Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) is a Delhi Police cop, but has lived a timid, ant-like life. As a kid, he often got thrashed by his father. He grew up resenting his old man. Now, as a father, his son resents him. But that changes one afternoon, when he’s handed a high-profile case.
DCP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) and his team arrest four criminals who intended to assassinate a reputed journalist, Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). Since they were nabbed in Outer Jamuna Paar, Hathi’s area of work, he’s given the case. Soon, it becomes a national sensation. There are many questions, but no answers. For the first time ever, the world is knocking at Hathi’s door: this is his chance, perhaps his only chance.
Amazon Prime’s recent series Paatal Lok, directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, opens like a thrilling bildungsroman. Later, in the climax of this typical coming-of-age drama, the protagonist arrives at a crucial realisation, finding his True Self. But on the way, since Hathi is about to descend into a macabre murky world, that familiar trope gets a delicious twist: what if you find the world, but lose yourself?
Divided into nine episodes, of around 45 minutes each, Paatal Lok intends to unfold like an epic – a story that captures India’s messy, contradictory realities. The show’s ambitious structure finds ample support in its characters’ broad canvas. There’s the elite liberal India in Sanjeev. Hathi exemplifies the simmering, discontented middle-class. His colleague Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh), a young cop aspiring to be an IAS officer, symbolises the story of upward mobility. Hathi’s boss, the Station House Officer Virk (Anurag Arora), and DCP Bhagat, portray the flow and control of power in Indian police.
And finally, the pieces that complete the puzzle, the four perpetrators: Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu), a lower caste man from a Punjab village; Kabir M. (Aasif Khan), a Muslim from Chandni Chowk; Mary Lyngdoh or “Cheeni” (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), a transwoman; and Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee), a serial killer from Bundelkhand. Their identities shape their backstories, landing them in a Delhi lockup.
Paatal Lok is a busy show. Its characters have intricate inner lives, whose stories keep colliding with each other. At the heart of the piece is a deceptively simple question. The simple part, who did it? The deceptive bit, why? For such a dense show to be riveting, and for it to make constant sense, the makers structure it like a helicopter ride. At first, you’re on the ground, you see things for what they are, even though your field of vision is narrow. And then, the helicopter takes off, and the big picture starts to reveal itself, bit by bit.
Paatal Lok’s creator, Sudip Sharma, and his team of writers (Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli and Hardik Mehta) employ this method ingeniously. For the first two episodes – ‘Bridges’ and ‘Lost and Found’ – we’re on the ground, as the principal characters and stakes are defined. There’s enough preliminary information about Hathi and Ansari and the politics of the police station, about Sanjeev’s predicament (he is about to get fired from his channel), and about the case and the convicts.
But from the third episode onwards the helicopter finds its flight, when Paatal Lok cuts to a flashback and shows Tope Singh’s backstory: a boy bullied because of his caste who, overwhelmed with rage, murders his tormenters. From that point, the show becomes an onion-in-an-onion: a feast of layers, one clinging to the other, revealing newer facets and meanings.
Besides telling a taut story, the show is astutely political. No matter how good a cop Ansari maybe, his last name follows him everywhere, subjecting him to snide remarks – many by his peers. An extra-martial affair between Sanjeev and his colleague Sara (Niharika Lyra Dutt), many years junior to him, takes a discomfiting edge, exposing his latent hypocrisies. The petty power struggles in the police station, especially between Virk and Hathi, reveals the inherent cannibalism of the Indian middle-class. And in the stories of Tope, Tyagi, Kabir and Cheeni, we see a ravaged India, where people are consumed and destroyed for no fault of theirs, where they in turn consume and destroy others.
The makers also employ a neat storytelling trick. Paatal Lok unfolds in two distinct parts. For the first six episodes, Hathi and Ansari follow one lead after the other; cogs in the system, they’re seeing what they’re shown. But the big picture doesn’t add up – a plot point that is also a comment on the nature of the Indian political and bureaucratic machinery – because there’s a bigger picture. The last three episodes make you an eager participant, dropping hints to unlock the what and why; the first curiosity is narrative, the second political. It’s this seamless blend that makes the series remarkable.
Apart from Hathi and Ansari, it is difficult to like any other character in Paatal Lok. And yet, the show does something miraculous, it doesn’t cast aside the others as… Others. Not even Tyagi, who has murdered 45 people, but whose eyes light up whenever he sees a stray pup. It’s heartening to know that, in this age of instant hysteria and unending anger, the makers understand two vital truths about human life: a) that true empathy is never selective, b) that to understand and judge anything bigger than itself, you need context.
By sincerely examining the lives of their characters – whose transgressions cover a wide spectrum – the makers go beyond simplistic condemnations. They’re not just interested in the designs and motives of moral failings, but also their origins, the stories before the Story.
Playing a tireless cop who has finally found a purpose – and some hope of reclaiming his dignity – Ahlawat is a revelation. His Hathi is an intriguing mix: someone with credible weariness, but also enough curiosity. An in-betweener caught in a storm of grief, stranded between bargaining and acceptance.
Banerjee, playing a vicious murderer, is equally impressive. Tyagi, present in all the nine episodes, barely speaks throughout the series. All he gets is a menacing stare, some wild swings with a hammer, and a freedom to occupy the frame; these restrictions usually result in a formulaic villain but Banerjee, playing Tyagi, excels: he manages to elicit both dread and curiosity. On the other end, there’s Ansari, the show’s most pleasant character: a sincere, hardworking man, who respects his senior. Singh portrays him in neat, precise strokes. Never too far from a smile, yet acutely aware of his position in a Hindu-dominant society, Ansari is convincing and compelling.
With a runtime of around six-and-a-half hours, Paatal Lok’s slip-ups are few and sporadic. The most jarring bit, by far, is the depiction of Sanjeev’s wife, Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee). A housewife prone to anxiety attacks, her character is disappointingly monotonous. Scene after scene, she keeps getting more needy and anxious, and we hardly learn anything new about her. It’s the kind of role that forbids meaningful engagement and indicates narrative padding.
Besides, some political commentary seems way too direct, as if the show has cut to a dramatic retelling of real events (the lynching of Kabir M.’s elder brother on a railway platform for instance). Such scenes lack imagination and finesse, the sense of being subtle that comes naturally to fiction. There’s some redundancy too, via scenes re-emphasising a motif that has already been established. Ansari getting profiled for being a Muslim, for example, feels forced at times. In these scenes, storytelling awkwardly runs into an essayistic piece, where the writers’ political preoccupation dilutes a moment of credible fiction. Finally, a crucial plot turn – involving the role of the CBI – isn’t satisfactorily resolved.
At the end, Hathi completes his journey, but it is not enough. In Paatal Lok, the world is too wounded, too broken, to be pieced together. How do you make sense of something when it is bound by a series of competing Faustian bargains? As Hathi lobs his stick of ice cream to a stray dog in the last scene, his face remains impassive, but he knows the answer.