While the writer Sudip Sharma is guilty of resorting to a controversial conspiracy theory that gives teeth to the fake left-leaning voices, but the quality of writing and the stellar performances make this Paatal Lok a world worth visiting
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Paatal Lok: Web series [Amazon Prime Video]
By Mayur Lookhar
Long disclaimers have become a norm in Indian cinema. The usual ones spell it out clearly that the particular content isn’t intended to hurt any caste, religion, our community. When a ‘country’ is added to a disclaimer then it is either a jingoistic drama bashing hostile neighbours, or it is likely to rile feathers within one’s own backyard. Actor, producer Anushka Sharma’s Paatal Lok is not pleasing the right wing trolls who have labelled it a work of left-liberal mafia.
Before we get to the polarized views, this writer will admit to not being impressed by the trailer that largely smacked of violence, sex, profanity. Ironically, all through its 7 hours duration [9 episodes], violence and sex is just a minuscule part of it. The profanity, too, doesn’t hurt your ears. Then why paint a false picture of your web series through a, if no gross, but a gruesome trailer? But therein lies the crux of Paatal Lok – truth is not all what you see.
Strangely spelled as Paatal Lok and not pataal lok [lowest place in society / underworld] , writer, creator Sudip Sharma’s noir web series is built around the assassination attempt of a respected English news anchor Sanjeev Mishra [Neeraj Kabi]. Four people are arrested, and then DCP Bhagat [Vipin Sharma] assigns a washed up Delhi inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary [Jaideep Ahlawat] to carry out an investigation and file the appropriate charges. Chaudhary’s journey begins with the typical frustrations, chaos, before a crucial ‘lead’ leads to the opening of a can of worms.
The essence of Paatal Lok lies in the intriguing mix of the four accused – played by Abhishek Banerjee, Jagjeet Sandhu, Asif Khan and North East find Mairembam Ronaldo Singh. We’ve deliberately kept a lid on their characters, but each of them are a creation of the paatal lok that they have been bred into.
The nature of investigation, and perhaps the fate of the show, takes a landslide twist with Sudip Sharma adopting to the controversial ‘conspiracy theory’ of terror. That is the trigger for the right wing to label it as a work of left-wing mafia. An objective view is often lost between the left versus right tussle. It’s a fimmaker’s right to expose the social ills that plague a nation, but as an objective reviewer, using trope that give teeth to any false propaganda is unhealthy for any film/ web series. Paatal Lok though is no Hinduphobia tale. It simply exposes the under belly of India’s society that is plagued by caste, religious, gender biases, and the ugly caste politics.
The first four episodes are brilliantly directed, shot and edited. Director duo of Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy of Pari  observe great sensitivity at handling the various tricky subjects. The critic in you steps in once the controversial conspiracy theory is floated in.
While one of them is crucial to the principal plot, but the parallel stories are a bit stretched in the penultimate and the final episode.
Dog lovers will take a special interest here. We wonder whether this compassion is natural or whether it was incorporated for the animal loving producer – Anushka Sharma.
What drives Paatal Lok is the brilliant writing and stellar acts, led by Jaideep Ahlawat and Abhishek Banerjee. Ahlawat is a seasoned pro but is finally getting his due in the industry. Hathi Ram Chaudhary is an honest cop but an abusive childhood and an unfair system has left him bitter. He loves his wife and teen son, but seldom has a polite conversation with them. Chaudhary’s no saint cop. He’s used his boss’ help to get his son admission to a top Delhi English medium school but is oblivious to the trauma that his son is going through owing through class divide. Hathi Ram Chaudhary draws your empathy as he always has his heart in the right place. The only person he remotely trusts is his young Muslim colleague Imran Ansari [Ishwak Singh – another brilliant performer]. From dialogue delivery to expression, there is never a drop in intensity from Ahlawat. He is the simply the heart, soul and the backbone of Paatal Lok.
Abhishek Banerjee has shone in horror comedy Stree  and Dream Girl [2019. Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun get him out of his comfort zone and turn him into this mean-looking, intense, soft spoken hit man. He has barely uttered 5-6 sentences in the whole web series, but it’s the fierce, intimidating look in his eyes that builds great fear around his character. Banerjee leaves you in awe with his intimidating yet mesmerizing show. There is also a fine but pivotal cameo by Bhajan Samrat Anup Jalota.
Neeraj Kabi disappoints as the news anchor. Barring a ‘hello and good evening’and few words spoken in the finale bulletin, Kabi isn’t compelling as a news anchor. The newsroom created is anything but authentic. Sanjeev Mehra will draw parallels with journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, Ravish Kumar, who have their set of admirers and haters. Sanjeev Mehra’s biggest critic is his own company boss Singh saab [Akash Khurrana] who labels him a fucking left-liberal troublemaker. From a worried man who is on the cusp of losing his career. Kabi sees a change in arc of his character as he’s learnt to deal with the big wigs. Now there is a slight cockiness to Mehra. However, eventually, Mehra realizes that he is just a pawn in the large scheme of things. Another minor criticism is Mehra downplaying Nichiren Buddhism that may not please its followers.
Mehra is dragging his marriage to Dolly [Swastika Mukherjee], who is unable to cope with her anxieties. It is simply love for a stray dog named Savitri that has kept the woman alive.
The NBW Editor-in-Chief [Sanjeev] has an affair with a young journalist Sara Matthews [Niharika Lyra Dutt]. You are confused about Sara. Here is a lady who has an intimate affair with a powerful editor but makes it clear there ought to be no judging here. However, later on Sara mocks a young intern, who simply landed the internship on the back of his influential surname. Kabi, Dutta, and Gul Panag, who plays Hathi Ram’s wife are not really convincing.
The final two episodes drag as the story could have ended earlier. The thrilling early episodes promise a gripping thrilling climax, but the conspiracy theory takes some sheen off Paatal Lok. Sanjeev Mehra’s assassination plot rekindles the tragic memories of the murder of journalist, activist Gauri Lankesh. Lankesh is mentioned in an episode, but Paatal Lok follows a different journey.
India with its cultural, social, linguistic diversity, and disparity, is an ideal place for a Paatal Lok to thrive. But take out the socio, political, economic condition, and many such content mirrors the template of countless American movies, TV series where the buck often stops with the Central Intelligence Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation.
When the curtain falls in Paatal Lok, caste, religion, gender biases all become immaterial. It’s the ugly system that stares you in the face. “You may think the system rots, but actually it is a well-oiled machinery,” DCP Bhagat tells Chaudhary. Truth or lie is irrelevant. After all they are just vermins from pataal lok. Like a cockroach, they are there to be crushed under your feet. Who really cares.