At the movies

Pataal Lok – The story of Hathi, Dog and an India in flux

A piece of advice for lockdown-weary citizens. `Paatal Lok’ is grim, gritty and can leave a depressed mind feeling exhausted, even negative. The extremely violent scenes especially those involving the murders executed by Hathoda Tyagi, can make a weak system rush to the washroom to throw up. 

But does that mean you should avoid this latest offering on Amazon Prime that features Jaideep Ahlawat, a fine actor, as the protagonist Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhuri? I binge-watched this nine-episode web series on Friday, the curiosity to unravel the plot egging me on.

The not-the-most-fit cop’s work domain is Trans Yamuna, an area he describes as Paatal Lok. Hathi Ram is no Jumbo in Uniform, he has never handled a big investigation in his career. The arrest of four persons that lands in his lap, is the first big case that he gets to handle. What follows is a series of mess-ups resulting in a suspension. What makes it real is the cat-and-mouse game between the accused and the cops and the dirty Delhi Police office politics. 

(Spoilers ahead)

One should not give too much of the plot away by way of spoilers. Suffice to tease the reader by saying that the plot that you thought is, is not actually the plot. And that is the twist in the story. Depending on your appetite for twists of this kind, you could find it riveting or a touch underwhelming. The dacoit whose face is constantly hidden by a shawl is never shown and you keep waiting for a twist. Anup Jalota as the politician, you assume would be the joker in the pack, but this bhajan singer-actor is hardly on song here

The antagonist Tyagi is no Nawazuddin Siddiqui of `Sacred Games’, the Netflix show you will get reminded of since the template is as dark and grimy. There is no “Kabhi kabhi to lagta hai apun hi bhagwaan hai” moment out here. The dialogues are not outlandish, instead they are deep and an effective commentary on the India of today. An India in flux, an India torn by differences of class, caste and religion, even sects. 

Sample this. A Muslim sub-inspector who is part of the investigation team of Delhi Police passes the Civil Services written exam. His DCP compliments him and describes him as “bright” to a senior CBI officer. 

“It is good that people from his community are wanting to join the Services. It is good for their image,” she says as the camera stays on the officer, Ansari. His emotionless face betrays his emotions.

The series is also a pithy commentary on the world of Indian television media in bed with the corporates and lobbyists. Where a TV editor, now a fading star, resorts to blackmail to ensure a good financial deal for himself. 

The flashback scenes are crisply edited and provide context to the characters of the four accused. The series succeeds in humanising them in contrast to the `ISI operative’ tag that the CBI and everyone else is happy to brand them with and hang them from the nearest square. The Pakistan in this case is ironically in Chitrakoot, the town that has imported the hitmen to Delhi. 

What really worked for me were the mythological references and the emphasis on the family being the most important. How revenge as a primal emotion metamorphoses to hatred and changes the course of destiny. The two families in the series run parallel to each other – Hathi Ram’s flat and mediaperson Sanjeev Mehra’s bungalow. Apart from Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Niharika Lyra Dutt and Abhishek Banerjee stand out. I would have liked Gul Panag with more screen time.

P.S. The canine is an integral part of the story and I found it the most clever part of the story. Including the name, Savitri for Dolly Mehra’s dog. Google Savitri and the story of how she saves her husband. This Savitri does the same for her human mom. 

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