Paatal Lok: The saga of subaltern world
Amazon Prime Video’s latest series Paatal Lok rises as a much-needed suspense thriller that is likely to be classified as a ‘classic’ soon.
Remember Kundan Shah’s cult-classic satire Jaane bhi Do Yaaro or Govind Nihalani’s gritty Ardh Satya? Both the films were remarkable for their gripping narration of Mumbai’s capitalist and criminal nexus. Then there were Abhay Deol starrer Manorama Six Feet Under, which dwelt into the gritty horrors of land mafia and political corruption, and Dibakar Baneerjee’s critically acclaimed Shanghai - the adapted version of Costa-Gavras Z -- showcasing struggle of investigating officer to unravel the truth of high political crimes and murders. These films were impressive attempts to demonstrate India’s systemic and institutionalized corruption and the rotten social spaces. Below the glitter of Shining India, there exists a dangerous world of henchmen, corrupt police, and the compromised media establishment.
In the plethora of dull and substandard Hindi content on the web today, Paatal Lok rises as a much-needed suspense thriller that is likely to be classified as a ‘classic’ soon. This series has raised the bar of noir-fiction drama with its realistic portrayal of social filth. Rooted in the soul of India, the show has a cop investigating psychopathic murders, brutal rapes, Dalit atrocities, and the Brahmin-Bania domination over power and privileges. The lead characters are emotionally layered and struggling to escape from existential troubles but in vain. Paatal Lok is an odyssey from one hellish point to another terrible end.
The deep caste trenches in which the everyday Hindu social life functions have long been neglected by Bollywood. However, in the recent past films like Newton, Massan, Sonchiriya, Kaala and Article 15 dwelt into the muddy water of caste society and presented some of the most brilliant social narratives. On the web, Sacred Games has already made a significant mark by its crispy style to depict criminality, sexual cringe and violence. Patal Lok improvises this genre with rich empirical evidence gathered from the rustic North Indian cities and villages to build an impressive dark saga.
Paatal Lok starts with the story of charismatic Left-Liberal TV anchor Sanjeev Mehra, who escapes an attempt on his life by four assassins. The investigation by low ranked police officer Hathiram Chaudhary slowly reveals how the history-sheeters are secretly related to the murky world of a rich builder, a local godman and a high-profile politician. As the story moves from one chapter to another, the audience slowly witnesses the existence of two worlds. The highbrow ‘Swarg Lok’ with its fine wine, cigars, civility, sexual liberties and democracy, and the brute nakedness of Patal Lok as it exists amid wretched caste hierarchies, feudal violence, and the crude patriarchal domination. Hathiram wishes to find the links between the two worlds.
Jaideep Ahlawat is awesome as Hathiram Chaudhary- a troubled family man and loser professionally who exists in the ‘Dharti Lok’. Given the general narrative practices of Hindi television drama, the name ‘Hathiram’ is unconventional for the protagonist. The depiction of his social and personal life is suggestive that his character belongs to one of the lower OBC castes. He is uncouth, distanced from religious rituals and do not see his Muslim assistant with contempt and hatred, rather he develops a comfortable bonding with him. He desperately wants to prove his merit as an investigating officer but ends up doing the opposite as a man who is unaware of the ‘oiled’ machinery through which the powerful elite rules the system.
The second set is the representation of subaltern social identities as the ‘insects’ of the Pataal Lok. First is Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee is top class), the hotheaded son of a poor farmer, who brutally kills his three cousins to avenge his raped sisters. Second is Kabir M- the petty Muslim thief, whose two elder brothers are killed by Hindutva fanatics during the Ram Mandir agitation. Third is Tope Singh- the Dalit fugitive from Punjab. He mercilessly stabs three Jat boys to stop them from bullying and humiliating him because of his low caste identity. Finally, there is Chini- the transgender orphan- as a child she had experienced repeated rapes and brutalities.
These are four segregated stories of dark and doomed lives of the marginalized social groups. In each case, the victim is turned into criminals only because of social malice and poverty. They are introduced as the dreaded criminals, but their life stories reveal that they are the real victims. Despite the situation changing, they are still poor and vulnerable and easy prey for the elite. In the final episode, they stand alone in the courtroom and the nation witnesses their downfall without grief.
The Swarg Lok is the third set that represents the friendly tussles for power and prestige between the Brahmin-Bania-Kshatriya social and class elites. They are shown as the top managers that control and produce the filth in the Pataal Lok but without getting their hands dirty. They live in palatial bungalows, settle their rivalries with cordial talks and show utter disrespect for rules and ethics. The turbulent lives of the poor and the low-caste Dalit-Bahujan mass never disturb their personal or professional peace; however any attempt that makes this class uneasy only invites terrible consequences on the others.
Finally, there is a layered subplot to represent the women characters. It is surprising to see that each women character is shown as the victim of the patriarchal male hegemony. The women are depicted as battered wives, compromising girlfriends, sex workers or the rape victims. Even when she is shown as the chief investigation officer of the CBI, she is depicted not as an independent officer but merely as a passive instrument to carry the government’s agenda. As wives, they are home alone, depressed, and dependent on their husbands for comfort and care. Even as a smart working woman, she only critically observes the wrongdoing of her boss but fails to challenge him till the end. The male counterpart is often ignorant about his partner’s wish. The bonding between the two is portrayed as superficial, one-sided or for some crass utility.
These four segments overlap yet stand alone individually. The subalterns are the low rung, voiceless creatures over which the edifice of modern civilization has been erected. They survive in the pits of crime and hard labour without any grand hope or value for life. Like the current situation of the migrant labourers, they are exploited by the elite to develop the city. However, when the tragedy strikes, they are left to survive on their own without any help.
By the end of the final episode, the audience may feel grief for how rotten and treacherous the system is in which the characters are condemned to survive and die. However, Paatal Lok doesn’t offer any revolutionary or moral sermons, instead it makes the protagonist a passive participant in the continuing saga of corruption and violence. The two worlds retain their perpetual existence without any victory or defeat. Hathiram, however, is a content man for he took an ethical call, which gives him courage to throw a jibe in the face of Swarg Lok elites.
(Harish Wankhede is an assistant professor with the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed are personal.)
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