The first episode itself sets the tone for Paatal Lok and promisingly at that. A fantastically-shot chase on the Yamuna Bridge has the intelligence department nabbing four people on charges of conspiracy to murder the high profile journalist Sanjay Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). It’s not the glamorous, adrenalin pumping action and the spectacular car collisions straight out of a Rohit Shetty universe, but as grimy and real as it can get, underlined with the machismo and rage so uniquely Delhi. So too for the cynical cops and grubby police stations, the seedy hotels, the tips they work on in the police procedural. And most so the unbridgable divides of class that throw the title of the episode — bridges — itself into sharp relief.
Swarg (heaven), Dharti (earth) and Paatal (netherworld), straight out of mythology, are part of the day to day reality; chasms that are unbridgeable. These disparities go the extent of infiltrating the cop universe as well with those assigned to Outer Yamuna far more lowly in the heirarchy and duty than the ones serving in Lutyen’s Delhi.
The classic buddy cop trope is reinvented to the given context: the world-weary Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhury (Jaideep Ahlawat) languishing in the mediocrity of his job, partnering with the young idealistic Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh), who is deep into books, preparing for IPS when not interrogating or being on a chase. Brutal interrogations and breathless chases there many, strewn all over, energising and enervating at the same time.
- Director: Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy
- Creator: Sudip Sharma
- No. of episodes: 9
- Starring: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Gul Panag, Abhishek Banerjee
- Storyline: A down and out Delhi cop is assigned the task of investigating the assassination attempt on a high profile journalist
There is a steady momentum, an unmistakable sense of force underlining the craft in Paatal Lok : from the cinematography to the acting to the atmospherics. But what struck me most was the propulsion in the narrative as it forges ahead from episode to episode to become an installation, a pile up of shameful inequities and accompanying exploitation. It peaked for me at the third episode — History of Violence — which looks at the dark past of two suspects, Vishal “Hatauda” Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) in Chitrakoot and Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) in Punjab. The barbarity reaches a crescendo, leaves you gutted. I had to take a break, pause to debate in my head on the gratuitousness or the lack of it in the gut-wrenching and breathe again for continuing with the onward journey into the heart of darkness.
From insecurities, power play and politics within the cop world, to the media which is rapacious on the one hand and victimised on the other. In the guise of crime and investigation the series packs in a lot, in a complex, intricate way, specially in the way it intregrates the social realities. It’s a labyrinthine world in which everyone is violated even as they go about violating the other, everyone is a bully and getting bullied. The wheel of exploitation is inescapable, one in which everyone is caught. As more characters get added on, the unseemly network of crime and corruption gets wider, layers of bitter truths keep emerging before plumbing to the depths.
At times it gets too bare and ugly for comfort, a mirror we’d rather not look ourselves in. The pent up prejudices against Muslims, the dehumanisation of the lower castes and the rage and angst of the have-nots against the haves.
At others, things feel frustrating and directionless because the series puts too much on its own plate, trying desperately to pack in every issue and concern possible. As a result, some get highlighted well, others given a short shrift. The innumerable characters and plot strands also get hemmed in by the unwieldiness.
What shoulder Paatal Lok are the performances, powerful all around, in consonance with the essential pulse of the series. Jaideep Ahlawat is magnificent in bringing a roundedness and gravitas to his cop — battling a teen at home to fighting unsympathetic seniors at work — and in the middle of it all trying to find a larger meaning and direction in life. His face and the body language — both weighed down and worn out — say a lot. Abhishek Banerjee is equally strong as the sinister villain dealing with his own unresolved demons and despair. His steady, piercing gaze scares, disturbs, exasperates, frustrates and haunts. Quite like the ride through Pataal Lok itself.