The name and the context of this nine episode series is laid out in the first few seconds of the first episode. A voice over of the protagonist (Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary) simplifies how the universe is divided in three loks – swarg, dharti and paataal, metaphors of the very clear class divide that we live in today.
Soon after, we meet character representations from each of these ‘loks’ coming together to take us to the darkest corridors of hell. A popular journalist, Sanjeev Mehra who survives an assassination attempt, Inspector Hathiram who lands this once in a lifetime investigation and four suspects.
The beginning hints that the story is about these 4 residents of the paataal lok who are caught ahead of a conspired assassination, but what follows is a complex web of lies and deceit.
There is an interesting pattern to the narration that keeps oscillating between the past and present of the protagonists. Each one of these 4 characters is humanised with a backstory, almost trying to justify their path to present. Each of them is a victim and executor of some gruesome criminal activity that is explained in a casual socio-political commentary, but that’s not the plot. The main plot is instead about the investigation of a thwarted murder attempt. A crime anticipated in the ‘swarg lok’ weighs much heavier than multiple committed in the hellish underbelly of the country. These are instances of islamophobia, casteism, sexual harassment etc., like the fast series of distracting scrolls running on the screen of a news channel. But the prime time story that gets the TRPs remains the high profile murder attempt.
The macabre stories of the dark hinterlands are brought to the centre stage. The cruelty is not suggestive; the visuals are doused in blood and bone. While you might choose to turn pages of such news in real life, here, the writers choose to keep the impact inescapable, arguably too much at times.
The story comes from a very deep understanding of current socio-political scenario and translates to a brave narration. All this while it keeps drawing apt parallels between mythology and modern day society. The intelligent writing, tight editing and its brisk pace keeps you on the edge, almost forcing you to pause and revisit some scenes to a get a hold of all the action. You are on the run with the inspector, every time he opens his tiny notepad; you make mental notes along with him trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle yourself.
While the class divide is evident, hell is everywhere.
The geographical placing of each piece is also clever. The dots getting connected in Delhi make for a perfect set up amidst bureaucracy, crime journalism, politics, gangsters, all coming together. It is noteworthy how the writers have intricately detailed a contrast between the Jamuna-paar-Delhi and the Vasant Kunj-Delhi
Jaideep Ahlawat needs a separate appreciation blog all together. What he does to bring Hathiram’s character alive with its vulnerabilities and strengths is a master class in acting. Ishwak Singh as the polished and bright subordinate Ansari aptly supports as well as shines on his own. Neeraj Kabi is effortlessly brilliant. Abhishek Banerjee as Vishal Tyagi has demon eyes. With almost no dialogues but lots of screen time he contests to be one of the scariest negative characters.
Special mention to the complete casting (by Abhishek Banerjee himself). Also while the dialogues might not be as sticky as that of Sacred Games (since everyone is comparing), but they are subtle and impactful.
What does not work
The complexity of the show brings its own flaws. The brilliant detailing of the sub plots leads to a slight disappointment when the climax unfolds. Also some side plots about an affair, some household quarrels (the soda machine) etc are easily avoidable .
Must warn that once you choose to start watching Pataal lok, hitting the pause button is a challenge. At the end of this 7-8 hour binge-watch, it is hard to be not absorbed by the show’s cynicism and undertones.
Leaving you with two of my favourite dialogues –
When Sanjeev Mehra is being followed and papped continuously, one asks irritatingly “Who are these guys” and he replies “They are us”.
And the Whatsapp line from the trailer – “ waise toh ye sab shastron mein likha hai, but maine Whatsapp pe padha hai.”
Cutting Rating – 4/5