Nobody has been a louder cheerleader than usindiamonitor since two of the heavyweight giants of US streaming television, Netflix and Amazon, entered the Indian market to help produce original Indian content made for the domestic audience in India as well as those of us in other parts of the globe. The injection of financial, creative, and technical resources into India is paying major dividends on the screen as we outlined in Delhi Crime by Netflix. In May 2020 Amazon presented Paatal Lok, a terrifying crime thriller with such fantastic script writing, acting, and direction that it was hard to stop watching at the end of each episode. In fact, usindiamonitor has watched the entire series twice this summer. I would be lying to myself and to you, to claim I saw it twice in order to write a better review for you here today. I did that because it deserves a 5/5 rating.
Paatal Lok is not your typical police procedural, regardless of what country it was made in. The series refuses to “stay in its lane,” and has shed any pretense of the formulas or “masala” of Indian cinema. The show takes a bloody hammer to the crime thriller genre, like the preferred murder weapon of one of the show’s key characters, Hatoda Thyagi (Abhishek Banerjee). Paatal Lok is in fact a true and unapologetic microcosm of India itself: beautiful but filthy, violent yet sensual, morally bankrupt and also spiritual. Brutal violence between castes, religions, and economic classes is shown in its raw form, without judgment, and without elaborately choreographed fight scenes or car chases that cheapen the art form. There are no useless emotive song and dance numbers to bore the Western audience. Contrary to the very premise of Indian storytelling and culture itself, there are no sacred cows or prototypical heroes and villains in this story as cops and goons are separated by the thinnest of margins. In this it favorably reminded me of HBO’s fantastic The Wire.
The attempted murder of celebrity TV anchor Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) by four known criminals sets off the plot. But unlike most cop dramas we have seen, the perpetrators are caught and charged in the very beginning, and the entangled web has to get untangled from there. There is a protagonist of sorts, a character whose lens we use to look into this world, Police Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhry (Jaideep Ahlawat) the man nominally placed in charge of the investigation from a backward outpost of a Delhi Police district. But this cop is no hero if you were to take into account physical brutality against his own family and his prisoners, or extortion of his son’s school, as points of evidence on a moral compass. There is also the open question of how good that Hathiram really is at the game. Rather than the hero, Hathiram is instead a clever and relentless guide down the intense rabbit hole of the show, full of twists and turns, constant danger, dark comedy, and shocking revelations over the 9 episodes. His personal life is in even worse shambles than his unsteady investigation. He isn’t entirely likable, but will become a character you likely care about.
From the macro level of foreign policy and national politics all the way down to the micro level of pedestrian street crimes in the slums, we see modern 2020 India in all its naked glory.
The back stories of the four individuals charged with attempted murder are explored in great depth, going back for years. Instead of being cliche, the show humanizes each of them to the point where the paths they have taken in life become rational or even understandable. The characters at the higher levels of the food chain such as media magnates, New Delhi Police Commissioners, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials, scions of organized crime, and politicians are also explored at the various touch points of society where they dwell, and the intersections of this complex web are what make Paatal Lok truly stand out. In scene after scene after scene, the juxtapositions are laid out beautifully and throughout it all is the common denominator of life in and around India’s capital, Delhi.
Paatal Lok subtly embraces the simmering tensions that exist just under the surface in society, from Hindu-Muslim pogroms, to Hindu castes doing multigenerational pitched battle against one another, to the way media creates and manipulates fake news to make a few extra rupees and serve itself in other ways. At every level of society is the extreme and cringe-worthy misogyny that every Indian knows about.
It’s all a wild, scary, and fun ride, but there is a downside. Towards the last few episodes, even with good English subtitles, a few too many characters get introduced in the already-crowded rabbit hole, and the complexity of their roles in the plot gets harder to follow at times. My second viewing confirmed that it doesn’t get much easier even if you acknowledge the high-level contours of what happened, when there are a dozen characters being juggled simultaneously towards the end.
Overall, if you were to drop whatever you are doing to start watching Paatal Lok in case you have not done so, I doubt you will regret it as long as you can handle small pockets of grotesque violence. Paatal Lok has indeed opened up the devastating potential of what an Indian crime thriller can be, with so many aspects unique to only India that viewers around the world would enjoy learning about. I cannot wait until Season 2 comes out.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Shout out to Sushanth Pai, of Chennai, for the recommendation.