Paatal Lok starts with a chuckle. Speaking to his subordinate, who’s barely interested, inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) details the mythic realms of heaven, earth, and hell. “It’s all there in our scriptures,” he demures. “But I read it on WhatsApp.” The moment is lightly mocking, reflecting the deluge of mythology-inspired forwards swamping our phones. But it also does a good job of setting up the show — which parallels divine realms with real segregations.
Loka, in Sanskrit, means ‘world’. As per Hindu cosmology, there are 14 loks: seven above (heavens), seven below (hells/underworlds). Patala or Pataal Lok is the bottommost realm, the cosmic subterranean. Abundant in riches and beauty, it is governed by Asuras, Daityas, Yakshas, and Nagas. The realm is mentioned across the 18 Mahapuranas. “We can’t deny that there exist, at the risk of simplification, three very clear class strata: the top, the middle and the bottom,” says series creator Sudip Sharma. “That’s where the idea of correlating it to mythology came from — Swarg lok, Dharti lok, Paatal lok. It also lent itself to the early
impressions with which we look at the inhabitants of these worlds — as gods, as humans and as insects.” Set across North India, Paatal Lok follows the investigation into the attempted murder of a journalist. The main suspect — Vishal aka Hathoda Tyagi — is played by Abhishek Banerjee. A ruthless perpetrator of 45 murders, Tyagi is likened to Hiranyakashyap, the demon king. According to Hindu legends, Hiranyakashyap’s brother, Hiranyaksha, was killed by Vishnu. Angered by this, Hiranyakashyap performed penance and received a boon from Lord Brahma. He could not be killed by any entity — living or non-living, friend or foe. Likewise, he could have no rival. There was, however, a twist. Hiranyakashyap’s son, Prahlada, was born during his time away. The son grew up to be a devotee of Vishnu, Hiranyakashyap’s enemy. As such, he made several attempts to kill his son. Finally, Prahlada was saved by Narasimha — an anthropomorphic avatar of Vishnu, who killed Hiranyakashyap without defying Brahma’s boon.
In the final episode of Paatal Lok, a priest reads the kundli (birth chart) of Tyagi. He has, the priest announces, ‘Brahma’s boon’. This leads to the startling climax with Tyagi and Hathi Ram facing off in the rain. “We wanted to build the mythology of Tyagi as the demon king,” Sudip shares. “But even he had a chink in his armour. Only God could kill Hiranyakashipu, and when Tyagi does what he does in the end, we point to the existence of an ‘ansh’ (particle) of God in him. That’s what the bhajan at the end is also pointing at - there is an ‘ansh’ of God in all of us, even the most evil.” Sudip also notes the parallel of Hathi Ram as Narsimha. “His diary has a cover of Lord Narsimha,” he points out. “You can also spot a Narsimha painting at the tea stall in Episode 5. Then of course there is the ‘Narsimha — Hiranyakashipu’ folk performance in the final episode.” Canines play an important role in the show. Tyagi is described as a dog lover, and it is this affection that leads to a crucial moment of doubt.
The dog that saves journalist Sanjeev Mehra’s life is named Savitri — a possible nod to the Savitri-Satyavan story in the Mahabharata. Most importantly, there’s the parting speech by Hathi Ram to Sanjeev. In the final book of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas are making their ascent to heaven. They are accompanied by a dog on the journey. One by one, the brothers begin to die, along with their wife Draupadi. In the end, only Yudhisthira and the dog make it to Indra’s chariot. Indra announces that the dog cannot enter heaven — it is lowly and has no value. Hearing this, Yudhisthira refuses and turns away, and is duly stopped by Indra, who is pleased with his Dharma. “Although Sanjeev Mehra didn’t have any qualities of Yudhishtir but still a dog standing outside his home, was the reason Sanjeev didn’t reach his Swarg Ka Dwar (Heaven’s door). Maybe the dog here too was in the form of God,” says Hardik Mehta, one of the four writers on Paatal Lok.
Hardik acknowledges the Eklavya-Dronacharya parallel between Tyagi and Donalia Gujjar. Like Eklavya, Tyagi learns from his guru from far. And just like him, he sacrifices his thumb for his ‘Master ji’. Both Eklavya and Tyagi are sharp killers, the former’s arrows replaced here by a wild hammer. “This idea was there in the book itself — The Story of My Assassins. We adapted it,” Hardik shares.
The mystery and politics in Paatal Lok stems from Chitrakoot, a holy city along the UP-MP border. In the epic Ramayana, Lord Ram is sent on exile for 14 years, 11 of which were spent in Chitrakoot. “When Hathi ‘Ram’ sends himself on his own vanvaas (after getting suspended), he too arrives in Chitrakoot for answers,” Hardik says.
The city’s connection runs deeper. Chitrakoot is where Bharat met Lord Ram to perform the last rites of their father. Later, he tries to persuade Ram to return to Ayodhya. In Paatal Lok, Gwala Gujjar performs his brother’s last rites at Chitrakoot’s Ram Ghat. The relationship between Gwala and Masterji is likened to the proxy rule by Bharat and Ram (we also get a pointed shot of Masterji’s sandals). “Ram chose to go on exile and Bharat was asked to rule the kingdom,” Hardik says. “Similarly, Donullia opts to be in the ravines and forests, sleeps under the stars while Gwala runs the district.” While hailing the richness of these stories, Sudip points out the merging of history and mythology in recent years. “Mythology is history as we want it to be, rather than as it is,” he says. “Our overall take on mythology in this series is with that lens, a slightly tongue-in-cheek take — where we have now started taking WhatsApp forwards as gospel.”