Paatal Lok and its anti-heroes: Amazon Prime series subverts traditional tropes the same way Satya did 20 years ago
Paatal Lok, a series that doesn’t care how good it looks as long as it’s brutally, unsparingly honest.
In the sixth episode titled ‘The Past is Prologue’, of Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok, a man says to the chief protagonist Hathi Ram, ‘Insaan ke bache ki jaan bohat sakht hoti hai saahab, keede ke jese. Log marne ke liye chor jaate hain, par woh zinda rehna seekh hi jaata hai’.
This comes from a man who has grown up on the street and learned that there are no middle paths in life for those who are thrown off it at the start itself. It also points to the somewhat cruel irony that having your life almost taken away from you helps you find, eccentric, sometimes ignominious ways to cheat death. Necessity is the mother of invention, and death in this context, in life really, the mother of survival.
Paatal Lok is groundbreaking for it literally axes open the floor to unearth the queasy, shattering reality that most people with Amazon subscriptions never have or will encounter. What ‘Satya’ did for Indian cinema, some twenty years ago, Paatal Lok looks set to do for OTT platforms.
Jaideep Ahlawat, Abhishek Banerjee and others deserve the plaudits coming their way but what makes this series rise above everything comparable is the matter-of-fact writing. Paatal Lok doesn’t just have characters, it has histories. It doesn’t just have ticks, it has trauma, tradition and so many layers that evince whatever chance there is of theatricality to surface. In a similar vein, Satya was a shift in Indian cinema because it convinced Bollywood that anti-heroes could be written, filmed and moreover, loved and empathised with. But while Satya introduced India to the underworld, Paatal Lok merely blows the lid off of this country’s poignant reality, its deft, unreliable claim of normalcy. It’s like waking up to see a holy river covered and clogged with all the refuse we thought we could hide in its bed. Precisely why, Paatal Lok feels so discomforting, maybe even un-entertaining.
Though Hathi Ram, Hathoda Tyagi and Sanjeev Mehra anchor the three worlds (swarg, dharti and pataal) of the series, it’s really the care given to each side character, his or her world that elevates the series to a level where only literature can argue its worth.
The third episode, ‘A History of Violence’, for example, is a disturbing though necessary segue towards the making of Tope Singh, a victim, before he becomes a criminal. Singh builds himself up so he doesn’t break. The invocation of Punjab’s undiscussed caste problem, the nod to the defiant rise of ‘chamaar pop’ is a detail that only the curious, the aware would appreciate. Hathoda Tyagi, on the other hand is a vengeful brute, who simply craves the approval and affection of the one man who ‘accepted’ him. Tyagi doesn’t philosophise life and death, he bargains with one to keep exploring the other.
People who consider such layering of characters as unnecessary baggage want to only concern themselves with the heroes, the good guys, i.e catch the baddies while being smart and let’s get on with it. There are no good guys, really.
Other than the immaculately fleshed characters Paatal Lok pays enviable attention to the little things.
Hathi Ram constantly struggles to tuck in his Police shirt, as if he is unworthy of the uniform or the other way round. His subordinate, the wonderfully calm Ansari, can’t bring himself to swear in a world full of cusses and abusive language. As if he constantly evaluates the distance his body can ever travel away from his religion. Dysfunction and disappointment are parts of Indian life, irrespective of the class its lived in. Owing to its rocky shores, no wave of unrest or uncertainty returns unbruised. The popular criticisms of Paatal Lok pertain to its unblinking politics, and the seemingly detached world of the high-power journalist Sanjeev Mehra. The former refers to the showcase of lynchings, caste atrocities and violence against minorities in general, which kind of makes its own point. Violence without context, is a fetish, a form of debauchery where you want to consume blood as lust. Contextualised, it becomes a story, one that you have to suffer as much as you’d want to escape the memory of. As for Mehra’s world, it ties together the way narratives are manufactured, systems aligned, conscience sedated and people dehumanised on a regular basis. Though evasive, it’s the tier that decides what the ones below them will be looked at as.
The show’s most admirable quality is its insistence to lengthen the cinematic horoscope of every peg we touch. Even Tyagi’s PT teacher gets to tell the story of why he left the police force to work for a dacoit and in doing so, casually paints the ignominious picture of Bundelkhand. Deft, yet earnest. As for the violence, Paatal Lok’s vileness, its nightmarish view of the bottom isn’t an act of humouring us with blood and wisdom aka Mirzapur’s Kaleen Bhaiya and Sacred Games’ Gaitonde. It’s a circumstantial handicap for most, and in the case of Tyagi, the only way to make sense of a world that thinks of him a dog. No wonder his affection for one, eventually becomes the trigger that he ought to have pulled on himself years ago. For some death is the only out.
Paatal Lok incredibly humanises the seemingly inhuman. And therein lies the inescapable macabre beauty of a series that doesn’t care how good it looks as long as it’s brutally, unsparingly honest.
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