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In Amazon’s ‘Paatal Lok’, hell is a few pin codes away

‘Paatal Lok’ is a fantastically shot and meticulously crafted police procedural about some very bad people, and the beliefs that shape them

Jaideep Ahlawat as a weary inspector is impossible to forget.
Jaideep Ahlawat as a weary inspector is impossible to forget.

What do you call an assassination where nobody dies?

Paatal Lok, the sordid new series from Amazon Prime Video, begins with a high-profile assassination being foiled. What matters most now? The assassins? The one who orchestrated the murder? The target who, instead of dying, is now safely in the spotlight? Should method be examined first, or motive? These questions echo through the head of Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary in this show about the netherworld of society, a show that points out that no matter where we think we stand, hell is always only a few pin codes away.

Created by Sudip Sharma—writer of fine films such as NH10 and Udta Punjab—and produced by actor Anushka Sharma, Paatal Lok is a fantastically shot and meticulously crafted police procedural about some very bad people, and the beliefs that shape them. In a country full of gods and men who play god, the air is thick with metaphors in this story of the misbegotten: The target is a TV journalist with plummeting viewership, the assailants are attackers who haven’t attacked, and the investigator is a policeman who has never been taken seriously.

The show attempts to explore rage as an outlet for both the powerful and the impotent, struggling to express themselves. The middling cop and the famous journalist are, for instance, linked by a school that requires connections. Violence may take different forms but power flows in the same directions.

Sharma sets up a brooding world but the patterns of evil-versus-eviller get repetitive and the grimness, tedious. Dark stories require moments of relief, which can come from anywhere: a few witty lines, a stylistic visual flourish, actual pulpy thrills, or even an inspired choice of music. Paatal Lok features beautiful chases around labyrinthine streets and midnight fairgrounds but—perhaps because the plot is predictable—the tone never relents. Instead, it sadistically bludgeons the viewer with violence that eventually feels gratuitous.

There are nine episodes here—presumably for each of Dante’s circles of hell—but despite terrific atmospherics and a talented cast, that may be too many. What could have been a compelling tale of a frustrated policeman and a compromised journalist ends up indulgently weighed down by subplots. The rural milieu we encounter with the cop’s investigations is captured very impressively, with evocative and disturbing scenes set in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh, and Seelampur and the seamiest parts of Delhi. Most of this works, even when it sickens.

Whenever the narrative flits from dusty cop to urban journalist, the show falls through. Characters meant to be speaking English instead talking in Exposition, all realism forgotten. “It’s the top story on every other channel," says a news channel executive to the journalist who already knows this, and adds, “We don’t want to miss out." “I won’t judge you if you won’t judge me," declares a reporter having an affair with her boss. “Who are these people?" asks the channel executive, of paparazzi. “They are us," replies the journalist, keeping his face miraculously straight. That particular journalist, it turns out, disregards not only ethics but optics: The day he “is the story" and is being chased, he goes to a bar and falls casually into an affair. Later, he broods in his girlfriend’s windowwith his shirt open, offering a view to anyone on the street.

In the cop’s world, even the English works. “Investigation is on hai," says Hathi Ram Chaudhary into his phone, immediately bringing the words to life. The excellent Jaideep Ahlawat (Raazi, Lust Stories, Gangs Of Wasseypur) creates a weary policeman convinced of his own mediocrity, desperate to do better. He has observed undeserving men rise, so why not him? The strikingly tall actor makes a police jeep look short and looms, like a bookmark, through a crowd at Delhi’s Nizamuddin station. Often appearing vacant, this is a man perpetually chewing on the truth, despite not liking the taste. Ahlawat shoulders Paatal Lok and makes Hathi Ram compelling. He plays an elephant, and he’s impossible to forget.

The other hero is cinematographer Avinash Arun (Killa, Masaan), shooting these shadowy worlds with delicious flair: capturing the policeman’s house lit up by the garish neon of an outlandish sparkling-water machine, the oppressive dullness of the police stations, the unremarkable village backdrops against which unspeakable atrocities take place, orange pennants held forth in rallies about making temples, plastic maces dropped on the ground as a toy-seller is shoved aside. The details leap out.

As with all stories of demons, there is much talk of god: Hanuman’s weapon interrupts the aforementioned chase, Shiva is used as a clue, and a mobile phone is found only because goddess Yamuna has decided it be so. There are men who play god, like a builder called Talreja: His employees call him “Talreji Shri" and greet visitors with a “Talreja Pranaam"—possibly modelled on Sahara India chief Subroto Roy “Sahara"—but when we meet Talreja, he’s undistinguished and slimy, talking to cops about handjobs. The typical Delhi-builder caricature does not suit the pomp of the setting.

Neeraj Kabi, playing the journalist (visually resembling former Aaj Tak anchor Dibang), reads the news with suitable narcissism but is otherwise hemmed in by the clunky English, though Niharika Lyra Dutt, playing his reporter, is convincing. Ishwak Singh is great as Imran Ansari, a policeman under Chaudhary discriminated against by cops who now wear their Hindutva on their sleeves, and the almost-assassins are well cast: Jagjeet Sandhu, Aasif Khan, Abhishek Banerjee and Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, whose character, Cheeni, has a fascinating backstory and deserved more screen time. Rajesh Sharma makes the act of stroking a dog appear menacing, while Gul Panag does well as Chaudhary’s long-suffering wife. As the journalist’s anxiety-ridden wife, Swastika Mukherjee is interesting but is given intensely awkward scenes like reluctantly picking up reluctant men at restaurants after staring at herself in a mirror.

Paatal Lok starts off as a show with a lot to say, but like the chorus of an aarti, parrots aphorisms: Evil begets evil, faith can be fatal, compromise alone triumphs. I remain impressed by the craft and performances, yet let down by this bloody saga staying skin-deep. What do you call an assassination where nobody dies? I call it an inaccurate summation. In cases like these, the truth rarely emerges unscathed.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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