There is good, and then there is evil. Somewhere in between lies reality, and right here lies humanity, or at least we have convinced ourselves of that.
Paatal Lok is an exploration of this gray area; of blurred moralities, denial of humanity, abject poverty, hate, love and love for self. Undeniably sensitive to the realities of our current existence in a world fueled in part by hate and by fear. Hatred directed at self and at others and of fear directed at the unknown. We follow the cynical yet endearing character of Hathi (Jaideep Ahlawat), a burnt out cop in the uniquely dystopian setting of Delhi as he tackles murderers, politicians, and wily journalists among others. It is ironic, really, as the pillars of democracy are the ones that have dismantled it at the base in this neo noir drama. While disturbing at times, it is like staring at the mirror after a particularly hateful indulgence.
Introduced to us along with the wide eyed newbie Ansari (Ishwak Singh), as he mentors him on the ropes of the city he lovingly described as dharti occasionally visited by hellspawn from the eponymously titled Paatal Lok. The plot revolves around hathi giving him the ropes of the city, and then how they get way in over their heads with a murder conspiracy involving a journalist, or as in his own narcissistic reality, a national figure. We are never given a moment’s respite as the plot moves with a well balanced pace. Paatal Lok does not feel rushed, however, but we are thrust into this world which feels eerily close to ours. It is immensely entertaining, gory, yet powerful and evocative.
The hallmark of a good actor is how he convinces us, the audience of what he or she is feeling. Ahlawat does a great job of that, being almost perfectly cast for the role of Hathi. Quite unlike most of the actors put in the role of police officers, particularly in Indian shows, he is burnt out, unimpressed, and has resigned to a fate of not finding any meaning to his job, or rather, to his service to the country. The rest of the cast, including Abhishek Banerjee (Hathoda Tyagi), Neeraj Kabi (Sanjeev Mehra) among others. Gul Panag does feel miscast as Hathi’s ever anxious wife, but she does a good job regardless. The characterization is also masterfully done, as we see the characters as individuals that exist out of their trope and they have multiple layers to them. This can be very well demonstrated with Hathi and his relationship with his rebellious teenage son and his relationship with his wife. There is growth within the character, as we see some adopt greater ideals and see other characters get disillusioned due to the harsh realities that they are forced to confront. The unwavering apathy of the authorities are also well depicted, but within reason. There is context, and we are not given an unreasonably cruel character out of bounds with reality.
The story is written by Sudip Sharma, who also wrote NH10. Produced under Anushka Sharma’s banner Clean Slate Films, it is quite clear that the choice for the writer was a deliberate one and I really am thankful for that. The direction is done by Avinash Arun & Prosit Roy and quite deliberate and powerful direction only ramps up the potential of this incredible police-crime thriller. Something that needs to be pointed out in particular is how impractical car chases are on Indian roads. The roads are bad, the traffic is murder, and most of all the cars are slow and sluggish. Paatal lok finally took reality into account as the chase ends as soon as it starts and thus begins the story amidst media outcry and panicking crowds. The colors are dark and cynical much like the plot. The music is also quite the same, but still has a dramatic flair. The music however does not dictate how to feel, as some semblance of autonomy is still accorded to the audience.
The most powerful aspect of this show is the symbolism – of power, struggles, poverty, and duty among others. It would be fair to draw parallels with Sacred Games, but Paatal lok has transcended this imaginary border and succeeded at the genre. There is a lot of convergence of genres as well, like with wild west stories in episode 3.
Paatal Lok is one of the best shows to come out in India in the past few years, with amazing casting, performances, story and the edge biting thrill of being on this wild goose chase while still being thematically sound. A must watch for all those who can stomach it.