A Season in HellAmazon’s New Series “Paatal Lok” Is a Cop Drama for Our Times

Jaideep Ahlawat as Hathi Ram Chaudhary in Paatal Lok (Photo credit: Amazon Prime Video)

Indian culture likes the number three. Three gods in the holy trinity: Lord Bramha, the god of creation; Lord Vishnu, the god of preservation; and Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. Three stripes on the national flag: orange, white, and green. Our world, says Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) of the Delhi Police, “is divided into three sections. Up above is swarg-lok, where the gods reside. In the middle are dharti-lok, where humans live.” The final region shares a name with Amazon Prime’s newest Indian drama series: Paatal Lok, or, hell-dwellers. Continuing in an offhand manner to his young colleague on their nightly patrol in a police jeep, Chaudhary adds sardonically, “Supposedly this is in scripture, but I read it on WhatsApp.”

The case that spans the series’ nine episodes seems, to both its characters and viewers, entirely routine for a crime thriller. There’s a tense but brief car chase, after which senior Delhi cops, including the police commissioner, corner four people on the Nizamuddin Bridge—one of whom promptly hurls a yellow smartphone into the Yamuna River below. It’s all caught on camera by a TV news van stuck in the bridge’s traffic pileup, and the news channel is quick to wring every last bit of drama from this footage, complete with all-caps chyrons. The arrest is made in Chaudhary’s jurisdiction, so when he and Inspector Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) arrive at the scene, the commissioner orders them to take over the case and charge those involved. With what, asks Chaudhary. “Conspiracy to murder.”

Cops in every nation on Earth serve to protect the capital of the oppressors, and the Indian police force is no different. As someone who supports abolition, I’m not interested in praising the copaganda that’s often the focus of police procedurals. And Paatal Lok isn’t interested in it either. Like their American brethren, police in India are no strangers to being the ones committing crimes; the police propaganda phrase often wielded when a cop murders someone and reports that the victim was either resisting arrest or fleeing is that they “died in an encounter.” Inspector Chaudhary is in no way exempt from the violence commonly associated with cops: He slaps his wife (an excellent Gul Panag); he beats and verbally assaults a Muslim suspect using ethnic slurs (in the presence of his own Muslim colleague, no less); he beats a trans woman arrestee for, in his view, lying about her gender; and his parenting style is authoritarian.

Paatal Lok is not trying to suggest that Hathi Ram Chaudhary is a good cop, because there is no such thing. Rather, the strength of the show is derived from the fact that Chaudhary himself realizes this. Once he’s suspended from duty and hung out to dry over procedural errors in the case he was hoping would resuscitate his stale 15-year career at New Delhi’s Outer Jamuna Paar Station, Chaudhary’s life becomes a spiritual fuck-you. He devotes his energies to solving the case the way a gumshoe reporter would: with a notepad, pen, and determination. While Ahlawat has acted in more than a dozen Hindi films, Chaudhary is his first starring role, and it’s one that he seizes with verve I have rarely seen on television. The lines on his careworn face illuminate his story, which is one of a motherless child who was regularly thrashed by an abusive father. He tries and fails to nurse these wounds by sending his disgruntled teenage son (Bodhisattva Sharma) to an expensive private school, but sees the same hatred in his son’s eyes that he saw in his own father’s. Ahlawat’s magical blend of cynicism, grit, and doggedness carry the entire show from start to finish.

But let’s return briefly to the mysterious case itself. Chaudhary finds it a bit strange that anyone would hire the four seemingly mismatched people arrested on that bridge to carry out a hit job. The quartet includes Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh), a young woman with a strong Nepali accent; Kabir M. (Aasif Khan), the Muslim suspect who insists he has no surname, nor can he read or write Urdu, which the racist cops flatly refuse to believe; Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu), a young man with a large dagger and the letter C tattooed on his left arm, and a habit of talking back; and a man (Abhishek Banerjee) who flat-out refuses to give his name. His disturbingly unforgiving gaze never blinks as he offers both his hands for fingerprinting, on which he only has nine fingers. All four, Chaudhary is informed, were on their way to assassinate Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), a prominent news anchor whose recent ratings slump is jeopardizing his job. 

If I am reluctant to explain too much of the plot, it’s because the series is such a worthy watch: if you give Pataal Lok your energy and time, you will be rewarded by something that is singularly unsparing in its depiction of modern Indian life. The racism and corruption of Indian cops—particularly those in rural areas where education is grossly underfunded—enables caste-based violence on a scale that can be described as localized genocide. Politicians throughout the country exploit partisan fears: Hindus vs. Muslims, Dalits vs. everyone else. Women are viewed as subhuman, mere objects with which to either defame a family through rape or to obtain justice via murder. The show’s neorealist storytelling brings to mind Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray, whose films (for instance, Bicycle Thieves and the Apu Trilogy, respectively) foregrounded the abject daily horrors of marginalization. Given this context, Paatal Lok’s decision to expose the heinous multifaceted crimes of India in 2020 is nothing short of revolutionary. You may well be left wondering any or all of the following: Where exactly within the physical structure of a train station do homeless children live: under the eaves of the tracks? In a ditch adjacent to the rickshaw drivers freebasing cocaine? What happens to the rape victims who are quickly married off by their fathers to families that begin beating their new daughters-in-law, calling them “secondhand goods”?

The show has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, as well as backlash; the most vituperative criticism has come from members of the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), whose open stoking of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence makes for a less than convincing argument against the series. After all, Pataal Lok isn’t a documentary: It’s goal is to point out that India is already rife with bigotry and hatred that are regularly carried out on its most marginalized citizens. The targets of such criticism shouldn’t be the storytellers holding a mirror up to Narendra Modi’s India; that ire should be aimed at the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS is the propaganda arm of the BJP), cops, and Modi himself, because they campaigned on and govern via violent vilification of India’s Muslims.

The show’s blunt observations about present-day Indian life let viewers draw a clear parallel between the rise of the Hindu nationalism that enabled Modi’s electoral victories, and the resurgence of American white supremacy that has accompanied Donald Trump’s. A cloud of cognitive dissonance characterizes both: America’s second-amendment loyalists go quiet when federal muscle is mobilized against peaceful protests; the same Indian citizens who find any reason to harass or harm Muslims use Urdu in their daily speech, sing along to qawwalis, and happily dig into plates of rogan josh. And those with the least power are expected to be thankful for scraps of access. Take Pataal Lok’s young Muslim cop, Ansari: After clearing the first round of a prestigious civil-service program, he’s complimented by an official from the Central Board of Investigation (India’s FBI equivalent). “You’ll see,” she tells Ansari’s superior officer, “His community will be able to improve their image.” Ansari, meanwhile, can do nothing to indicate either displeasure or agreement.

Singh portrays Ansari’s struggle as an outsider with almost microscopic physical shifts—the flare of his nostrils, the incline of his head, the droop of his eyebrows. Ansari’s natural kindness is a signal that he’s not meant for police work; on the other hand, as someone on the receiving end of an entire nation’s perpetual hatred, he doesn’t have the privilege of fighting back or even showing anger and frustration.  His small efforts to create a just, humane environment—offering a Muslim suspect his pocket copy of the Quran for comfort, for instance, or draping a petrified and weeping suspect in a blanket—are met with blatant vitriol. His Hindu colleagues loudly chant prayers to various Hindu gods, for whom they have erected a small shrine inside the police station, shooting Ansari pointed looks as they bleat verses about peace and harmony. Watching the show with my mother, I observed that if Ansari had dared to offer salat at his desk, those same coworkers would file a complaint against him for workplace harassment. “Actually,” she said, “the station would get destroyed in a riot.”

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I can date my personal fascination with police dramas to my childhood in India. Mystery novels were my first love: I devoured Nancy Drew’s adventures and plowed through Enid Blyton’s seemingly innumerable books about plucky, mystery-solving English schoolchildren. My grandmother oversaw my graduation to Agatha Christie’s tales of murder and deceit, and I remember her arguing with my mother over whether I should be permitted to read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (My mother won, and I didn’t get around to the book until high school.) But we got our crime fix on TV too. In the late 1990s, India’s longest-running series, CID, was in full force, and my grandmother and I tuned in every Thursday night with religious fervor. In hindsight, a far superior show was Saboot (Proof), starring acclaimed stage and TV actress Anita Kanwar, as the brilliant but clumsy Inspector KC, a persona she modeled on Columbo’s titular detective.

I never missed a single episode of the show, which inverted the very formula of a procedural: It revealed the perpetrator and the crime at the top of the episode, so the investigation focuses on Inspector KC’s gathering of evidence. Unfortunately, casting a brilliant woman as the lead in a show about a primarily male-driven profession—with a goofy male subordinate to boot—didn’t go down well, and the show lasted only a year. Though I mourn the loss of an unconventional police procedural from my childhood, I welcome Paatal Lok’s success in advancing the genre with complexity and nuance. Sure, there’s an abundance of violence in every episode—including but not limited to gang rape, forced circumcision, strangulation, and heads bashed in with hammers. But heinous physical violence isn’t the only metric of a society’s decay. Equally abhorrent is the violence bred into the DNA of abandoned Indian children living almost literally on the margins, as the urchins and beggars of New Delhi’s railway stations. Graduates of the Dickensian school of urban dystopia, they steal purses from housewives and pickpocket men. As a little boy yanks a woman’s photo loose from the depths of a billfold, he muses savagely, “The fucker had it hidden so deep! It can’t possibly be his wife!”

That particular subplot will, I think, stay with me for a long time because it contributes to the show’s inclusion of what Hannah Arendt famously termed “the banality of evil.” I especially applaud the show’s casting department for hiring talented, utterly ordinary-looking actors. We’re a lot less likely to expect evil from people we know. Incidentally, two of my favorite performances on Pataal Lok are courtesy of two of the production’s casting directors, Nikita Grover and Abhishek Banerjee. The latter plays a nameless assassin about whom I can say little, so as to not give away what is the show’s most powerful performance, but the former’s turn as female Constable Manju Verma is the walking embodiment of Arendt’s theory. We know she’s a newlywed, from the henna still dark on her hands and the shiny wedding bangles clinking on both wrists. What’s truly jarring is the contrast between her mindless chatter on her cell phone (possibly to a friend or neighbor), or the casual way she chops and sweeps vegetables into Tupperware at her desk, to be turned into dinner when she gets home, all while viciously assaulting Mary and peppering her with heinous slurs.

The show’s blunt observations about present-day Indian life let viewers draw a clear parallel between the rise of Hindu nationalism and the resurgence of American white supremacy.

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As I finished this essay I searched the internet for longform criticism about the show with which to contextualize my own. Granted, Pataal Lok was released in May 2020, and its non-positive coverage has focused largely on the response of politicians. But on a website called Youth Ki Awaaz (The Voice of Youth), which appears to be a kind of Indian Thought Catalog, I was intrigued by an essay titled “Paatal Lok: A Modern Classic Or A Neo-Conservative Spell?” Its author, Kunwar Nitin Pratap Gurjar, posits that the show dishonors the Dalit community by painting their political parties as violent, lawless factions, when in fact “anti-caste and Dalit movements, far from being quasi-military organisations, have been artistic and socio-cultural movements.” I agree that both rural areas and cities in India are equally party to perpetuating the crimes of the caste system—Pataal Lok makes clear that the divisions of the countryside are encouraged by and reinforced in the cities. And I even concur that the one thing missing from Pataal Lok is representation.

The show is an accurate portrayal of the hard-right regressive policies that have infected India for decades, and, under Modi, have metastasized into a national cancer. But despite its many strengths, it is, in part, a story about Dalits written by non-Dalits. I don’t know if the writers spoke to any trans women for Mary’s character, nor do I know if they interviewed train-station child beggars. True progressivism is when parity is achieved at every possible level, when the marginalized are not only given a seat at the table, but promoted to the level of allocating funding and making decisions. If artists and producers respond correctly to this critical moment in Indian pop culture, audiences all over the world will hear the voices of the most vulnerable groups in the world’s largest democracy. Streaming platforms have a choice. They can greenlight shows like Paatal Lok, told this time by the communities it portrays, or it can award yet another giant check to the latest superhero toy commercial. I pray they, having watched the worldwide protests after George Floyd’s murder, will choose the former.

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by Nandini Balial
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Born and raised in New Delhi, India, Nandini emigrated to Texas with her family in 2000. She graduated from NYU in 2014. Her work has appeared in The Week, Lit Hub, AV ClubMen’s Journal, Vice, LA Review of Books, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives and works in Fort Worth, Texas.