Paatal Lok is an engrossing and intelligent neo-noir investigative thriller set in the seedy underbelly of North India.
The 9-episode Amazon Prime series unfolds like an epic with mythological undertones. The seemingly straightforward case of a failed attempt on the life of a renowned TV anchor is assigned to the world-weary cop Hathiram, portrayed brilliantly by Jaideep Ahlawat. It’s up to Hathiram and his young IPS-aspiring partner, Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh) to dig into the messy pasts of the four suspects, who make for complex pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We have Tope Singh, a lower caste man from a Punjab village, Kabir, a Muslim from Chandni Chowk, Mary / Cheeni, a man pretending to be a woman, and Vishal Tyagi, a serial killer from Bundelkhand. Over the course of an intricate and complex investigation, the show also offers social commentary on various aspects such as prime time media and discrimination on the basis of caste and religion. It’s during this stretch that the show got so violent that I had to skip a few scenes. So, the ‘must-watch’ recommendation comes with trigger warnings.
I have this habit of taking notes while reading whodunnit thrillers, usually jotting down key characters and events in the hope of finding the perpetrator before the big reveal. While this has never happened (yet!), it still helps me in keeping track of both the bigger picture and the various subplots. Paatal Lok marked the first time I had done that for a web series, and it made for such a rewarding experience, considering how meticulously detailed the narrative is.
While Paatal Lok might have been intended as Amazon Prime’s answer to Netflix’s trailblazing Sacred Games, the Jaideep Ahlawat-starrer actually ends up outdoing the latter. Anurag Kashyap, one of India’s leading directors, declared Paatal Lok as “the best crime thriller I have seen to come out of this country in the longest time, maybe forever”. It is a testament to the show’s brilliance that he isn’t far from the mark.