Paatal Lok Review: Jaideep Ahlawat Leads an Excellent Crime Thriller About Caste Politics

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Paatal Lok Review: Jaideep Ahlawat Leads an Excellent Crime Thriller About Caste Politics

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In 2018, when Jaideep Ahlawat burst into our screens as Khalid Mir, an Indian intelligence agent in Meghana Gulzar’s Raazi, he played a man who put the demands of duty over his humanity. Although Raazi remains synonymous with Alia Bhatt’s measured lead turn, without Ahlawat’s poker-faced pragmatism, it would’ve been impossible for the film to emphasise the consequences of eroding one’s conscience. Two years later, Ahlawat once again plays a man at a similar crossroads – stuck between adhering to the system and rebelling against it – in Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok, a compelling neo-noir crime thriller created by Sudip Sharma. Except this time around, he’s the one calling the shots.

Directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy (it’s unclear how the directing duties were divided) and set across the hinterlands of North India, the nine-part series follows Hathi Ram Chowdhury (Ahlawat), a middle-aged Delhi Police inspector posted at the almost-invisible Outer Jamna Paar Police Station as he lands an investigation of a lifetime. Paatal Lok opens with what is usually the ending in most crime thrillers: an arrest. After a last-minute anonymous tip-off alerts the Delhi Police to nab four hitmen reportedly hired to assassinate prominent journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), Hathi Ram is deputed to solve the case. Along with his junior partner Imran Ansari (Ishvak Singh), the two have to dig deep into the back stories of the four suspects, including the cold-blooded murderer Hathoda Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee). It is during this daunting cross-country investigation, which holds significant personal and professional stakes for Hathi Ram, that the duo end up uncovering the extent of the systemic rot in the world around them.

The show’s title, derived from the three universes according to Hindu mythology, serves as a metaphor for the division of society into the three classes. Throughout, Paatal Lok remains invested in witnessing the fireworks that set off whenever the lives in these three universes intersect. Like the suspects, who make up the lowest rung of the ladder, Hathi Ram, who has counted out his years in nabbing small-time crooks, thinks of himself as a resident of paatal lok. For him, the case might as well be his only ticket to dharti lok – a sly comment on the competitive strain of social mobility and a life of dignity – only for it to dawn on him that paatal lok comes without an exit.

Paatal Lok opens with what is usually the ending in most crime thrillers: an arrest.

The obvious point of contention around Paatal Lok, produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz, is that it is adapted from former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal’s 2009 book The Story of My Assassins (the show doesn’t make a mention of it in its credits). Yet, for an adaptation that borrows its basic storyline and characters from an already existing book, Paatal Lok is a wildly original show, rife with mythological overtones. The weakest part of The Story of My Assassins was that the action unfolded from Mehra’s perspective, while Hathi Ram operated from the sidelines, which made the whole affair more of an indulgent moral re-examination than a thriller. It is to the show’s credit that Sudip Sharma and his co-writers – including Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Chopra, and Sagar Haveli – deviate from that direction and opt for a role-reversal. By severely reducing Mehra’s arc and retelling the story as a do-or-die mission for a cop who has spent a lifetime being subjugated by the system, Paatal Lok is able to dial down the excess.

The result is nothing short of an accomplishment. Paatal Lok comes the closest any Indian drama has in providing a snapshot of the India that we live in today and the panoply of caste and class-based atrocities that we’ve unquestioningly internalised. The writers deftly weave real-life news headlines into the plot in ways that make more than just a statement. For instance, a recreation of Junaid Khan’s lynching by a mob isn’t just a gimmick – it is imbued with purpose, becoming an exploration of the intergenerational trauma that an act of violence against a community can inflict on one family. The dissection of the country’s apathy toward Muslims is observed with a sharp, sensitive eye that notes how the brand of humiliation remains the same, whether it is committed against a lower-class car-mechanic accused of an assassination plot or a gifted police officer who clears the UPSC exams.

Similarly, “A History of Violence,” the show’s third episode, arguably one of the best written episodes of the season (and eerily reminiscent of the politics of Sonchiriya) delves into societal oppression and the price women invariably pay with their bodies with a chilling precision. To peek inside the mind of a criminal, the show suggests, it is imperative to confront how society spends years victimising them.

Paatal Lok becomes a show that does justice to both its ambition and intention.

Much of Paatal Lok’s bite comes from its murderers’ row of collaborators (NH10’s Navdeep Singh is credited as script consultant). The writing is consistently top-notch, although the journalism sub-plot is shoddily executed, occasionally threatening to derail the series’ momentum. Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami’s fluid cinematography, often switching between long, unhurried takes and chaotic cuts sets the tone, suitably building the show’s atmosphere as action.

Most crucially, Paatal Lok gains from being shouldered by a near-perfect ensemble who turn in evocative, layered performances. Ahlawat is particularly scene-stealing as a man trying to rise out of his own bitterness: A brief scene where he confesses to Imran just how much the case means to him is executed with the weight of a lifetime of regret, shame, and determination, coded into his glances and physical slump.

In that sense, Paatal Lok utilises the plot-point of a washed-out protagonist desperate to prove to himself that he amounts to something in a much more engaging capacity than Sacred Games’ Sartaj Singh. For one, the show doesn’t get carried away in envisioning Hathi Ram as an underdog or mistaking him as the hero – instead he is viewed as another cog in the wheel. His conflict isn’t internal, but a product of societal hierarchies that are designed to be impossible to dismantle. Even the show’s interpretation of an Indian police force is grounded in a vein of helplessness and ingenuity that is instantly more recognisable than the sanitised version in Delhi Crime. In the hands of Sharma and his crew, Paatal Lok becomes a show that does justice to both its ambition and intention, brandishing the kind of pluck that you’d expect from the future of Indian streaming.