‘Paatal Lok’ review: No Way Out

His name comes in and blinks out with the speed of a maverick neutron, but there it is. Navdeep Singh, script consultant. And it wouldn’t surprise you at all, as Paatal Lok (Underworld) the latest noir-series jewel in Amazon Prime’s crown, unfolds. Singh, part of executive producer Anushka Sharma’s favorite band of creators, adds colors of his slow-burn classic Manorama Six Feet Under to the show. In its bloody veins also runs Chinatown, ostensibly another of Singh’s favorites, this time the intrigue set in Delhi and the badlands of Uttar Pradesh.  

But it’s not Singh alone. There’s creator and writer Sudip Sharma (Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya, NH10) who burns the screen best when he’s lighting up about casteism and extreme societal hierarchies. (Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Chopra co-wrote the series.) With directors Avinash Arun (Killa and cinematographer for the stingingly beautiful Masaan) and Prosit Roy (Pari) at the helm, this is your redemptionless journey of no return to the underbelly of northern India’s politics and vicious discrimination and exploitation. But the creators do not simply flash their torches toward this layered festering of rot. They string out its innards with a claw hammer and lay it bare for you to shrink into your sofa.

Jaideep Ahlawat and Ishwak Singh with the fearsome four.

The arrest of four criminals for attempting to kill one of India’s top news anchors and editors, Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi, tailor-made and spit suave for this role) is led by DCP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma), and the tussle of jurisdiction lands the case right at the feet of the poster boy for punishment postings, Hathi Ram Chaudhary. Jaideep Ahlawat plays Chaudhary with devastating implosion. As the series begins, his act is all cynicism and cop bluster. But as the case and its intricacies begin to thicken and tangle, and as he realizes what he’s fighting for is something bigger than what his paygrade was deemed for, he’s sucked out slowly, the dark circles under his eyes matched in color only by what’s cooking in a pot on a high flame. This is Ahlawat’s prize stand, and he’s marvelous. There’s a scene where he’s being chased by goons and the motor rickshaw driver he’s hired sees him running towards him. A split second before recognition casts its presence on the driver’s face, Ahlawat, all strained and huffing, zipping past, shakes his head and grunts to warn the driver to cleanse his face of reaction. That instantaneous pre-emptive action is so superbly done, Ahlawat shines in it and all through the series.

Abhishek Banerjee: now this nine-pound hammer, is a little too heavy.

Hathi Ram’s investigation is the onion-peeler for the fetid fruit of corruption and dark pasts, as he discovers that the troubled child is the father of the manic man. It’s also this investigation that leads to a myriad list of characters. And the casting team (Anmol Ahuja, Nikita Grover, and Abhishek Banerjee) reel in such a fine, gritty pot-pourri of actors, every one of them imprints a scalding impression on your viewing experience. Be it the four killers—played by Jagjeet Sandhu, Asif Khan, Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, or Banerjee himself in a pivotal, deadly turn (or Grover in a superb slap-happy cop role)—the other players in the boondocks: Virender Sharma, Sukhwinder Chahal, Shreedhar Dubey, Jogi Mallang, Anurag Arora, or the ever-dependable Rajesh Sharma amongst a longer list, they add that grit to the dark underworld that slowly descends upon you. Paatal Lok connects this netherworld to the sprawling glass façade realm of Delhi’s malt-sipping elite via the ruling (singer Anup Jalota making a surprise and surprising cameo) and the fourth estates that seem forever linked in a chain of deadly symbiosis. There’s a political power play in newsrooms and the cast here is terrific too: apart from Kabi, playing this mendacious canoodling game are Manish Choudhary, Akash Khurana, and Niharika Lyra Dutt.

Niraj Kabi is spit polished suave.

The series is a discomfiting, horrifying watch, even when there’s dark humor to match the greyish cinematography by director Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami and the darkly toned score by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor. But there’s more to it than just violent pow-wows. Just how rampant and native discrimination is to us as a people is a stark mirror that the series holds up: financial exploitation, sexual and ethnic imprinting, educational snobbery and school bullying (that Hathi Ram is forced to face at home, with his son, played by a terrific, haunted Bodhisattva Sharma and his wife, a subdued and sadly underused Gul Panag), and religious distancing that Hathiram’s colleague and confidant, Imran Ansari, faces. Ansari’s played by Ishwak Singh with a genuine, earnest, and hard-not-to-like sincerity that shines whenever he’s onscreen. What’s scarier is what finally makes Hathi Ram’s son begin to look up to his father a hero. Is this what it takes now?

A rain-soaked face-off.

Amidst all this, there’s the slightly overdrawn and heavy-handed relationship between Neeraj Kabi’s Mehra and his overwrought, anxiety-ridden wife Dolly (Swastika Mukherjee, very good) that helps deliver an ironic and chain-of-reaction denouement. Clean away the blood and gore and Paatal Lok shows you how most of the prime-time news we watch is sheer hubris at play, designed for high TRPs, self-survival and little else. In this lok, we’re all being played. And all the bluster and sanctimony that your favorite newscasters deliver? Their byte is worse than their bark.

Paatal Lok (2020– ) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Paatal Lok is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated A (For adults only). There’s violence, drugs, swearing, a hammer. Everything you’d expect to find in the damned underworld.
Paatal Lok
Directors Avinash Arun, Prosit Roy Time ~44 min
Stars Jaideep Ahlawat, Neeraj Kabi, Abhishek Banerjee, Gul Panag, Niharika Lyra Dutt, Ishwak Singh
Genres Crime, Drama, Thriller

Paatal Lok trailer