with some necessary content warning in the beginning, so that the people, who might get triggered, can choose to unsee).
However, aesthetics is political. There’s always, always a specific agenda behind why you show what you show, and how you show it; and if the agenda is to find normalcy as per majoritarian gaze; if it is supposed to suffice the fantasy of the righteous bloodlust of the privileged, then the veil of progressiveness and being pro-minority is nothing but the hypocrisy of the highest order.
If you need to show the close-up the humiliated face of a lower-caste woman being gang-raped by upper caste men in front of her family; if rape is depicted as the humiliation of the woman and not the brutality of men, then it very much shows which section of the audience you are trying to tickle, whose fantasy you are catering to.