Paatal Lok review: Anushka Sharma’s show is Amazon’s black-hearted yet brave answer to Sacred Games
Directors - Avinash Arun, Prosit Roy
Creator - Sudip Sharma
Cast - Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Gul Panag, Ishwak Singh, Abhishek Banerjee, Swastika Mukherjee, Niharika Lyra Dutt
In its attempt to produce a show on par with Netflix’s Sacred Games, Amazon Prime might have unwittingly outdone itself. Paatal Lok is a stunning achievement on virtually every level, and despite all its similarities to the path-breaking Netflix series — it is also a cop show with mythological overtones — it is perhaps the most confident step in the evolution of Indian streaming since Amazon’s own Made in Heaven.
It drinks thirstily from the well of David Fincher — both in tone and its tendency to make you want to retch — but the story is so brazenly Indian that it makes you wonder if the nameless city in Fincher’s similarly seedy Se7en could be a template for your average cow-belt town.
Watch the Paatal Lok trailer here
While it offers an uncommonly assured portrayal of New Delhi in its opening couple of episodes, Paatal Lok truly comes into its own when it veers off the beaten track, takes NH-24 and enters the badlands of Uttar Pradesh. As a hinterland crime story, the show is breathtakingly realised — revealing layer underneath rotting layer, like an eight-day-old ‘pyaaz’ at a roadside dhaba.
In a neat subversion of genre tropes, the primary antagonist is apprehended by Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary in the very first episode. But it is only later that the policeman comes to realise that the man he thought was a common hoodlum is, in fact, the infamous serial killer Hathoda Tyagi, named after his weapon of choice.
What unfolds is a classic noir story, populated by morally reprehensible characters, in a city whose very soul is in need of saving, and corruption that goes all the way to the top. Executive producer Anushka Sharma, who has fine taste, by the way, hasn’t strayed too far from her stable of collaborators. Paatal Lok is created by her NH10 writer Sudip Sharma, co-directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy (Pari), with NH10 director Navdeep Singh credited as ‘script consultant’. Singh, in particular, has shown an affinity for film noir and Westerns in the past — both are genres that Paatal Lok takes a hungry bite out of.
Episode three, for instance, is a cracking (and deeply disturbing) Wild West story, set in a Punjab village — an unexpected diversion from the gritty crime drama that the previous two episodes had teased.
As a Delhiite, born and raised, I can proudly say that Paatal Lok perfectly captures the wickedness of the Capital; the lush beauty of its NDMC avenues, the rustic charm of government quarters, and the unspoken agreement that the area on the other side of the Yamuna is generally out of bounds.
During a call with a particularly chatty food delivery executive, seeking information about the delay in my order, I learned that the service had designated several parts of New Delhi as ‘black zones’. Intrigued, I enquired further. He said that at night, the food delivery service refuses to accept orders from certain locations that could be unsafe for its riders. This corroborated the stories scores of autowallahs had told me over the years about flat-out refusing to accept fares that would take them to some areas of ‘Jamna paar’ at night.
These stories would inevitably involve carjackings and robbery at gunpoint. Sometimes, even kidnapping. But the ‘Outer Jamuna Paar’ police station is where Hathi Ram Chaudhary has been posted. And that is where our story begins.
It is a punishment posting, he’s sure, after a career filled with nothing but relegation and regret. But then, Hathoda Tyagi presents him with the biggest case of his life. Recognising it as a sign from above, Hathi Ram jumps headfirst into the case, about the attempted assassination of a prominent journalist.
When we first meet him, the cynical Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhury is, like Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset in Se7en, giving a rookie a rambling lecture on the irredeemable nature of human beings. The world is divided into three realms, he tells the precocious junior cop Imran Ansari — the ‘svarg lok’ (heaven), where the gods reside; in the middle there is the ‘dharti lok’, which is where men like Hathi Ram and Imran live; and at the bottom is the ‘paatal lok’, the hell from which vermin occasionally escape and wreak havoc above. “Waise toh yeh shastron mein likha tha, par maine WhatsApp pe padha,” Hathi Ram quips.
And in just a matter of minutes, with his sing-song Haryanvi accent and his weary body language, Jaideep Ahlawat lets everyone know that he’s doing something special. This is the performance of a lifetime. Over the course of the next nine episodes, Ahlawat turns Inspector Hathi Ram into one of the most memorable characters ever put on Indian streaming.
He’s a fully realised person, from his instantly iconic wardrobe of cheap sneakers and plain T-shirts, to the slump in his posture when he drunkenly eats the plain meal prepared by his wife. It’s little touches like this that help flesh out a character beyond what is written on the page, and Paatal Lok finds every department — from costumes to production design — in top form. And its depiction of the Delhi Police and its unique brand of justice isn’t sanitised like it was in, say, Netflix’s Delhi Crime. The only sore point is the utter miscasting of Gul Panag in the thankless role of Hathi Ram’s wife, but that isn’t the actor’s fault.
It’s an ambitious show, both in terms of its narrative and its themes. The corporatisation of the media industry is an idea that is explored through a subplot involving the targeted top journalist, played by Neeraj Kabi, while religious bigotry is delicately addressed through the casual discrimination that Imran routinely faces inside the police force. The concept of the three realms, meanwhile, serves as a neat metaphor for caste politics.
Paatal Lok is an intense exploration of Indian immorality, but also a celebration of our ingenuity. It’s a sure-fire success for Amazon Prime.