Paatal Lok (means the underworld according to ancient Hindu scriptures) is awake, wide awake. There are so many movies and TV series that are content to just slumber with sluggish languor through a regurgitation of old story ideas and hand-me-down plots. The art of storytelling is frankly becoming an elusive art, but sitting through nine episodes of this Hindi series in one sitting restored my faith in the art of great storytelling. Paatal Lok doesn’t reinvent the wheel of crime thrillers. Its greatest plus is how the disparate genre elements combined into something potent, offering a subversive thrill of seeing a social microcosm explode into smithereens and a devastating tour into the underbelly of India’s society.

It begins in black, an unassuming male voice reverberates. He speaks of the society of India being divided into three realms: Swarg Lok (the upper class, the affluent), Dharti Lok (the middle class, the working people) and Paatal Lok (the lower caste, the grunts, the scum). The voice belongs to Senior Inspector Hathiram Chandhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) who is speaking to rookie cop Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh). Hathiram’s lament that he never catches a break and gets assigned to dead-end cases is palpable. Hathiram is a washed-out with no sign of light at the end of a long tunnel. Moments later, four criminals are arrested on a bridge for an assassination attempt on prime-time journalist Neeraj Kabi (Sanjeev Mehta) and the case is handed to Hathiram. His eyes widened, his senses are heightened, his hopes are ignited because this is a career-making case, but he would be wrong, so very wrong.

The show is anchored squarely on Hathiram’s shoulders, while Sanjeev Mehra takes some of the weight off. But when the camera is on Hathiram, I would find my eyes glued to the screen. He is our surrogate and how Jaideep Ahlawat plays the character is refreshing. In a nice of pace, Hathiram is not the archetypal bulldozing seeker of truth. He is on unfamiliar ground as he deep dives into the criminals’ motives and tragic pasts. Seeing him blunder in the crowded streets of Delhi, chasing criminals make for an authentic everyday cop that had his best days behind him. Over the course of nine episodes, his character arc is superbly rendered – from a rambunctious cop who will stop at nothing to get himself on the road to an illustrious future, his tenacity grows from strength to strength. In the end, it isn’t about getting a promotion, it’s about finding the answer to the mystery no matter what and to prove to himself he is not a loser.

Sudip Sharma’s screenplay is unapologetically angry, confident and economical. It evinces an awareness of Hollywood storytelling conventions and demonstrates a profound knowledge of the moral decay which is eating the Indian people from the inside. Words and actions are cleverly chosen that reveal about each character’s personality. Nothing overstayed their welcome and the script succeeded in an aspect where so many have failed – it respects the audience to catch the nuances and connect the dots. As an illustration, observe the deterioration of the father and son relationship which builds from Hathiram’s own father in an extended flashback. Violence begets violence, the future is cemented in the past. It seemed everything is fated to fail but watch out for all the scenes of redemption played out through Hathiram’s son’s mien as it gradually shifts from hate to respect to love. All this done through nuanced acting without any Hollywood-styled expositional heart-to-heart talk done to heightened music cues and teary close-ups. Impressive.

Paatal Lok’s labyrinthine plot forces you to pay attention. This is not something you watch while checking your social media. The first few episodes seemed to put you on a comfortable and familiar path. Then the tonal shift is so subtle that you wouldn’t notice the story shifting into other thematic territories, like how a villain is created – is it through nature or nurture or a spiralling from a tragic event? Paatal Lok doesn’t boast a charmingly elegant killer like Hannibal Lecter, but Vishal Tyagi (Abhishek Banerjee) sent cold chills down my spine with his bloody hammer and unblinking eyes. The story shifts into thought-provoking territory with its startling meditation on polymorphous perversity in the form of dirty politics, child abuse and injustice meted out to Muslims and the transgender. The backstories of the criminals were superbly told and my heart went out to them. You will not condone what they have done, but you will understand why they turned out that way. Paatal Lok is a show about damaged people who seem imprisoned by the need to damage others, or be destroyed.

Paatal Lok nails the ending that had pathos, evoking all the feels and the shock. The story continues with a sublime sequence of falling action events that hit the height of catharsis. Emotional exhaustion enveloped me but a brilliant feeling of satisfaction engulfed me.

The response to Paatal Lok, just like to all great genre films, lies not to a presumed originality, but rather to the way the storyteller fuses all the familiar elements and breathes new life into them that makes for such a memorable experience. Paatal Lok is an outstanding mix of police procedural, political thriller, weird romance, mythical mystery and character studies. I have seen so many series this year, but only two (the other being Better Call Saul (S5)) transcend to the level of art. All the rest are just entertaining noises.

4.5 / 5