Paatal Lok review: Anushka Sharma-produced Amazon Prime series is a slow burn with the ambition of a pacy thriller
Let me tell you at the onset that Anushka Sharma's Amazon Prime Video series Pataal Lok — created by Sudip Sharma (writer of Udta Punjab, NH10, Sonchiriya) — isn't a show for those who like to multi-task while watching TV.
Let me tell you at the onset that Anushka Sharma's Amazon Prime Video series Paatal Lok — created by Sudip Sharma (writer of Udta Punjab, NH10, Sonchiriya) — isn't a show for those who like to multi-task while watching TV.
If you find yourself in the middle of the series, wondering how the hell the protagonist, Hathi Ram Chaudhry (the ever-so-brilliant Jaideep Ahlawat), landed in the interiors of Punjab or Chitrakoot (MP), it's because you weren't paying enough attention. Because Paatal Lok's brilliance lies in its details and authenticity; in the contrast between a big city like Delhi versus the interiors of the North-Indian heartland (Sudip Sharma's trump card — as seen in his earlier films); in the expressions between characters who aren't saying much with dialogues but with their eyes and body language.
So put that Scrabble game on pause, and let's dive in.
Within the first few seconds of the pilot episode, Delhi Police officer Hathi Ram tells his subordinate Ansari (Ishwak Singh) about the three Loks and their distinctions. Swarg Lok (heaven; where the rich/upper class resides), Dharti Lok (the world as we know it, purveyed by the middle-class) and Paatal Lok (the netherland, where crime and oppression overlap to create its own brand of hell). Through the nine episodes of the series, Hathiram becomes the representation of Dharti Lok, and gets embroiled in a high-profile attempt to murder case that brings together the other two widely separated worlds: Swarg and Paatal.
As he sinks further into the case, he will understand more about the systemic dance of power and oppression — regardless of gender, religion, caste and class — and how they align with crime and the system. Everything is connected, even though it may not seem so in the first five episodes.
The plot of Paatal Lok is admittedly loosely based on ex-Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal's book The Story of my Assassins. We are told right at the beginning that the attempted murder victim is reputed journalist Sanjeev Mehta (Neeraj Kabi). Hathiram takes it upon himself to find out more about the four suspects in the case, while also trying to understand who hired them. His journey takes him to the interiors of Punjab, MP and Haryana, as he tries to uncover the nexus between heartland crime, caste and religion-based oppression, and vote-bank politics.
As we've seen in Sudip Sharma's previous work (most notably Nh10 and Sonchiriya), the writer-director is really adept at bringing out the disparity between the different Indias: the India of a big-city like Delhi with rampant media and bureaucratic culture, and the India of a small town like Chitrakoot (Madhya Pradesh), where caste, crime and oppression go hand-in-hand. Hathiram keeps going back to Chitrakoot as it holds the key to the backstory behind one of the suspects, Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee). We are also told backstories of the other suspects, Tope Singh (a Dalit from Punjab with a heartbreaking origin story), Cheeni (a trans street-dweller from Nizamuddin in Delhi who does seedy jobs to survive) and Kabir M (a driver who Delhi Police is convinced is related to ISI and is sitting on a larger terrorist plot).
Even though Hathiram is at his wit's end in his thankless job, he becomes the underdog who must get to bottom of happenings in the series. As the trope goes, he is equally troubled — an alcoholic with fractured relationships with his wife (Gul Panag) and son. As he uncovers more about the case, the lists of murders increase. It becomes very clear that someone is watching Hathiram and trying to eliminate any possible way of his getting to bottom of the case. The answers will come from the back stories of the suspects — and therein lies the core of Paatal Lok as well.
Jaideep Ahlawat is the clear star of the show, and about time he got a series to shoulder. We've seen that he can do urban roles like in Dibakar Banerjee's Lust Stories short, and also gritty rural characters, like Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur. Ahlawat stands right in front of a stellar cast, including Abhishek Banerjee, Neeraj Kabi, Rajesh Sharma, and Gul Panag (who plays a sometimes-gullible, sometimes-feisty homemaker) among others.
Eventually it becomes clear that Paatal Lok suffers from too much being packed into every episode. Sometimes the tease works as you start to deconstruct in your head what symbols and glances and edits mean. But often, the plot becomes a bit too scattered, paying attention to arcs that could have easily been cut out (steamy affairs and unnecessary gore) and arcs that could do with a more indepth look (the link between guerilla crime gangs and politics in Chitrakoot, and how it's the hotbed for vote-bank politics in North India or the history of violence and oppression against a particular Dalit community in Punjab.)
The primary problem with Paatal Lok is that it is trying too hard to be too many things: a thriller, a social commentary, an "edgy" take on new India and its fault lines.
The thrills can be seen mostly in the technical department (with crisp cinematography and post-production work), the social commentary bits are routinely thrown in your face, and whenever the show wants to be "edgy" or "dark" either the stakes are raised with violence, or incessant swear words. And in the midst of all this, it never really becomes any of the above things.
What you can't fault Paatal Lok with is its attention to detail and its production value, credit of which goes to Anushka Sharma's Clean Slate Filmz. For a debut web production, the show has a decent mix of familiar and fresh faces, and excellent world-building. At several points during the series, I wanted to pause and take a break to soak it all in, but also found myself scratching my head to put the pieces together. To its credit, at the end of nine-episodes, enough curiosity had been built to want to watch season 2.
Which brings me to the ultimate question behind this review: in a sea of content options, where does Paatal Lok stand? I'd say give it a shot. Don't expect anything spectacular and you may be surprisingly hooked.
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