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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - A psychopath with a soft spot for canines. An entitled star journalist on the lookout for the next big story to salvage his flagging career. A small-town goon seeking entry into the real world of power. A disgruntled Inspector coming to terms with his mediocrity. An anxiety-ridden wife with a penchant for strays.
All these strands come together most skillfully in the able hands of directors Avinash Arun Dhaware and Prosit Roy (Pari) and writer Sudip Sharma (NH10, Udta Punjab) in Amazon Prime's Paatal Lok.
The 9-episode series, produced by Anushka Sharma, that dropped on Friday, is a gritty crime thriller with mythological overtones that will ensnare you from the first scene.
Set within the chaotic sprawl of India's power capital, New Delhi, the series follows Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary from Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station, who is handed the task of figuring out the motive behind the failed assassination attempt on celebrated primetime news anchor Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi who skillfully injects an inherent weariness to his character that is equal parts wily).
The four would-be-murderers turn out to each have a murky background that forces Chaudhary to make inroads into the hinterlands of India, namely Chitrakoot in UP, where a major portion of the series is set, and Punjab, in search of the brains behind the conspiracy.
Reportedly based on former Tehelka Editor-in-Chief Tarun Tejpal's book The Story of my Assassins, Paatal Lok is a no holds barred look into a world inhabited by morally reprehensible characters motivated by their own inner demons. It's a dark and murky world driven by cast politics and religious bigotry - a snapshot of the real India, if you may - where salvation comes in the form of mongrels or you could call it karma.
With nuanced performances by each and every cast member, which lays bare their inner turmoil as well as outer motivations within minutes of the opening of the series, Paatal Lok offers up a plot buoyed up by intelligent writing and layered in terms of textures and emotions.
"We used to be heroes, you know," Sanjeev wistfully comments on the current status of the media in India at one point. So-called press freedom, corporatisation of media houses, the proliferation of fake news in a society powered by the unholy nexus between media and politics, are all bandied about with no attempt to demonise anything.
Herein lies the pleasure of watching a series like Paatal Lok which merely offers up a microscopic peek at the creepy crawlies that exist in the underbelly of society. The division between Paatal (Under World), Dharthi (Earth) and Swarg (Heaven) is not as clearly demarcated as one would believe.
Jaideep Ahlawat (Gangs of Wasseypur) as the cynical cop stationed at Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station, hoping to revive his stagnant career with a high profile case leads the cavalcade with a steady hand. As the jaded but morally upright cop left way behind in the rat race, he infuses a certain vulnerability and resignation to his character that's compounded by a sense of desperation to prove to his superiors and his son that he's capable of cracking the case.
Abhishek Banerjee as the dead-eyed assassin, Vishal 'Hathoda' Tyagi, born with a terrible fate attached to his horoscope, plays his part with such chilling intensity that you spend half the time dodging his stare.
Ishwak Singh as Hathiram's protégée Imran Ansari, the fresh-faced IPS aspirant, who's at the receiving end of communal prejudices and jibes, is a delight to watch. So is Swastika Mukherjee as Dolly, Sanjeev's dog loving, Buddhist mantra chanting wife trapped in a listless marriage.Gul Panag as Hathiram's high spirited wife Renu seems a bit wasted but gets enough screen time to consolidate her presence.
What makes Paatal Lok a must watch is the sheer originality of the series which reflects an India ridden with cast politics, communal conflicts, sexual prejudices, deep-rooted corruption, all residing side by side.
The Yamuna is a quiet presence in the midst of it all - a silent witness to the abject poverty and gritty crime ridden neighbourhood it flows through. There are no judgements or moral posturing at the end of Paatal Lok.
Like the Indian belief in destiny, it's all a matter of birth - and the privileged and the not so privileged eke out a living side by side until their path crosses. Then it is Paatal Lok all over again. [email protected]
Director: Avinash Arun Dhaware, Prosit Roy
Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Ishwak Singh, Gul Panag, Swastika Mukherjee
Rating: 4 out of 5
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