I binge-watched Paatal Lok today, a show on Amazon Prime India about a cynical cop who is all too familiar with how the The System works and who gets a high profile case by chance – to investigate a conspiracy to assassinate a hotshot journalist. I highly recommend it. It is a gritty, neo-noir slow-burner that starts with the flame on high.
This said, you should avoid it if you are averse to violence. In fact, Paatal Lok‘s principal failing is that it is peppered with scenes filled with gratuitous violence – physical, verbal and systemic – especially against women, trans-women and young adults. There is considerable violence by and against adult men as well but I’m not sure that is nearly as disturbing. Most of it could have been avoided, or simply alluded to instead of being enacted in painstaking detail. (If you watch Tamil films: recall the sexual violence scenes in Super Deluxe, 2019.)
A second failing, if only to my eyes, is that Paatal Lok for most of it seems to offer a slice-of-life take on events except in its conclusion, where it wraps up many narrative arcs more optimistically than they might actually have panned out. (Again, if you watch Tamil films: recall the conclusion of Jigarthanda, 2014.) But if you can ignore this criticism or find a way to disagree with it, please do.
Paatal Lok showcases the politics-caste-crime nexus in India’s Hindi heartland, especially in and around Bundelkhand, and its intersection with mainstream journalism. It’s raw, no other way to put it, as it puts on display the primal nature of local politics, life and love where mafia money, caste violence and familial honour intermix freely. Ceaseless heat and dust, loud expletives, the bloated egos of politicians’ and businessmen’s sons, brandished guns set the tone. Mongrel dogs play an important part in shaping the fates of many characters but it’s really a dog-eat-dog world only for the humans, whether in the desolate gullies of rural Punjab or in the glitzy studios of TV news channels.
Funny thing is the journalist starts off accused of being a left-liberal but in the course of the show sells out and ends in the final scene and analysis as a government shill peddling the “Muslim terrorists are out to get India’s leaders” shit.
I don’t know who this portrayal, by Neeraj Kabi, does or doesn’t caricature but it seems both unlikely and unsurprising. I only hope it never becomes about me.
There are many things to write about Paatal Lok – and will be. It hit me specifically in two ways: first by taking the viewer closer to the Hindustan in Bundelkhand, and then with the trouble it takes to spotlight, lest it seem too subtle, the emptiness at the heart of Hindutva politics.
Every week you read news reports in the mainstream English press mentioning saffron politics directly or indirectly, based on which you develop an impression of how things are run in the Hindi heartland. (I assume here that you live far away, like I do in South India.) But these reports are too refined. They are either about the big picture or they summarise a few important events, and they almost always leave out the sweat- and blood-stained nitty-gritty stuff. This stuff is a constant presence in Paatal Lok.
The other presence is the other standout feature: political Hindutva’s heart of nothingness. In fact, the show is even a journalistic product: the characters and events may be fictitious but the social forces that shape them are quite real. Which political leader is abusing their power – the non-existent ‘Jiji’ Bajpayee or the very real Anurag Thakur – is as much in the public interest as how they abused their power. And as Paatal Lok peels away these impetuses from the actions of right-wing communalists and saffron-clad, flag-waving thugs, it finds an awkward, tasteless silence. This brand of politics is animated by nothing but opportunism, of Brahmin overlords’ ambitions and short-term ‘arrangements’.