His parents have given him the unfortunate moniker — Hathi Ram, which means an elephant. Jaideep Ahlawat, who plays Hathi Ram Chaudhary, a middle-aged cop with the Delhi Police, does remind you of an elephant. He is tall and a little bulky, which leads to many breathless chases. But beyond that lumbering stride, you cannot miss the wise eyes. He listens with his ear to the ground, and his eyes reveal his insight. He is gentle and perhaps unaware of his real strength, unless he is provoked to attack. His rugged face reveals the rough phases he has been through. But he plods through his work, rarely letting cynicism overpower him.
As a perfect foil to this experienced cop, is his junior colleague, Imran Ansari (ably played by Ishwak Singh). Enthusiastic and eager to please his senior, this rookie cop is preparing for his UPSC exams. He sees this as an opportunity to rise above his present status.
Their mundane existences are disrupted when Hathi Ram is handed over the responsibility of investigating the case of a foiled assassination attempt of a high-profile television journalist, Sanjeev Verma (Neeraj Kabi). The four assassins are played by Abhishek Banerjee, Jagjeet Sandhu, Mairembam Ronaldo Singh and Asif Khan. What the duo unearth is an intricate plot that isn’t what it seems on the surface.
Paatal Lok is a nine-part web series being premiered on Amazon Prime Video. Produced by the siblings, Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma, and conceptualized by Sudip Sharma, this is a racy crime thriller which mandates binge watching. I did an all-night jagraata, as once I started, I couldn’t stop. If there is anything which this series really showcases, it is the power of collaboration. The fantastic script which meanders through the rustic alleys in the heart of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, capturing the nuances of local dialects and the thought processes of the locals is written by four writers — Sudip Sharma, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra. It is a series shot in 110 cities in India, and better still directed seamlessly by two directors — Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy.
Paatal Lok is not just another crime thriller. It is a telling comment on the deep divisions that exist in Indian society. Juxtaposed in the same sequence you will transparently see the hollow glamour of Lutyens’ Delhi, and the sight of a man defecating by the filthy Yamuna river. In one sequence, journalist Sanjeev Verma who is being chased by the paparazzi, is asked who those people were. “They are us,” he responds.
But the best moments come when the back stories of the four culprits and the main protagonists are revealed. At times, gruesome and blood curling, the impact of the potent cocktail of caste, gender, communalism, religion, power and poverty unfurl on screen. A mother pays for the acts of her rebel son, by being gangraped by upper caste men. A man is forced to hide his last name and carry a circumcision certificate in his wallet. An orphaned child is abandoned on the Brahmaputra Mail and still survives. Teenage girls suffer sexual assault, because someone wants another to learn a lesson in a land dispute. A stoic housewife tries to supplement the family income by selling soda machines to neighbours.
But beyond all this despair, there lies hope. As each individual adjusts or rebels and tries to become another cog in the wheel. Each person has their own way of fitting in. Sometimes it is a tight slap delivered across the cheek. At others, a stray pet matters more than the negligent spouse. The bravado of owning a gun is sometimes an answer to incessant bullying. Sometimes it is a needless salute to a colleague, at others it is a sullen refusal to obey orders. Sometimes one acts aggressively to win the respect of one’s children. At others one compromises to save one’s skin. It is a world where you might need to ally with your sworn enemies to keep going. Or perhaps barge in like a bull when people shut doors at you. Life keeps going.
This web series is also a must-watch for the flawless performances of all the characters. Jaideep Ahlawat, who caught my eye as Alia’s trainer in Raazi, has finally been given his place on the podium that he deserves. The suave Neeraj Kabi fits into his part like a glove. The person who caught my eye was Swatiska Mukherjee in her role as Dolly, an anxiety-ridden spouse with her love for stray dogs. Abhishek Banerjee’s sully stare will give you the scares as he smashes skulls into smithereens. Mairembam Singh who plays Mary Lyngdoh, a transgender who is nicknamed Cheeni for her little “Chinese-like” eyes makes an impressive debut. Gul Panag lends able support to Ahlawat as his wife. Ishwak Singh, who we saw earlier in Veere di wedding, gets a chance to come into the highlight as an inspector who faces suspicion and sneers every day because of his religion. Niharika Lyra Dutt plays a journalist whose moral compass shifts depending on the circumstances.
We live closetted in our own worlds. Irrespective of which world we belong to — swarg, dharti or pataal. But when our worlds intersect, we are exposed to the glaring disparities of the other worlds. There are several ways of dealing with this. Either you choose to ignore this divide and turn your face away. Or you battle it— sometimes by compassion, sometimes by standing up for the right thing, and sometimes by losing your livelihood or your life.