Hathi Ram Choudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), a police officer in Outer Jamuna Paar station in New Delhi, knows exactly what it feels like to be a forgotten passage in a book. He wants to be seen, heard and recognised for his work, but his life and work is restricted to a place that doesn’t intrigue anyone.
It’s little wonder that he considers himself as an inhabitant of ‘Paatal Lok’ (nether world), and he tells his colleague Ansari (played by Ishwak Singh) about the ‘swarg lok’ (heaven) and ‘dharti lok’ (earth) around them. He might be talking about different areas in Delhi with respect to crime and the lifestyle of people, but it’s also a sharp commentary about the unseen and often ignored people in the society.
So, when Hathi Ram gets a chance to investigate a high-profile case, involving four assassins who are charged with an attempt to murder popular journalist Sanjeev Mehra (played by Neeraj Kabi), he knows that this could be the major turning point of his career and life. The kind that will finally pull him out of paatal lok and push him to at least, a dharti lok.
There are at least half-a-dozen ways you can interpret what Paatal Lok tries to do and all of them would probably be quite valid. This is about who the real perpetrators of crime are, how the state treats people who don’t have a voice, how casteism leads to unspeakable violence, how religion has reshaped our country, how people fight back because they can’t bear the oppression anymore.
Created by Sudip Sharma and directed by Avinash Arun Dhaware & Prosit Roy, the Amazon Prime India’s web series is ‘inspired’ from Tarun Tejpal’s 2010 novel, The Story of My Assassins. The series follows the life of a police officer, who gets a chance to investigate a high-profile attempt to murder case, and the shocking truths that he discovers about the assassins.
The show runners have distanced themselves from both Tarun and the book, which explains why there aren’t any credits in the series, owing to the serious sexual assault charges on the journalist.
Given our political landscape and the rise in hate crimes against people from various backgrounds, Paatal Lok feels like a contemporary story of India which challenges our understanding of people and their moral conflicts.
By delving into the lives of its characters, the series dissects the complex lives of people, who are often victims of casteism and religious hatred, and what drives them to resort to violence. But then, in the end, the hypocrisy of those living in ‘swarg lok’ seems more sinister than anything else.
Sudip Sharma and his team fill the series with plenty of layers, leaving the viewer with a lot to think about. This also makes the story too dense and it often deviates a lot from the central plot, that of a police officer trying to unravel the mystery of a murder attempt. And quite a few times, Paatal Lok leaves us with an impression that it tries to tell too many stories at once, and each one of them being more gruesome and heartbreaking than the other, which leads to an unusual problem for its protagonist; he solves the mystery, but doesn’t find answers to the questions he faces.
Perhaps, the questions are asked, and directed at the audience, because we don’t acknowledge them enough. In Paatal Lok, the cost of human life isn’t just paid in blood and sweat, but also in terms of dignity (or the lack of it).
The biggest triumph of the series, besides its writing, is the performances from its impeccable cast. There’s a ‘look’ on the faces of each one of these actors, especially Jaideep Ahlawat and Abhishek Banerjee (who plays Hathoda Tyagi), that lingers long in your memory, and every time Jaideep and Abhishek are on screen, they outshine everything around them.
Jaideep, in particular, is remarkable throughout the series, and it’s his conviction that makes you root for him to the extent that you just want to follow his journey and see what happens next, without thinking of how it’s going to end. Every scene, every conversation in the series feels necessary and important, right from how Hathi Ram stands by his colleague Ansari, when others try to alienate him because he’s Kashmiri, to how he makes peace with his own son (the two don’t get along).
There’s a beautiful scene where Hathi Ram articulates why he is so attached to the case, and you can’t help but empathise for the character and his struggle to earn respect in the eyes of his son.
The series also owes a lot to its cinematographers Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami, and music composers Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar who transport you to a different realm altogether. That Paatal Lok has raised the bar for crime thrillers in India is beyond debate, even if you aren’t entirely convinced with its politics.
In a world where finding peace is easier said than done, Paatal Lok takes you on a journey to the hinterlands of the country where life is truly a hell for the marginalised and oppressed. And it turns out that it’s no different for people who lack a voice in the system. It’s little wonder that Hathi Ram’s conversation with Sanjeev Mehra in the end feels so cathartic. Hathi Ram Choudhary is truly the hero we need and deserve. And Jaideep Ahlawat gives you plenty of reasons to cheer for him. A big thumbs up to Paatal Lok.
The Paatal Lok review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.