'Paatal Lok' creator Sudip Sharma: ‘It’s about people who have a sense of desperation’

The man behind Amazon Prime Video's latest crime-thriller series talks about the state of journalism, creative collaborations and the shift to making a limited OTT series

May 14, 2020 09:15 pm | Updated December 05, 2021 08:54 am IST

Growing up in the 80s and the 90s, screenwriter-producer Sudip Sharma (with titles like NH 10 , Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya behind him) tells The Hindu over a telephonic interview, how media used to be the cultural agenda setter of the day. Today, along with the country the journalistic landscape has changed. The fourth pillar of the Indian democracy is getting laughed at, stringently critiqued and lampooned, he tells us. This is one of the threads, Sharma has explored in a new nine-part original series, Paatal Lok , that he has created for Amazon Prime Video. Produced by Clean Slate Films, the show also marks the digital debut of actor Anushka Sharma as producer.


Guts and glory

The focus in the noir series is on an honest cop, Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhury, investigating the assassination attempt on a well-known journalist. The four suspects and their past lead him to the dark underbelly where nothing is what it seems. “It’s about people whose stories are generally not told… They all have a sense of desperation… It’s about a cop who has this one last shot at any respect or glory,” says Sharma.

He claims that the series came to him from multiple sources. “Various themes were discussed in the writers’ room,” he says. The basic idea is loosely inspired from Tarun Tejpal’s book, The Story of My Assassins . “I also wanted to explore the Delhi police and the crime and investigation angle,” he says. The “huge inspiration” then, has been the HBO crime drama series The Wire created by David Simon.

Societal divides

With Paatal Lok Sharma tries to go beyond. “I wanted to explore the fault lines of class and the title came from that idea,” he says. The three mythological realms— swarg (heaven), dharti (earth) and paatal (netherworld)—then become spaces to observe the class differences endemic to Indian society. He refers to caste and religious divides as well. What rankles Sharma is the classification built into things, like a pack of cards, how you may still bridge the other divides but can’t seem to grow out of your caste or religion. “It’s blazing all around, is impossible to ignore,” he says.

It’s a theme that resonates particularly in the current period of crisis we are in, when we are all trying to make sense of a new situation we are stuck in. “What disturbed me particularly is when the pandemic took a religious turn,” he says. It was also the perverse and cynical the realization that, despite everyone fearing the worst about what the world will become post COVID-19, people aren’t changing. “If we can’t rid of it [the divide] now, it will never go away,” he says

For Sharma, events that disturb and fascinate him are what he likes exploring with work. “It wakes me up and puts me on the desk,” he says. The bigger attempt is to tell it in an engaging format. “It doesn’t have the depth of arthouse cinema, it’s not a treatise. The more mainstream I write, the larger number of people I reach out to,” he asserts.

Space and medium

Another element that Sharma sees as a continuum in his work so far is the idea of being able to explore a locale. “The idea of space is very important for me. If a story can be set in another place then it is not worth writing for me. NH 10 can’t be set on the Goan highway. You can’t take Punjab out of Udta Punjab . Chambal is integral to Sonchiriya ,” he says. Paatal Lok moves between Delhi, Punjab and Bundelkhand, all of which are places, Sharma knows or has visited and researched on.

The big departure has been to move away from world of cinema into that of the long form series. “Cinema has always fascinated me while growing but this has been as joyful and satisfying. It’s like writing a novel. I will stick to it for a while,” he says.

Sharma was also the creative producer for Prosit Roy’s Pari . Roy is one the directors of Paatal Lok , other being Avinash Arun ( Killa ) whom Sharma had met only once at a literature festival in Chandigarh a few years ago. The experience has been all about creative collaboration, of learning as well imparting knowledge, of creating and telling a story together in the best possible way. Writing is often about giving your child away to the director. For the series Sharma found himself far more involved. “It was like being a midwife, ensuring that the baby comes out alright,” he emphasises.

Paatal Lok drops on Amazon Prime Video on May 15

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