Paatal Lok is a tightly run show. It covers a range of issues without ever leaving its core plot, and for that the writers and the director deserve credit. It’s made watchable by a superb central performance, and this combination overshadows the weak areas to make it a very engrossing and entertaining series.
Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary has no apprehensions about how middling a police career he’ll end up having. His current posting at Outer Jamunapar Police Station is a reflection of his standing in society, amidst his peers, and about his own self. He is the result of a troubled childhood from an abusive father, and he finds it hard to leave the burdens of his past behind. He hurls curses freely, has a short fuse, is constantly unhappy with his son, and life in general.
Jaideep Ahlawat plays this cop with disarming honesty and charm. It’s a thoroughly entertaining performance that strides the 9 episode show with a foul mouthed ferocity and hunger of a cop who’s finally got that one big case he was waiting for. The writers balance his character’s frustration with a streak of humor that Ahlawat latches on, to great effect.
One particular sequence captures this perfectly. Always shown to be respectful of his wife (Gul Panag, cast against type), he slaps her in one episode, before storming out of the house to meet the goon who has beaten his son up. A series of fistfights and macho chest thumping later, he returns home spewing the choicest of abuses, as his son and his junior assistant listen to his rants about society gone bad. He steps out of the auto, to a resounding slap from his wife, who has been waiting for him to come back. She leaves with his son. He is stunned. He sheepishly looks at his junior, who’s equally embarrassed at this unexpected turn of events. They both don’t know where to look. Then he turns to the auto rickshaw driver, an inconsequential prop so far. “Aur tu bhainchod, roti kha ke jayega kya?”, shouting him out of the scene.
The case that has his knickers twisted is about four criminals accused of an assassination plot of a prominent journalist in Delhi. It is his job to prove the motive and provide the proof that will help prosecute them in court. The investigation is a sprawling journey inside Bharat, the India that urban media rarely covers. The show explores the backgrounds of each of the four suspects. It unspools issues of caste, gender and religion. The fault lines of our country stand starkly revealed as the journey progresses to an unexpected end. In that, the writers have been unflinching, and their persistence to stick to uncomfortable truths give the plot a measure of respect. Law and order, cops and robbers – these tags seem irrelevant when we leave the city lights. In small towns and villages of India, power is the only currency. The haves and have nots are the only labels that matter. The idea is constantly emphasised as we learn about how each of the accused came about to be part of the plot.
This raw exploration of society exposes even more the superfluous character of Sanjeev Mehra, the journalist who was the target of the assasiantion plot. Played by Neeraj Kabi. Like Hathi Ram, he is shown as a self-deprecating ‘left liberal’ aware of his own limitations. But as the show progresses, you see the difference between the two men. Hathi Ram honestly believes in his failings, while Sanjeev Mehra is simply making a show of modesty. His career is under threat too. But while he deals in manipulations and deceptions to revive it, Hathi Ram goes about his job with a bulldogged honesty and determination to search for the truth. The difference between them is stark, and the good cop lets the journalist know as much in the end.
Does the show use tropes to make a point? Sure. But the issues it takes up are dealt with sincerity and consistency, making the effort work. Hathi Ram’s sidekick is a Muslim cop (Ishwak Singh), and almost every episode has a moment or two where the writers surface a point about reservation of minorities or the constant feeling of being an outsider in a premodinantly Hindu setup. There’s a deliberate plan to this. It works because it is not in your face, reflecting the subtle biases that Muslims face today in society. One of the suspects represents the incredible hardships that a poor LGBTQ faces in India. This track is searing, showing the gender insensitivity that the large middle-class in our country suffer from.
The show has parts that don’t work. Ahlawat’s relationship with this son deserved better treatment, for the impact it could have had. The same could be said for Gul Panag’s track. It’s good for the laughs it provides, but it has no contribution to the main story, or any significant impact on how Hathi Ram’s character turns out. Neeraj Kabi’s track suffers the most, considering how his role is the pivot around which the plot unfolds. His business dealings have a superficial, 80s Bollywood treatment, where business deals turn one way and the other simply because a dialogue is uttered to the effect. His track is full of stereotypes with little depth to it, in sharp contrast to the other tracks in the show.
I found the final climax to be the most interestingly written part of the show. The show gradually builds itself up to a final revelation, and its delivery is most unexpected. It would have taken some courage for the creators of the show to write the climax the way they did. It may be anti climatic to many, and not the most obvious way to resolve such a build-up. It’s a risk. I did not find it effective, but it’s a worthy try.
Paatal Lok is a tightly run show. It covers a range of issues without ever leaving its core plot, and for that the writers and the director deserve credit. It’s made watchable by a superb central performance, and this combination overshadows the weak areas to make it a highly engrossing and entertaining series.
Paatal Lok is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Hindi, Thriller, Drama, Color