Paatal Lok is a police non-procedural. Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) is a familiar Haryanvi brute, paunchy and profane, indifferent to the presumption of innocence, keener to beat the required truth out of people in his custody than tease it out forensically. His sidekick, Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh), is everything Hathi Ram isn't: Kashmiri, young, new to the force, English-speaking, slender, good-looking in the gora way that desis envy, and Muslim. This nine-episode season tracks their efforts to capture the mastermind behind a failed plot to assassinate Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), an English news anchor beleaguered by falling ratings and the hostility of his channel's owner.
Paatal Lok is very good; it is, by a distance, the best Indian serial of the streaming era. At this point I'd warn that there are spoilers ahead in the review...except that there aren't, because the framing story about the assassination is implausible and arbitrary. Nothing that's revealed about it can make a difference to the viewer's experience of Paatal Lok because the police investigation of the assassination-that-wasn't is no more than an excuse for riffing on Hindustan.
Paatal Lok is not an example of the badlands realism pioneered by Anurag Kashyap. Its use of of dialect, swear words and provincial mayhem might suggest a family likeness but the resemblance should be resisted. In terms of genre, Paatal Lok is a world-building exercise. It aims to be a squalid epic and the dystopia it creates to house its characters is a version of Delhi set within a very particular idea of India.
This large ambition isn't left to the viewer's imagination; it is spelt out in the very first episode. Assigned the Sanjeev Mehra case, Hathi Ram explains to his rookie subordinate that Delhi is divided into three descending worlds: svarga lok, or Lutyens' Delhi reserved for the gods, dharti lok or affluent neighbourhoods like Vasant Vihar inhabited by men, and patal lok, a netherworld in which insects like Hathi Ram are condemned to live. For a grunt policeman, the only way out of this netherworld is to crack a case in which the insects of patal lok had infiltrated the world of men and done them harm. The Sanjeev Mehra case, featuring an English-speaking human targeted by underworld scum, is Hathi Ram's passport out of patal lok if he can solve it.
Hathi Ram's karmabhumi has both a real and a mythical geography. He lists the dead end postings in which he's pissed away his professional life: Okhla, Karkardooma and the marvellously named Outer Jamuna Paar police station to which they are presently assigned. Jamuna Paar or trans-Yamuna used to be the Dilliwala's metaphor for an urban outer darkness; an Outer Jamuna Paar suggests a desolation so remote that it is to Delhi what Pluto used to be to the solar system: in thrall to its gravity and yet not of it. There's a nice knowingness to the name of this fictional thana that reminds us that this story is both about the Delhi that people live in and the imperial city they aspire to.
Hathi Ram is magnificent as this city's lower middle class Everyman. He is cynical, desperate for promotion and ambitious for his son who he has placed in a snobby English-medium school where the boy is miserable. Like virtually every Indian man, he has married above himself; conscious of his good fortune, he gruffly indulges his lovely wife, played to perfection by Gul Panag. But Hathi Ram is more than just the protagonist of this story; he is also its sutradhar. He gives us the three-world frame that helps us place its actors and he supplies a gloss to the action of the series with vignettes of classical wisdom distilled from WhatsApp groups.
Imran Ansari, his deputy and wingman, is the innocent abroad in this cynical swamp. As a Kashmiri Muslim, he is the ultimate outsider, but he has chosen to become an insider by becoming a policeman. Subordinate to Hathi Ram in rank, he is potentially his superior because his education, his ease in English, has encouraged him to sit the UPSC exam. It is not inconceivable that he might qualify for the IPS and become a covenanted police officer, a ticket, potentially, to svarga lok.
Imran's innocence is tested by the routine bigotry of the world he lives in. One source of Paatal Lok's power is the way in which it registers, in passing, the status of Muslims as a permanent underclass. One of the four would-be assassins captured by the CBI in Delhi is Kabir M. Kabir is a car thief, a petty criminal from the ranks of Delhi's poor Muslims. But he is a Muslim who goes to great lengths to conceal his identity. He refuses for example to say what the 'M' in his name stands for. He carries on his person a document certifying that his circumcision was done for medical reasons. He is so terrified of being identified as a Muslim that he risks a beating at Hathi Ram's hands by dissembling during interrogation. All of this is futile; Kabir's efforts to conceal a stigmatised identity are seen as proof of his devious, treacherous nature.
The impossibility of being innocently Muslim in modern India is dramatised by a line that should go down as one of the killer 'dialogues' of our time. Kabir, who can't read Urdu, who has done everything he can to repudiate his Muslimness, is spun by the CBI as a Pakistani operative sent across the border to assassinate a progressive news anchor and to discredit India's liberal democratic credentials. His father, interviewed by Hathi Ram and Ansari after this concocted plot has been broadcast on the news channels, remarks on the awful irony of this lie: "Kya sahab! Jisse maine Mussalman tak banane nahin diya, usse apne jihadi bana diya?" ["What an irony! I kept my son from being a Muslim, and you turned him into a terrorist?"]
The genius of Paatal Lok is that the slurs, the prejudice, the condescension that Muslims endure are matter-of-factly observed and contained within the procedures of a police investigation. While Imran Ansari is often at the receiving end of this bigotry, the show is subtle enough to stage scenes where he is, despite himself, complicit in the system's slanted workings. For example, after Hathi Ram has in a fit of fury cursed out Kabir as a 'katua' (a pejorative term for a circumcised Muslim) and had him stripped in custody, Ansari volunteers to complete the interrogation that Hathi Ram had unsuccessfully begun. By being gentle with Kabir, by invoking the faith they have in common, he persuades him to come clean. When he steps outside the room to report his success, Hathi Ram mumbles an apology for calling Kabir a 'katua'. "I went too far", he says. Without missing a beat, Ansari deflects the apology by saying "But it worked, sir", normalising Hathi Ram's communal profanity by pretending it had been part of a good cop-bad cop routine. There is genuine affection between Hathi Ram and Imran but it is alloyed by hierarchy, deference, Ansari's social marginality and his need to get on within a system.
The one great defect of the show is that the story sits down each time its English-speaking characters speak up. Linguistically hybrid films and serials that juxtapose Hindi speakers and Anglophones generally end up making the English speakers seem silly. This is mainly because writers in their attempt to make these English speakers seem idiomatic and authentic, succeed only in making them strenuously knowing. Sanjeev Mehra is interviewed by Hathi Ram at home after the inspector is briefed on the alleged assassination plot. Hathi Ram asks if he has any enemies, any powerful men he has exposed on his news show or is about to...whereupon Mehra responds to this Haryanvi inspector's Hindi questions by gruffly muttering, "Part of the job." In English!
This is the Slumdog Syndrome, a terminal failure to recognise that a piece of English dialogue is a scene - and character-killer because no desi would ever speak a sentence like that. Occasionally, a serial like Made in Heaven will produce a plausible desi English speaker, but caricatures like Sanjeev Mehra who sound like low-rent boxwallahs trying too hard, are the norm. The shame is that Neeraj Kabi is a decent actor but the burden of playing a polo-necked, pot-bellied narcissist with terrible lines proves too much for him. The one English-speaking actor who acquits herself well is Niharika Dutt who plays an ambitious young journalist and this is down to her unaffected competence in both Hindi and English.
There is, of course, another possible explanation for the creakiness of the English bits. Which is that there is something inherently odd about the way in which north Indian anglophones interact with an overwhelmingly Hindi-speaking world. In an early edition of War and Peace published in Tolstoy's lifetime, the conversation of the aristocracy was printed in French, because that was the language that the Russian elite conversed in at the time. Subsequently, those passages were rendered into Russian. I imagine the change was made because those French lines seemed incongruous on the page, surrounded as they were by Russian. That might be the problem here: the existential absurdness of living in an eddy of English while navigating an ocean of Hindi.
Paatal Lok is full of unexpected riches. There is a trans love story on the margins of the main narrative that has a couple of moments of real magic. Hathi Ram's home life is as vivid a rendering of lower middle class existence in metropolitan India as you are likely to see. There are also exploitative moments of look-at-me violence that made me want to look away: the methodical rape of a middle-aged woman, for instance, or the pulping of three separate heads with a hammer in a single sequence. Overall, though, the great achievement of this series is that twenty years from now, when historians try to fix the moment when this majoritarian Second Republic was first made real in fiction, they will turn to Paatal Lok.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.