If you have ever watched porn, not that I ever have, you will find that it is a genre that is more a slave to trope than most others: the pizza man rings, and then the actors go through assorted physical configurations, choreographed in roughly the same sequence video after video, culminating in a climax, where the only point of divergence in the experiencing of the genre is whether the audience outlasts the actors or vise versa. This is precisely why porn is uninteresting, for most people above the age of twenty, because this never really looks like life, not because the individual acts shown are not performed by regular people, they definitely are, but that they do not occur with this intensity and robotic certainty in reality, and never all of them together.
Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime’s latest “This country has gone to the dogs thanks to Brahminical Hindus” suffers from much of the same limitations, being the kind of “liberal porn” that OTT platforms have realized matches the ideological slant of most of their paid subscribers. All of its incidents are true, to counter the “Are you saying these things don’t happen in India?” but the way they are put together to paint a hellish vision of “Brahmanism”, beef-lynchings, Pakistan and ISI-sponsored-violence being used a false flag, CBI-as-peddlers-of-untruth, marauding crowds of Jai Shri Rams, caste violence, sexual violence, micro and macro aggression against minorities, the innocence of the perpetrators and the guilt of the victims, one after another, in a “all together now” panorama, there is that feeling that much of it is done to satiate the audience, to confirm their world view, to pack everything into 9 episodes, breathlessly frenetic but ultimately too engineered.
Not that I have ever seen porn myself.
Where Paatal Lok diverges from your garden variety porn, and what makes it definitely worth the watch, is the fact that it has terrific performances, an intriguing set-up, brilliant cinematography, and a poignant, immensely human, end, which I believe says that in a world of unrelenting butchery, small acts of empathy are the only salvation available. Based on the Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja-level literary misfire that was “The Story of My Assassins”, written by the once-blue-eyed-boy of the political persuasion to whom this web-series is targeted to, Tarun Tejpal, a fact that is weirdly not credited anywhere, possibly to avoid the backlash from the same crowd (most of whom haven’t read the original to cotton onto the similarities), Paatal Lok is a polished re-draft, cutting through some of the Booker-bait flab that characterized the literary exertions of Tejpal, to make a leaner, meaner, more impactful and accessible version of the original.
Jaideep Ahlawat as Inspector Hathi Ram Chowdhury is immensely watchable, a well-etched character with a well-etched character arc. This is again where Paatal Lok shines, it has character arcs, for all the principal characters, be it Neeraj Kabi’s news anchor or each of the “assassins” character arcs building the story arc, in a way that you rarely see done so perfectly in the Indian web-series space. (Ozark and Succession are examples of complete mastery of this dual-arc development).
It is difficult nowadays in the age of woke, to separate the traditional perspectives of story, progression and denouement from the politics, our progressives would say that unless it says the right things (or rather the left), it, should not be considered art and, those that made it, should not even be provided a platform. Without going into this controversy, for there is no end to it, I will give my recommendation to Paatal Lok for how it says what it says, rather than what it says for the most part.