Paatal Lok begins with a splash of grossness, as a man delivering food, stamps a cockroach to death, on his way. It is quite poetic that the image of the bloody, mauled cockroach mirrors the image of the smashed heads of Hathoda Tyagi’s victims, to whom the man is delivering food. The show does not hit the ground running. It stagnates at the same place, swaying away ever so slightly but never quite throbbing with excitement or suspense. It bides its time, as it marinates in the flamboyance of Swarg Lok, the higher strata of Delhi and the filth of the Paatal Lok. This marinated mess of hierarchy, politics, communal tension, turns out to be a delectable dish that reveals the humanity of the Paatal Lok and the stinking opportunism of the Swarg Lok.
An unassuming, underperforming cop, Haathi Ram is assigned with a high profile case, which gives him a chance to redeem his otherwise stagnant career and he throws in every ounce of his energy into solving this case. 4 convicts are caught in broad daylight and we learn that they have been hired to assassinate a celebrated Journalist, Sanjeev Mehra. Although extremely popular he is on the brink of losing his job, thanks to his leftist ideology which could sabotage the political alliance of the owner of the channel he works for. As Haathi Ram buys a ticket into this political circus, the series gets dense and the writing gets streamlined with various threads coming together beautifully and it binds your attention.
Sudip Sharma‘s uncluttered understanding of the despotic landscape of Indian small town shines through in portions of this show. One of the storylines involving a young lowercaste boy being bullied, sparks off a communal battle that thrusts the boy into the trappings of Paatal Lok. This storyline is reminiscent of parts of Udta Punjab in the way it is treated. A Punjabi rap playing in the background as the boy rebels against his oppressors, giving his character a false sense of rebellion, and casting a stinging satire on the making of seemingly cool looking criminals. The show is riveting when it digs into each of the 4 convicts lives and past. It conducts a dissection of these criminal minds and presents to us a perspective that is accompanied by reluctant empathy along with the inevitable judgement of their immoral acts.
Jaideep Ahlawat finally gets his due. The man always delivered promising performances and this series for him, is a complete knockout. His demeanor oscillates between a bad-ass go getter persona and that of a man who has lived with the guilt of never reaching for stars. He uses body language to great affect in depecting this self loathing that he tries to prevent from creeping in. Niraj Kabi delivers the expected, he conducts a theater of perfection. His speech at times reminded me of Naseeruddin Shah and I would not shy away from saying that the reminisces is not limited to just the speech. Watch out for the scene where his face is washed away with shame, look how you see his soul shrinking. Brilliant. Among these familiar masters is,discovered, a gem, Abhishek Banerjee. With much lesser screentime and minimal dialogue, he creates a mesmeric impact on your mind. An unflinching death stare throughout, and an emotional outburst at the end, both without any dialogue and both equally impactful. I would love to see a spin-off of Hathoda Tyagi for Abhishek’s terrific performance ably complements the extraordinary writing that has gone into creating his character.
The show is also an unafraid sociopolitical commentary on the current political climate and media’s affiliation with it, in our country. The writing does not take sides per say but makes sure to drive home the point of exploitative politics. In trying to be relevant and making a comment on the state of affairs, the show deviates into relatively insignificant narratives. This digression causes a momentary hindrance in the narrative flow and it struggles to find its lost focus. The finest writing achivement of the show happens when it turns the concept of Swarg Lok and Paatal Lok on its head. The writing humanizes a monstrous murderer and demonizes a seemingly decent man. The show compels you to believe that not only do these two worlds coexist but it is the Swarg Lok that feeds Paatal Lok with all its filth and uses it against them. The scattered focus, narrows itself down to the essence of the show and it is then that you see the larger picture and each piece fits into the narrative that escapes a close shave of spiralling down into a convoluted mess. Paatal Lok is a classic example of writing masterclass and why the episodic format allows for the writing to shine and it does shine, as bright as the lights of Swarg Lok and smells as real as the stench of the Paatal Lok.