"We used to be heroes,” says a character in Paatal Lok. “People like us.” The speaker might be a fading journalist but the sentiment haunts pretty much everyone else in the show. The protagonist is a washed-up cop in Delhi. There’s an aging dacoit too obscure to merit a face. And there’s the idea of India itself — forever shrinking and losing its shape.The 9-part series, produced by Anushka Sharma and out on Amazon Prime, is a bracing overview of a nation in flux. It’s hugely ambitious and frequently adrift, especially in the lax middle portion. Still, creator Sudip Sharma wields his material confidently, sprucing it up with deft thematic flourishes, just like his characters wield hammers and blades.
Hathiram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), shirt perennially un-tucked, lands the biggest case of his life. He’s handed four young suspects; the brief is that they were conspiring to kill a journalist and were caught. It lands on Hathiram to investigate the case, elicit a few confessions, and close the file. Predictably, he messes it all up — several times over. What begins as a lean investigative thriller soon takes the panoramic view, as the brick kilns and dikes of foggy North India come into sight. Pulled into the hinterland, Hathiram, despite his name, finds himself a pawn.
The Sacred Games comparisons are fair. Like the Netflix show, Paatal Lok hits several crime thriller beats, not least the buddy cop equation between Hathiram and Imran (Ishwak Singh). Evident too are the mythological allusions added into the plot. The contemporised politics, however stout, has the sense of boxes being checked. “We liberals are such a cliché,” says journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) — a self-aware bit that doesn’t quite land.
Instead, what really propels the show is its stark visual design. Directors Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun create a gripping heartland. It’s a world of dusty highways and brightly-coloured shrines. Violence erupts in a schoolyard, while furtive leaflets are snuck under the door. Order is supreme, yet revenge is law. The glazed newsrooms of Delhi don’t hold the same appeal, and quickly shrink from the larger plot.
The show takes its plot and characters from Tarun Tejpal’s novel The Story of My Assassins. There’s also a clear influence of Mindhunter and the methodical brilliance of its creator. But while both Tejpal’s book and the David Fincher series obsess over their respective killers, Paatal Lok takes a more glancing approach. The past of the four suspects — and the historical processes that spawned them — are bundled into swift flashbacks lasting a few minutes. Sanyukta Kaza’s editing is concise to the point of exclusion. Several mysteries are left unresolved, and the finale is a big leap of faith.
Jaideep Alhawat plays the jaded cop with his signature dryness. It’s a deeply compelling performance, shifting from ineptitude to wit to sudden bursts of violence. Few actors can hit so many notes and still lead a fast-paced thriller. As Hathiram sinks himself into the case, losing sleep in cheap hotel rooms, the darkness around Jaideep’s eyes seems convincingly real. Neeraj Kabi, commanding an equally central role, looks oddly withdrawn, and his reading of a primetime anchor intro is hilariously flat.
Besides four writers, director Navdeep Singh is credited as script consultant. Fans of Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) will sense his presence early on. In addition to Gul Panag as Hathiram’s wife, there’s the theme of cyclical retribution — an enquiry that permeates all of Navdeep’s work. The hero, once again, is the little man, an insignificant cog in the wheel. And there’s the final shower of rain — as comfort, as catharsis.The characters in Pataal Lok chart long journeys to nowhere. Hell, the show reminds us, is exile. In a story of infinite vastness and scope, it’s the idea of home that emerges on top.
Series name: Paatal Lok
Creator: Sudip Sharma, Directors: Prosit Roy, Avinash Arun
Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Gul Panag, Abhishek Banerjee
Streaming on: Amazon Prime