Essay: The Story of Paatallok and Tarun Tejpal
An examination of why the hit show has not acknowledged its source materialUpdated: May 21, 2020 23:44 IST
Everyone is talking about Paatallok, the gritty new show on Amazon Prime. Adulatory reams have already been written about the series produced by film star Anushka Sharma. And, as a marker of its success, it has offended various groups – Indian Nepalis because a Delhi policewoman uses an ethnic slur on a character, all north easterners, because that character has a Khasi last name, and a whole bunch of fulminating right wing Hindus, who insist it is part of a larger secularist plot to show India as the casteist, minority-hating nation it is. Members of the aggrieved last group have taken offence to scenes of meat eating and of lynching. Not because no one is lynched in India but because the victim is Sikh. Like, don’t the makers of this Hinduphobic show know that only Muslims and Dalits are lynched here? How much creative license can people take? No sign of authenticity anywhere! #Irony because it’s best to make things clear; there’s no telling how words are interpreted on social media.
Paatallok is based on journalist Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins. This information is mentioned nowhere in the show’s credits. The “creator” of the show, Sudip Sharma (writer of NH10, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya) has acknowledged in the press that the basic storyline has been “inspired” by the novel. What does “inspired” mean in Bollywood terms? “Inspired” like how Bappi Lahiri and even RD Burman were by international hits, lifting hooks and adding Indian musical touches and releasing the songs as their own? The Delhi journalists’ grapevine, as always a viciously sinuous beast, has it that though the makers of the show are publically at pains to dissociate themselves from Tejpal, the author was paid not just for the rights to his book but also to keep his name off the series. Get that. An author was paid to NOT claim his own creation. If this is true, the makers of Paatallok aren’t guilty of plagiarism but the show, which prides itself on exposing India’s prejudices, social hierarchies and inequalities, corruption, criminality, and cynicism, is itself guilty of subterfuge and intellectual cowardice.
The makers of Paataallok were “inspired” by Tarun Tejpal’s book but didn’t admit it in the show’s credits because they were scared: scared that the rightwing mob would tear into their product. Because Tejpal, founding editor of Tehelka, was no darling of the Right. For those who have forgotten, the sting investigation helmed by Ashish Khaitan into Gujarat 2002 published in the magazine’s 7 November, 2007 issue, caught the likes of Babu Bajrangi revealing sensational truths about the riots on camera.
The makers were also perhaps scared of Tejpal’s current status as a pariah brought on by a junior woman colleague’s accusation of sexual assault in 2013, and his subsequent much-publicised imprisonment. In any civilized society, a man is innocent until proven guilty, until a court of law pronounces him guilty. Things are different in the court of public opinion. There, once someone is labelled a deviant, the rules of social untouchability swiftly kick in. No one wants to be seen as guilty even by remote association. And with good reason. Those who foolhardily wrote or even spoke publically in Tejpal’s defence in the aftermath of the accusations have themselves been attacked and vilified. All this has done no favours for the women’s cause in this country especially as middle class feminists have revealed a hysterical memsahib streak, evidenced in the periodic fits of Indian #MeToo, that casts them as eternal victims when they are actually the fantastic beneficiaries of upper caste patriarchy.
I am not suggesting that India is a land of equality where women have great opportunities to maximize their potential as individuals, or where sexual violence is laughably rare. Quite the opposite. But the worst sufferers are not privileged. They are not PLUs. Indeed, vocal middle class women, many of whom fancy themselves as feminist, with their great need for house slaves, are elitists instrumental in keeping working class women subservient. But that is a matter for another piece.
How all this plays out in the context of Paatallok and The Story of My Assassins is that India’s feminist Left and its fascist Right are identical in their eagerness to suffocate freedom of expression and ensure that people fall in line. Only the vocabulary they use is different. And while the creators of enduring cultural artifacts can be intellectually condescending about the fascists, the kiss of social death is dire for serious writers, film makers and artists when it is administered by left liberals. As the guardians of our intellectual bastions, as prominent members of internationally-connected academia, as the leading lights of Indian English publishing and media houses, and members of respected award juries, Indian LeftLibs are ensuring that groupthink thrives, that anyone with a contrarian view is shouted down, disgraced. In an ideal world they would have resisted being part of the bloodthirsty mob. Alas.
Which brings us back to Tarun Tejpal’s novel. Not acknowledging it in the credits is cowardly and opportunistic. But then what can producers do if the channel refuses to touch a show because of its source material? Also, who doesn’t want a hit ? Another Sacred Games? Now that Paatallok is wildly successful it will be interesting to see what happens when it comes to awards. A film maker wondered if the producers would enter the show under the category of original story and screenplay or as an adaptation. The truth will out. What then? Will the Right and the Left bay in unison?
Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost.
Manjula Narayan is the National Books Editor of the Hindustan Times.