We have seen our share of ‘whodunnits’ and even ‘howdunnits’. Done well, they engage us and keep us on the edge of our seats. With Paatal Lok, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, we have a ‘whydunnit’ on our hands. We know the who — a motley group of four who are assigned to murder Sanjeev Mehra, a has-been journalist, who is a weak shadow of his former trailblazing self; the how is straight forward — engage Hathoda Tyagi, a known killer from the ravines of Bundelkhand who wields the hammer with Thor like precision. But the why is where the area gets a tinted grey. Why do they want to murder a has-been journalist? Why is a hastily put together criminal team hailing from all parts of the country, running amok in the national capital? The ‘whydunnit’ is packaged as a perfect morality tale, interspersed with liberal references of Hindu mythology, and it all leaves you very uncomfortable, but we assume that’s what the creator was going for.
The pursuit of this ‘why’ is the core of the nine-part series. Created by Sudip Sharma, who has Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya and NH10 as his writing credits, Paatal Lok is a riveting tale. In the first five minutes itself, we are introduced to the classifications of the different planes of society in Delhi. Lutyens Delhi is Swarg Lok; Mehrauli, Vasant Kunj, Noida etc are Prithvi Lok and Jamna Paar, the premise in question, is Paatal Lok. In Swarg Lok, or Lutyens Delhi, curse words are used, but they are uttered with a pronounced accent, and an ’s’ is added to deliver the desired plural effect while they guzzle a 20-year-old single malt. In Paatal Lok or Jamna Paar, the same curse words are used, but they are delivered with a more guttural feeling, and no accent is used to lessen their desired impact, and all this is done while mixing Old Monk in a coke bottle while sitting on the sidelines on their job.
Narrated through Delhi Police inspector Hathi Ram Choudhary — Jaideep Ahlawat in spectacular form — Paatal Lok hits home with its supremely authentic take on law enforcement, the nexus between media, politics and crime and at the same time it makes a scathing, but subtle commentary on caste, gender and sexual violence. Through Hathi Ram Choudhary — who makes it a habit of frequently doling out wisdom to his younger colleague Ansari — we are taken through the workings of this case of attempted murder, and we get up close and personal with an average inspector of the Delhi police. We see him battling a low pay scale, office politics and a career slump, with not having had a promotion in a long time. This is countered by the life of Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) who in spite of being on his way out, thrives in his south Delhi bungalow, BMW driving lifestyle which is cushioned by Buddhist chanting groups.
If Anushka Sharma’s past works were anything to go by, then keeping with the norm, Paatal Lok has its share of violence. Brain matter is splayed with abandon, and there are guns everywhere. Curse words are the norm, and we see a range — right from the Haryanvi laced ones used in Delhi to the more colourful variants of Punjab and the ‘mora’, ‘mori’ ones that are de rigour in Bundelkhand. There is ample nudity and scenes that will make you cover your eyes and peep through your fingers. That said, there is not a single dull moment. Care has been taken to humanise the people living on the fringes of society. We see carefully crafted backstories of the main accused, and no, they do not vilify or redeem them. But what it does, is to call out the various constructs of society, caste and class that helped create them in the first place. There are no heroes or verified moral centres in the show, everyone is ranked on a scale of grey. Its dark, edgy and a slow burn, written like a puzzle and in the end, it all ties up perfectly like a pretty bow.
There are some issues sure, we never really get to Hathi Ram’s backstory, or that of Sanjeev Mehra’s. And Gul Panag as Chaudhary’s wife is a tad jarring with her portrayal of an over-eager protective mother. At times Choudhary’s obsession with the case makes it a tad unreal, but the term ‘cinematic license’ was created for situations like these. But the show works because it doesn’t present an ‘easy way’ to fix ‘the system’. As ACP Bhagat said, ‘this system is a well-oiled machinery”. And unlike many cop sagas, which end on a moral high, this one doesn’t present a ‘rose-tinted’ future where all’s well that ends well.
Amazon Prime Video have a clear winner on their hands. This is an added feather in their Hindi lineup, that will take them further ahead of their main rival Netflix. Attention to detail, the cinematography, the authentic characters, all blend together to create this netherworld, which exists about 15 kms from the otherwise sanitised lanes of Lutyens Delhi. Parallels can be drawn with Sacred Games, and while Sacred Games had the brilliant book by Vikram Chandra to help manifest its narrative, Sudip Sharma gives it a good run for its money. Actor Anushka Sharma, who is serving as executive producer, has chosen well. Fair warning, you might want to be kinder to dogs after completing all the nine episodes. Or better still adopt one.