This one just blows you away, no two ways about it. After suffering the load of crap that’s being offloaded on the digital platform to make hay while the sun strangles, Paatal Lok comes as a jolting reminder of what levels of brilliant storytelling can be achieved on the OTT platform by those who know how to use the extended space afforded by the medium.
Not a single moment is wasted in the 9 episodes of taut and coiled storytelling. This is a series that requires our complete and unconditional attention as Sudeep Sharma’s devious screenplay slithers from one level of dramatic tension to another without an iota of self-congratulation.
It all starts with an assassination attempt on a high-profile television journalist Sanjeev Mehra with a ‘chick’ on his shoulder. I refer to the fling that he has with a sharp junior correspondent Sarah Matthews (Niharika Lyra Dutta). A fling that flings the superstar anchor into an unanchored voyage into the land of the damned. Sanjeev’s wife is that clueless biwi in a bubble who believes bad vibes can be shut out of her home by shutting out the news on television and who treats her digs as her children. Swastika Mukherjee plays this wife as the only innocent character in the plot.
The unfailing Neeraj Kabi plays Sanjeev Mehra with a heady mix of unbridled arrogance and calm causticity. But the real hero of this drama of the damned is Jaideep Ahlawat, a washed-out Delhi cop named Hathiram Chaudhary with a nagging wife (Gul Panag) and a problematic adolescent son (whose waywardness is part of the film’s unanchored landscape). Out of the blue Hathiram is assigned a high-profile case for no seeming reason.
Ahlawat sinks into the boorish but fiercely dedicated cop’s role, taking the character kicking and dragging through a gauntlet of deception and betrayal. At one point he is left starting at the breasts of a young woman who offers herself in return of clemency in a hotel room. The choice that Hathiram makes here defines his character and his attitude to the cancerous corruption all around him.
Equally lucid is Harthiram’s associate a young idealistic Muslim named Ansari who is constantly reminded of what “his” community is responsible for. Ishwak Singh who plays Ansari is the kind of actor who can let you know what a character is stinking while standing still in a frame. This is a remarkably articulate performance likely to be drowned in the din of attention-seekers.
Paatal Lok doesn’t spare us any of the details that come in the territory of political corruption. Episode 3 is especially unbearable brutal and gruesome. It opens with a close-up of a school-ghanti’s gong. In a few minutes the gong is used by the film’s vicious unsparing villain Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banneree) to bludgeon three young boys to their bloodied death. Soon thereafter a man from the upper caste in the Chitrakoot town in MP, leans politely over a middle aged lady to say, “My son promised your son that his father will fuck his mother. So here I am. And it’s not just me but also my ten associates.”
Don’t flinch. Life never promised us a rose garden. And Paatal Lok is not afraid to create a stink. This is a series that can take pot shots at its dramatic interjections and narrative exclamations. At one point the star-journalist Mehra observes caustically, “If you want to make news just throw in a minority issue and an LGBTQ reference.”
Paatal Lok has both. It uses these topical tropes with such unstrained dramatic intensity that we feel we are being subjected to whatever is the reverse of artistic manipulation. Many times during the gripping narrative I found myself praying for things to go the right way. But it’s always the other way. Death in this series is always sudden violent and irrelevant. Just like life.