‘Paatal Lok’ Review: An Engrossing Dark Look at the Shades of Human Nature

paatal lok season 1 review
Hathi Ram, Imran and the four culprits in ‘Paatal Lol’ (Image: Screengrab)

If it wasn’t a part of my job to type out an actual review of Paatal Lok for The Geekiary, I would have been okay with simply yelling about how great it is and that everyone should watch. From looking at the differences between urban and rural areas, discrimination, and a lot more, Paatal Lok doesn’t shy away from delivering a crime thriller that dives into the violence humans are capable of.

Trigger Warning: Paatal Lok contains graphic violence and instances of sexual assault and child molestation. 

I’m not really sure why I decided I had to watch Paatal Lok when the official trailer was released a few weeks back. Maybe it was a combination of Amazon Prime Video continuing to deliver interesting content (Made in Heaven, The Family Man) and how telling a story that Paatal Lok wants to share wouldn’t make any sense without touching on the LGBTQ+ community.

The trailer just made me feel this series was going to offer something special. Now, after binge-watching the nine episodes (varying from 43 to 55 minutes), I’m very glad I decided to check it out.

The narrative hits the ground running. In the premiere episode, we have the police chasing a group of four individuals (three men and a transwoman). We don’t know much about the group, but it’s obvious they’re up to something bad. Once apprehended, we get some information about how the four were attempting to kill a well-known journalist named Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). 

Why would these four individuals (who seem to have no past connections with each other) form a team to take down a journalist? What’s their motivation? Both these questions and a whole lot more lead our cynical main protagonist Inspector Hathi Ram Choudary (played brilliantly by Jaideep Ahlawat) into a dangerous world.

The narrative makes it very clear there’s a class divide between humans in society. There’s heaven where the rich reside. There’s Earth where the normal folks are. And then there’s Paatal or the netherworld where people who aren’t given any value by society live.

Through Hathi Ram, we get to see how people in these three different levels survive. Everyone is supposed to stay in their own worlds. However, sometimes the worlds merge and that’s something the rich and powerful don’t like.

I really don’t want to give anything away because the entire season is full of twists and turns. So, I will talk about certain character dynamics and the various issues this show talks about.

While Hathi Ram is a cop who feels defeated due to being stuck in his profession (he’s hoping to land a case that will help promote him), his young partner Imran Ansari (played impressively by Ishwak Singh) has a positive outlook. We see him studying for his IPS (Indian Police Service) exam while trying to balance working with Hathi Ram to uncover the city’s dark secrets.

I enjoyed the dynamic between these two characters. Created by Sudip Sharma, this show uses Imran’s character to showcase the discrimination the Muslim minority experiences in the workplace. Hathi Ram is the only one who seems to stand up for Imran. However, even Hathi Ram has moments where he comes across as anti-Muslim, especially when interrogating one of the Muslim criminals named Kabir M (Asif Khan). 

It’s the, “You’re not like other [insert minority here] people,” statement that minorities have heard numerous times. 

Other than Imran, this show also uses Kabir M to showcase different forms of discrimination and hate the Muslim community has to face. And it’s not only the Muslim community: Paatal Lok makes sure to address all forms of discrimination and prejudice that humans exhibit. What the rest of the culprits have gone through because of their backgrounds is devastating.

That, in my opinion, is where the strength of the narrative lies.

This trailer has some explicit content. Be cautious while viewing it.

Paatal Lok doesn’t judge. It just shows human hatred and its long-lasting consequences to the audience to hopefully give rise to a conversation. There are no black and white, good or evil characters in this series because humans are complicated. People are products of the world they find themselves born into.

Of course, some are able to break free and gain strength from the pain they have suffered. However, there are also those who let their surroundings warp them into horrible beings.

And yes, this series doesn’t shy away from showing how gruesome a person can be because of what they have experienced. The flashbacks involving the criminals named Tope Singh (Jagjeet Sandhu) and Vishal Tyagi (Abishek Banerjee) might make many audiences look away from what occurs onscreen.

As for the queer representation, the transwoman is named Mary Lyngdoh (Mairembam Ronaldo Singh). Her story is brutal in a different way compared to her fellow culprits. A survivor of sexual assault as a child, Mary’s a character who aims for something better in her life.

Now, I have to say the way she’s treated might make some viewers uncomfortable. She’s misgendered a lot by the police, including Hathi Ram. But again, it’s not Hathi Ram’s job to be friendly with someone who was caught alongside a serial killer. He does regret how he acts toward her. However, he also has to do his job.

Speaking of queer representation, I’m not sure if the writing team have already decided it or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Imran’s revealed to be a queer character down the line. I think having a queer character on the good side will help the overall optics when this series (hopefully) comes back for a second season.

It will also offer writers a chance to talk about Imran’s sexuality and his faith, and how certain individuals (from minority communities) decide to stay in the closet due to the fear of facing even more discrimination. Similar to how Iceman from the X-Men ignored being gay because he didn’t want to handle being queer and a mutant in a society that hates him.

From what I could gather from his social media presence, actor Ishwak Singh is very supportive of the LGBTQ+ community (he was also part of a queer-centric commercial). So, I think he will be more than able to deliver if Imran is indeed a queer character.

Regardless, the good guys need some queer representation, too. It’s an issue I currently have with Penny Dreadful: City of Angels as well.

Paatal Lok season 1 review
Image: Screengrab

If you’re looking for a show that talks about the complexities of human nature and the social politics that govern them, you should give Paatal Lok a try. The pace doesn’t slow down and I think you, like me, will find yourself binging the entire thing in one day. I have my fingers crossed this series comes back for another outing. It’s incredibly well made and every cast member does their role justice.    

Shout out to actress Gul Pung as Hathi Ram’s wife Renu. While her role is that of a supportive housewife, the narrative makes sure to let us that being supportive and loving toward her husband doesn’t mean she will allow any unfairness toward her.

Swastika Mukherjee as Dolly Mehra also delivers a role that will make you emphasize with her character. I was surprised by how Dolly ended up playing a crucial part in the story.

Again, I hope Paatal Lok gets a second season.

The show debuted on Amazon Prime Video on May 15, 2020.

Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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