Trigger warnings: mentions of sexual violence, caste violence, transphobia
‘Paatal Lok’ is an addition to Amazon Prime’s arsenal and predictably, viewers were instantly swept in by the show, especially since it’s so unfiltered and raw. The show follows Haathiram Chaudhary, a mid-level police officer at the Outer Jamuna Paar police station, as he tries to solve the mystery of an attempted assassination. As a viewer, you’re then taken into the past of the alleged perpetrators- Vishal ‘Hatoda’ Tyagi, Tope Singh, Kabir M, and Mary ‘Chini’ Lyngdoh.
Paatal Lok explores the crime thriller genre brilliantly with its fast paced storytelling and the way it managed to sew together the loose ends with its climax, even if I say so myself. However, the show’s actual intrigue comes from its critique of the Indian polity. It attempts to comment on the prevailing caste hierarchy, Islamophobia, and transphobia in the country. Despite the fact that I enjoyed the show, I say ‘attempt’ because claiming that it fulfils the job of a critique would overshadow the clear privileged savarna perspective. That being said, the attempt might not be perfect but it’s a start.
In the very beginning, Haathiram tells Ansari, the deuteragonist (‘sidekick’) that Delhi is divided into three sections, or ‘Loks’- Lutyens Delhi, or the Swarg Lok (heaven); Vasant Vihar and Noida, or the Dharti Lok (earth), and the place he is stationed is part of Paatal Lok (hell). Our four alleged criminals belong to the third.
The target of the assassination attempt is journalist Sanjeev Mehra who is essentially the face of ‘Swarg Lok’ in the show. He is dismissive of his wife’s anxiety and somehow believes that a meek thank you at the end of the show absolves him of the blame of being an absent, and an unfaithful, husband. Even at the office, he operates with a god complex, with a complete disregard for ‘rules’ and even uses the attempt on his life to gain popularity. He is mixed in a power struggle with a politician and people who want him off the show. He is Haathiram’s way into the Swarg Lok and the wasteful opulence that comes with it.
The portrayal of Dharti Lok is seen through Haathiram and Ansari, and both characters are used to highlight different issues. Haathiram navigates through his life trying to earn his son’s respect while using his father’s mistreatment of him as a shield to excuse his hegemonic toxic masculinity. I spent the show looking for a redemption arc for Haathiram but there isn’t a satisfactory one. There is a scene where he slaps his wife which is resolved just as conveniently when she slaps him back.
There is a common trend in shows where islamophobia is portrayed through violence and extremes and that is what I assumed this show would also do, especially after scenes where a Muslim man was lynched; but with Ansari, the hatred is more subtle. He has to deal with the subtle islamophobia that exists in every sphere. We see it in another police officer’s reluctance to offer him prasad, and in the snide remarks about ‘representation quota’ during his coaching.
Then, we see the dark underbelly, Paatal Lok.
As we delve into Tyagi’s past, we find out that he is wanted for 45 murders and is feared for it. However, it also raises a very important question about the way shows portray sexual violence. Haathiram uncovers that Tyagi’s descent into the world of crime can be credited to the fact that he wanted to revenge his sisters’ rape. There are no actual consequences for the act (legally) and the show doesn’t try to explore the trauma attached to acts of sexual violence.
Tope Singh is a lower caste youth, a Manjaar, who lives in rural Punjab and there are various instances where he is harassed by the people around him for his caste. It’s clear that its not an isolated incident and casteist discrimination is prevalent in society. As a part of his story, we see weapon wielding upper caste men storm Tope’s house and sexually assault his mother as a supposed “retaliation” to an earlier scene where Tope attacks two upper caste men. Again, the scene is used merely to shock the senses and jolt the viewer. In both cases, the assault on women either explains the man’s behaviour or is used as a consequence. I do, however, recognize that it is naive to assume that it’s surprising since women are often used as pawns in patriarchal power struggles.
Nonetheless, it is a decent portrayal of the way the lower caste (the Manjaars, in this case) are treated by the upper caste majority.
If we critique the show from a feminist perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that the show has women but we rarely hear them since they primarily exist as two-dimensional characters with no real story arc. The silencing of women could be seen as a direct consequence of the patriarchal society the show attempts to challenge but it’s no excuse.
Forgive my rushed attempt at touching upon the general issues with the show but I couldn’t dive into my review from a queer perspective without highlighting them.
Paatal Lok also gets another thing right- representation. The character of Mary Lyngdoh is a transgender woman and the character is portrayed by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh who is a trans woman herself. After shows, both national and international, constantly casting cis-het characters to play trans or LGBTQIA+ characters, the fact that the show put in real effort to cast a trans woman for the role is refreshing. Like its portrayal of other issues, the show doesn’t shy away from Mary’s story or use it just as a token.
We meet ‘Chini’ (Mary) as a child abandoned by her uncle on a train where a boy, Kaaliya, finds her and then takes her into their gang of kids who con and beg to survive. At first glance, we see a young boy abandoned in a train but as her story progresses, we see her putting on make-up and Kaaliya sees her and says “jajta hai tujhpe” (looks good on you). I found myself smiling with Mary, my heart warm. Later, we see the gang watching a movie as Mary rests her head on Kaaliya’s shoulder and at this point, I’m smiling even wider. It’s heartwarming and it’s refreshing. However, soon after, one of the boys comes and informs Kaaliya and Mary that Shaakal, a known pedophile, wants to meet the latter. In a scene that follows, we see Shaakal assaulting Mary and is so ‘enamored’ that the child only manages to escape this cycle of abuse when Shaakal is killed.
Her character isn’t two-dimensional; we see the struggles that have shaped her but my knowledge of trans struggles is also privileged and everything I say must be viewed as such. Eventually, when she is also captured with the three men, the blatant transphobic violence that follows is painful, but not surprising. Haathiram mercilessly beats her for allegedly ‘pretending to be a woman’ and earlier, the woman she was jailed with screamed that she could’ve been assaulted by Mary. People across the police station misgender her and she is also put in a male prison where she is further fetishized when a fellow prisoner masturbates looking at her.
For someone viewing the show from outside, these might seem extreme but there’s no denying the fact that these are only a handful of the struggles that the trans community faces on an everyday basis. The casual misgendering and the disregard for her gender preference, are all situations that the community faces regularly. When the woman in the jail cell accuses the policemen of putting her in danger by putting Mary in the same cell as her, it’s a commentary on how the trans community is demonised. Everyone sees her as a man and treats her as such and it’s infuriating to see, as it should be. Paatal Lok doesn’t mince its words- they want you to see the ways in which Mary is dehumanized for her gender identity because for many people across the world, this discrimination and bigotry is a part of their reality.
The stark contrast between the way she is treated by her friends, especially Kaaliya, and the people she meets as the show progresses shows that hatred isn’t inherently built. As people age, regardless of privilege and class, the bigotry seeps into them and they give in. At one point in the story, we learn that she was trying to save up close to 2 lacs. Kaaliya says he has no idea why she wanted that much money but if you are part of the community (allies included), you knew. A feeling of grief enveloped me when they all sat outside the courtroom waiting for judgement and she tells Kaaliya that she needed the money for a gender reassignment surgery so she could finally marry him. It will break your heart and fill you with anger at the injustice of it all, again, as it should.
Is Paatal Lok worth a watch? Definitely. Like Mehra says during the show, “this town forgets it’s villains soon and its heroes sooner” but the show has no heroes. Instead, it has flawed characters with varying shades of privilege who oppress the women, the minorities (religious and queer), all under the harrowing pretext of collateral bigoted consequence.