The entire plot of Pataal Lok, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, boils down to this axiom that one of our anti-heroes adheres to. (It is now my belief that all TV shows worth their salt should involve our canine companions in such charmingly wholesome ways). The show comes with a gripping narrative, nuanced acting, and a welcome mirror on societal structures and dysfunctions.
Pataal Lok follows an enticing tale of three ‘cities’ physically conjoined yet different in every other way. These three ‘loks’ (Hindi for worlds) of Swarg (Heaven), Dharti (Earth) and Pataal (Netherworld), metaphorically represent a socio-economic and cultural divide; Swarg is the abode of the elite, Dharti is filled with the commoners, while Pataal is the crawling wasteland of all filth and miscreants. The show begins with four suspects, seemingly from Pataal, who are intercepted and captured by our protagonist Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary, played by Jaideep Ahlawat. We learn that these suspects were on their way to murder firebrand journalist and news anchor Sanjeev Mehra, a member of India’s intellectual elite and chief-editor of a premier news agency. For Hathi Ram, whose jurisdiction falls in a place where anything rarely happens, getting the charge of this case is a once in a lifetime opportunity to rise in what has been a grey, ordinary career till now.
Fuelled to make the most of this opportunity, Hathi Ram starts out to navigate the endlessly complex labyrinth this case is. Who were these four people? Where did they come from? Who were they working for? Why Sanjeev Mehra? In his pursuit of the truth, he finds himself uncovering the life and times of our suspects, and how they came to be as we see them. Seeing each embroiled in their own story – of injustice, morality (that digresses from the law), and revenge – evokes a sense of resonance, sympathy, and understanding in the viewer. Replete with mythological references and narratives, the show has its fair share of amusing and sardonic social commentary on the modern Indian – “It is written in the scriptures, but I read it on WhatsApp”.
I greatly enjoyed watching Pataal Lok. Excellent, excellent acting, especially by Jaideep Ahlawat coupled with an intriguing plot and subplots made it a single night’s binge for me. The interestingly welcome meanders the plot flows through also bring more tone and depth to the characters. The depiction of Mehra and Hathi Ram’s complicated personal and family lives forms a key part of the narrative — the ridicule that Hathi’s son Siddharth faces at school because of his father’s name (Hathi means elephant in Hindi) is both enduring and amusing. The depiction of the starkly different worlds our characters from a cinematic perspective is very convincing. From the irreverent stares that Siddharth gives his father, to an opulent yet deceivingly shady New Delhi builder, to the dialogue, which is unflinchingly punctuated with rich profanities, the show is extremely engaging and convincing.
With a focus on crime and a noir tone, Pataal Lok has its fair share of striking similarities with other recent web-series like Jamtara and Sacred Games. For example, both Sacred Games and Pataal Lok involve a till-now ordinary cop with a strong sense of righteousness and a trusty sidekick, a non-cooperative police force, caste and religious differences forming a key (and welcome) commentary, LGTBQ characters on the wrong side of the law, and a full plate of grisly, raw and dirty violence and vulgarity. A focus on realism and forays into the mofussil are other similarities.
Similarities apart, Pataal Lok (and the aforementioned counterpart) are contributing to a key and important current in the Indian entertainment ocean. This involves a much-needed movement away from the rose-tinted, unrealistic, dramatized depictions of the (im)perfect, golden family and its dysfunctions, with saccharine background scores and age-old Indian ‘values’. Pataal Lok on the other hand is real. It is raw.
And it is here.