Paatal Lok: How Sudip Sharma created the Amazon Prime series no one can stop talking about
Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime’s latest stab at Indian prestige TV, is an investigative thriller that flips the police procedural on its head, invested not as much into solving a crime but into dissecting the minds assembled to carry it out.
When Sudip Sharma set out to lead a writer’s room for a web-series that he was co-writing, executive producing, and showrunning in early 2017, he was the guy who had written two back-to-back successful films (NH10, Udta Punjab). In the two years that it took Paatal Lok to take shape in that writing room, Sharma’s oeuvre extended to creative producing Phillauri and Pari, writing dialogues for Lal Kaptaan, and co-writing Sonchiriya, last year’s finest Hindi film.
Yet despite the favourable reputation that Sharma cultivated in the last five years lending his name to risky, ambitious outings, writing a film meant that he was merely a tenant in the playing ground of his collaborators – a cog, albeit an integral one, in a wheel. But writing a show he was creating from scratch came with a complete reversal of responsibilities: here, he was the landlord, the person responsible for ensuring that all the cogs in the wheel moved smoothly and more crucially, in tandem with each other.
The meticulousness of conceptualising Paatal Lok
“Writing Paatal Lok took us longer than it should have,” said Sharma, almost apologetically, over a phone call on the weekend of the show’s release. The task at hand wasn’t just unfamiliar territory given that this was the first time he was attempting long-form storytelling. But also achieving a sense of coherence among the three co-writers – Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli – who were writing a show for the first time as well. In the chaotic ecosystem of Indian streaming stacked to the dozen with sub-standard offerings, it wouldn’t entirely have come across as a shock if this turned out to be a case of the blind leading the blind. But in Sharma’s hands – a testament to his fierce dedication to the minutest of details – the result is a riveting, urgent, and brazen series that manages to capture a portrait of a time in India instead of replicating it.
Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime’s latest stab at Indian prestige TV, is an investigative thriller that flips the police procedural on its head, invested not as much into solving a crime but into dissecting the minds assembled to carry it out. By his own admission, Sharma has always been disturbed and fascinated by the various faultlines of caste, class, language, religion, and gender, running through the country, insights that he wanted to bring to the show (Paatal Lok employs the three universes of swarg lok, dharti lok, and paatal lok as corresponding metaphors for privileged India, middle-class India, and lower-class India). “From there, came the idea of the various Indias within this India. Depending on where they are, they have different degrees of freedom to them, different degrees of choices to them, and different degrees of power that they can possess,” he added.
On screen, Paatal Lok is a story about the ruthlessness of society, the socio-economic divisions that segregate inhabitants of the same country into different shades of oppression as the ones inflicting it, the ones bearing it, and the ones silently witnessing it. It is also an intimate tale of self-actualisation witnessed through the eyes of a desperate cop trying to reach way beyond his means and a father, frantically searching for his worth in his teenage son.
But just like the plot, there’s a bigger picture here as well.
Creative partnerships that brought the series together
Paatal Lok is foremost, a story about the triumph of creative partnership – of both, collaborators turning into friends and friends turning into collaborators (Most of the show’s crew have worked with each other before). The unanimous acclaim that the series has garnered is emblematic of the kind of collaboration that refuses to treat the process of creation as a fast-food preparation; where assembling the set of people meant to work behind the camera is as much of a priority as casting the actors positioned in front of the cameras.
Take for instance, how Sharma went about hiring his three co-writers, arguably the backbone of the show’s finesse, “I was looking for people who had an understanding of the craft. The other criteria was that they should have some sort of curiosity about the country.” There was another thing he was adamant about: compatibility. “If you have a certain world view, in terms of how you look at society and the world around you, it becomes difficult to work with a person who has exactly opposite views as yours.” It’s not difficult to see through the reasoning behind this requirement. Paatal Lok is thoroughly political, unafraid to take a stance – an indictment of the highly radicalised times where mob lynchings can happen in train stations in the blink of an eye.
Hardik Mehta, who had co-written Trapped, was hired after Sharma read the script of his directorial debut, “I’d read a much earlier draft of Kamyaab before it was even Kamyaab and really liked it. There was a certain quirk to his writing.” He tapped in Gunjit Chopra, who had previously helped him with the Punjabi dialogues in Udta Punjab, as a co-writer for his extensive knowledge of Punjab and North India, settings that were integral to Paatal Lok. And Sagar Haveli was brought in because Sharma found his voice “interesting”.
While Sharma wrote the opening episode of Paatal Lok as well as its last three episodes, the five episodes in between were divided up between Haveli, who wrote two episodes, and Chopra and Mehta, both of whom wrote one episode each and co-wrote another.
An Instagram post that Mehta shared last week details the “screenwriting and research trip” that the writers were sent on to East Delhi and the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The trio visited police stations, railways stations, river ghats, met small-town reporters and even a dacoit-turned politician’s son – all of which were meant to expose them first-hand to the world that they were going to invent on paper. If anything, it’s further proof of the showrunner’s meticulous, no-holds-barred approach to developing the show.
Decoding episode 3, “A History of Violence”
The rigour shows on screen, especially in the standout third episode of Paatal Lok. Written by Gunjit Chopra, “A History of Violence” sees the show’s protagonist Hathi Ram Chowdhury (Jaideep Ahlawat in a career-defining performance) and his junior Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) embark on a trip to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh’s Chitrakoot to learn more about the backstories of two of the suspects. The episode, in more ways than one, lays the foundation for the show’s ambition: its desire to look at the bigger picture – the role societal structures play in enabling the making of a criminal – in a generic cop-criminal chase. “Ever since it got written, it was everybody’s favourite episode,” said Sharma, who counted it as his favourite as well. The tone of the episode itself, that largely operates on flashbacks and flips the landscape, is drastically different than the straight-forward beats of the first two episodes. “As a showrunner, I was worried if it was too late a change in form: Were we promising something in the first two episodes and then changing that completely?”
In “A History of Violence” that goes deeper into the country as well into the pasts of the suspects, we learn that Tope Singh, a lower-caste Manjaar, spends a lifetime being bullied by upper-caste villagers . His life takes a turn for the worse one day when he inflicts violence on his tormentors, buoyed by the misguided belief that he might be in a position to end the generational oppression once and for all. The overreach results in a tragic act of gender violence, that underlines (much like Sonchiriya) how often the bodies of women end up as collateral damage in caste-based atrocities. Similarly, in Chitrakoot, Vishal Tyagi’s transformation into the dreaded Hathoda Tyagi who commits three murders on a school playground is a measure adopted to avenge the rape of his three sisters.
“It was written as a criss-crossing, intercity episode where we would transition from one story to the other, going to Hathi Ram in Chitrakoot for a while, coming back to Ansari in Punjab and then repeating that” revealed Sharma. According to him, that approach worked very well on paper but that seemed to change when they shot and edited it, “The reason it wasn’t working, despite the cool transitions that we tried, was because it was emotionally taking us away from the story.” The decision to make it a linear narrative was taken last-minute on the edit table, at the behest of the show’s editor Sanyukta Kaza (Ship of Theseus, Tumbbad). “It’s funny but we were done in an hour.”
It’s in “A History of Violence” that Pataal Lok efficiently displays another strength: its seamless direction. The show gains from subscribing to the two-director model, quickly becoming a staple of Indian-web series (Sacred Games and The Family Man have had director duos). Paatal Lok is directed by Prosit Roy, who earlier directed the criminally under-appreciated Pari (Both Sharma and Abhishek Banerjee, who casted Paatal Lok and acted in it, were involved in the film) and Avinash Arun Dhaware, the director of Killa. To bring a consistency to the various worlds of the show’s universe, the directing duties were divided between Roy and Dhaware: While the former directed all of Sanjeev Mehra’s (Neeraj Kabi) portions and the Chitrakoot parts, the latter shot the Punjab parts as well as the portions involving Hathi Ram and the police department.
Narrative style and visuals of Paatal Lok
For an episode that is narratively busy, its filmmaking is surprisingly spare and fuss-free. Dhaware, who also co-shot the show, relies on wide shots, frequently framing Tope Singh in the backdrop of his surroundings (a surreal shot that follows Tope Singh as he flees the village ends on the camera focusing on his sweatshirt that spells out “surprise” – a foreshadowing of sorts of the impossibility of Singh escaping his destined fate). Roy, on the other hand, employs a slightly more intimate directorial style, cutting between long, unhurried takes that has Ahlawat utilise his physicality to the hilt and chaotic shots that demand complete investment in the action. In that sense, the flashiest part of the episode is a Prabh Deep track where the rapper croons about self-determination, that felt like its most predictable embellishment.
The decision to have two directors for Sharma had as much to do with logistics as it had to do with artistry, “It’s physically very difficult for one director to shoot continuously for 100 days. In web-series, because of the format, directors come in late and then if you dump nine-ten episodes on one person, it’s very difficult for them to process this new world, these new characters and do complete justice to it.” The other significant advantage, Sharma felt, is that having two sets of eyes brings “an unique energy” to the set. “Prosit and Avinash have two very different directing styles in terms of how they view a shot or see a scene and that helps in ensuring that you’re not lulled into one particular style of filmmaking.”
Even then, mounting a show with two directors with two different visual styles could also go awry if their vision contradicted each other. As showrunner, he was aware of the challenges. “The minute both Prosit and Avinash were hired, I locked myself in a room with them for two weeks. Everyday, from 9 am to 7 pm, we would come in and go over the script again and again. In the process, we discussed how we would approach each scene, rewrote some parts, and changed character graphs. What that did was that by the end, the script was as much theirs as it was the writers.”
And then, there's Jaideep Ahlawat
This idea of ownership, of a collaborator knowing their exact place in the making of the show like clockwork, is primarily the reason why Ahlawat was zeroed in for the lead role, incidentally the actor’s first. Sharma, who is of the opinion that Ahlawat is yet to get his due from the industry, had him in mind even before the release of Raazi, the film that put the actor on the map for mainstream filmmakers. “I thought he was fantastic in Gangs of Wasseypur. He had a phenomenal presence and his face just speaks so much.”
In his decade-long career, Paatal Lok is inarguably the best example of an outing that does justice to Ahlawat’s gifts as an actor.
Hathi Ram is a departure from the slew of garden-variety antagonists that the actor is usually offered, partly due to his towering build. Here, the actor gets the chance to tap into a certain vulnerability of a standard loser, who goes out of his way to register one win. That he effectively carries the entire show on his shoulders without missing a beat is best evidenced in a flawless set-piece where he sets out to beat the men who intimidated his son and launches on an expletive-laced monologue that is at once comical and devastating.
A sacrosanct part of the nourishing ecosystem of collaborators that Sharma has managed to build with Paatal Lok is the free reign offered by its producers. The show marks Sharma’s fourth collaboration with Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz (As a sweet reunion of sorts, NH10’s director Navdeep Singh serves as the show’s script consultant), the production house that she runs with her brother Karnesh Ssharma. “Both Anushka and Karnesh are, like me, in this for the love of cinema. With them, there is no question of me having to second-guess myself, wondering if I can say this or if I am only allowed to stretch the boundaries so much.”
On their part, Clean Slate Filmz has managed the distinction of backing the most inventive stories, using it both as a platform to create the roles that Bollywood won’t write for the actress as well as being a stepping ground for emerging talent. Paatal Lok’s accomplishment only reinforces their vision. “It’s like working with friends,” Sharma said of the partnership. For a creator, what can get better than that? Perhaps, a second season.
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