Patal Lok, which released in the middle of the Lockdown this May, cashes in on its huge urban home-confined viewers with a tale that is a heady mix of all that we have seen before and banalised-crime, violence, and testosterone- along with a portrayal of society’s dark underbelly, its middle-class and its elites in almost what can be seen as a formulaic manner.
This representation is one that viewers have now come to recognise as a politically correct and complex representation of the ‘real India.’ Patal Lok, while belting out tremendous performances and keeping alive a wide ken of social representation and nuance, suffers from too much judiciousness in trying to cover all the liberal bases. These formulaic frames of the ‘real India’ with its stuffy allies and crowded slums, its liberal dose of women-centred expletives, its grim realities and toxic family dynamics, the worst forms of caste oppression, transphobia and xenophobia, all appear to be milked for violence that can be packaged on celluloid as verisimilitude for urban viewers. It seemed authentic with Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games in parts but when one is merely invited to look upon graphic and grisly violence as a spectacle, then one wonders what is there to take away from it all. However, watch it for the scintillating performances of Ahluwat, Kabi, Bannerjee and an utterly unexpected Gul Panag.
The first season of Patal Lok has nine episodes each of which is around 45 min. At first sight, it appears to be a story of four suspects, a Muslim man Kabir M. (Aasif Khan), a Nepali woman Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), a serial murderer from Chitrakoot, Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee ) and a Dalit Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) who are all from the furthest fringes of society and arrested in connection with a failed assassination attempt of a high-profile Delhi journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Kabi).
The protagonist, Inspector Hathi Ram (Ahluwat) lands the case of a lifetime as he has to find out the motivations of each of these suspects to commit the murder and in that journey encounters characters from different walks of life. His investigations and the slip-ups of his juniors get him suspended while the bad blood between him and his boss, his brother-in-law’s freeloading and his teenage son’s maladaptibility in a posh school, add to his woes. After his suspension, the case is taken up by the CBI and is given a cross-border twist that serves a statist agenda while missing out on crucial pieces of evidence before painting the suspects as terrorists. Moreover, the journalist himself uses the media hype to get a new sponsor for his media house.
In the end, it turns out that the four suspects were planted unbeknown to each other for the sole purpose of facilitating the encounter of Vishal Tyagi, or Hathoda Tyagi under the orders of Bajpayee (Anup Jalota), a local politician. Bajpayee fears that the murderous Tyagi could be turned against him after the death of the only man who could control him, Masterji (Akshay Sharma). The other three suspects are merely dispensable distractions for this motive while Hathi Ram discovers that his own seniors such as DGP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) are involved in the conspiracy and are unable to carry out the encounter as a media van appears at the spot at the crucial moment.
While the script is racy and the plot well-paced, at the end of the series one is still confronted with one simple question. Doesn’t such an elaborate set up involving politicians, policemen, and a host of other middlemen seem too convoluted to kill one local murderer? Couldn’t Bajpayee have executed the deed discretely in one shot, the way that Gwala (Rajesh Sharma) gets rids of his henchman Firangi ( Abhimanue Arun) who betrays him?
However, there are some truly memorable moments. Patal Lok clearly establishes its theme in the opening scene with the cop protagonist Hathi Ram teaching the ropes to a junior Muslim cop Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) while driving a police van at night. Hathi Ram captures the segregation of classist and casteist India with the metaphor of the worlds swarglok (Heaven, where the gods live), Dharti (Earth, where the men live) and Patal Lok (Hell, where the vermin and the demons live), a topography described in the scriptures but which he has read on Whatsapp. Both men are from different generations, and different religions yet share the occupation of the law at the Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station, in New Delhi, an area that largely qualifies as ‘Patal Lok.’
Within the opening scene itself, we see the dynamic between the two. Hathi Ram is the more robust, hardy Hindu middle-class cop, seasoned with the ways of the world and later resorts to liberal doses of violence to discipline both his son and the detainees in his police station. Imran on the other hand, is less imposing, and portrays a gentler and more sensitive masculinity almost reminiscent of Ayushmann Khurrana in Article 15, as he tries to go around situations with tact and sometimes kindness instead of the use of aggression. As a younger cop, with access to an English education, he is at an advantage compared to Hathi Ram even as he aspires to and finally clears his Indian Civil Services exam. Yet he has to nevertheless confront the stereotypes associated with his community both at the level of senior colleagues and higher officers who doubt his professional competency based on his religion.
The four accused themselves have their own gruesome backstories each more violent and brutal than the other. Kabir M, a petty thief, lost his brothers to a horrifying lynching and is himself brutally murdered in jail, while Tope Singh, a Dalit from the Manjhar caste, kills his upper-caste bullies and escapes without realising the hell he has unleashed on his mother. He is also further spurned by his upper-caste mistress Chanda who finds a way to get rid of him by getting him to take the assignment that would get him arrested. Abhishek Banerjee plays Vishal Tyagi to eerie perfection with hollow eyes, death glaze, ominous look and all, which we have seen before in his portrayal of the paranormal Fakeer in the brilliant Typewriter series. Tyagi, the son of a farmer, has committed numerous murders with nothing but a hammer and finally finds a mentor in Donullia alias Masterji- a local clan lord. The most poignant character is that of Chini, a transgender orphan who goes through abuse and violence right from a young age and whose wordless presence in the entire series is a little disappointing as more than anything else, it appears to merely serve ticking the box of transgender representation.
As in many crime thrillers, the women in this series are static characters who occupy only a subordinate space be it the anxiety-ridden Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee), Sanjeev Mehra’s wife or Renu (Panag), Hathi Ram’s wife. Both are portrayed in domestic spheres. Dolly never confronts Sanjeev about his affair with a junior journalist Sara Mathews (Niharika Dutt), but instead turns her attentions to Savitri, a pregnant stray dog who she begins to care for. Renu’s way of dealing with her husband’s transgression of slapping her is to slap him back. Even Dutt who gets a significant upgrade from her role of Pearl in Pushpavalli, plays a character who has an affair with Sanjeev (à la House of Cards?) and eventually walks out when her professional integrity is compromised.
The various mythological references in the series from a continuous thread throughout and bring the series full circle. It begins with the description of the different ‘loks’ or worlds and ends with Hathi Ram explaining the importance of Yudhishthira’s devotion to the dog when he refuses to enter the gates of Heaven without it. The trope of the dog is an emblem for Lord Dharma we are told and whether with Donuilla, or Dolly, or Gwala or even Tyagi, the dog emerges as a symbol of compassion and empathy, something which Hathi Ram himself learns at the end of the first season. All in all, the series is watchable (with reservations about the graphic episode 3) for a tight script, a widely cast net of motley characters, racy cinematography and memorable soundtracks such as Kabir’s ‘Sakal Hans Mein Ram Biraje.’