In one of the later episodes of the Amazon Prime Video’s new series, Paatal Lok, a father— a Muslim man whose son has been arrested for an attempted assassination—tells the investigating cop, Hathiram Chaudhary (a fabulous Jaideep Ahlawat): “Jisse main Muslim nahi banne diya, aap logon ne ussey jihadi bana diya”. The father, taking into cognisance what often happens to Muslims in India, has been careful in raising his son, forcing him to carry a fake medical certificate of circumcision at all times so that he is not recognised as a Muslim, rather can cover his circumcision as a medical need.
In another, the first episode, there is rumination on the idea of a journalist: “We used to be heroes, you know. Now we are trolled, and killed and fired.” A later episode would explore more ideas — that divide contract assault on women in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh, in three categories— chota kaam, bada kaam and pura kaam. In one segment, it would go deeper to examine the plight of poor kids on a railway track, in yet another trauma of the queer. And all this while, the show would study the class divide with precision.
A Clean Slate Films (Anushka Sharma) production and created by Sudip Sharma (NH10, Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya) along with writers Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta, Gunjit Sharma, and directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy, Paatal Lok is an exploration of the existence of various Indias in India. The nine-episode series though begins in Delhi with an assassination attempt on prime-time journalist, Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), as it investigates the case, it goes into the deep alleys of the hinterland India, examining a lot of things – from the politics of the powerful to the forced submission of the weak, from the caste divides and stereotypes based on caste and religion to the immorality of the elite, and more importantly the corporatisation of the media. Paatal Lok starts ambitiously and mostly lives up to it till the end credits roll, faltering only at a few places like the portrayal of Swastika Mukherjee as Dolly.
Over a phone conversation, creator Sharma, a graduate from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad-turned-screenwriter talks to THE WEEK about the show and what went into creating it.
The story’s starting point is the book, The Story of My Assassins (by Tarun J Tejpal). Could you take me through the journey of developing it further?
The basic plot is hugely inspired by the book. That was the starting point and one of the inspirations to write the story. Then, there were various other inspirations and things that we wanted to bring in. For me, there were several thematic and cinematic inspirations that I wanted to pursue with this show. One of the agendas of the show was to look at crime with the point of view of the investigator. And then, to look at the investigator’s life in a way we generally don’t look at. The investigator is normally just a tool to take the plot forward. But we were invested in the idea of looking at his inner life. Look at a Delhi cop; he is a much criticised character on online, social media, everywhere. But I don’t think we appreciate enough the kind of effort the law enforcement officials have to put in this country in very difficult circumstances. The idea was to explore what it means to be a cop in a cruel city like Delhi, to be fighting crime every day, to be doing the job that he does at a very meagre pay scale. What is his life like – you be with murderers during the day and then you go back to your wife and family. What does it mean? What does it do to your psyche? That was the thematic idea, which we wanted to push.
You talk of other inspirations…
I keep talking of The Wire, which is one of my favourite shows. It has this really humane eye with which it looks at both the law enforcements and the criminals. We wanted to explore that inside perspective. [For instance], the character of Ansari (played by Ishwak Singh, a Muslim cop who is always under scrutiny because of his religion) emerged from a statistic that I had come across. It said that Muslim officers make-up for one-and-a-half percentage of Delhi Police. It was a startling sort of a revelation. You would expect the numbers to be much higher, given that Muslims make up for 13 per cent of Delhi’s population. That kind of led to explore the idea of this rookie Muslim cop in these predominantly divisive times that we live in —what does it take for him to gain acceptance in the course and what all does he have to do to be accepted as one of them. There were such million other stories that we had heard of and seen [that became a part].
Another thematic idea that we wanted to pursue was the idea of the three worlds (swarg lok, dharti lok, paatal lok). There are so many divisions that exist in this country. There are these various fault lines on the basis of caste, class, religion, language, we wanted to pursue these division and what leads to them and what can be the fallout of that. The closer we looked, we found out that there are these three societies – the upper class, the middle class, and those at the bottom. We put all these into a mixer and tried making a puree out of that (laughs).
Since you explore so many things, the class divide, the religion divide, you even go to the interiors of north India. Was it ever challenging as a creator in terms of being objective and yet be interesting?
Just writing a show, which is nine-episodes, is a difficult job. It is a far more difficult job than writing a film. And, writing a good film itself is a difficult job. It comes with its own complexities. You are writing a set of trilogy of movies and they all have to make sense together. The larger agenda is always to tell a good story. There are various socio-political agendas that we have apart from the larger agendas, which could be our individual worldviews, or what fascinates us about this country. I personally would not want to do something that is pure plot, thrills and fun and games without having any relevance about the world around us. That doesn’t excite me. It was walking that tightrope. But the driving force was always to tell a good story and not to push our agendas.
You, as a writer, have often questioned the establishment in your work whether in Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya or now. Do you fear backlash?
I would be lying if I say it doesn’t cross my mind. But we have got to do what we have got to do. I would be doing disservice to my art and work if I got afraid and don’t say thing I really want to say. You still need to wake up and look yourself in the eye. This is what puts me on my desk. There is a concern, I wouldn’t say there is a strong fear, but largely we live in a democratic world. And I believe in all the institutions that we have in this country. During Udta Punjab when the censorship was stuck on us, the courts came in and helped us out. So, yeah…
How did you go for the cast? It would be hard to imagine someone thinking of Jaideep Ahlawat in a character like Hathiram at the writing stage… and what a wonderful performance.
For me and for a lot of us like Prosit and Avinash, the idea of working with a star is not really enthralling. That’s not the reason why we are in this business. For us, the star is the story. Jaideep has been a very good performer. I have always been an admirer of his work. We believe he hasn’t got his due as an actor so far. There were many reasons to go for him. He was the first choice and the only choice we ever had. We had heard great things about him. Plus, he comes from Haryana and I wanted to make the character as authentic as possible as Hathiram is the spine and the moral compass of the show. He also brought a lot of experience of the police force and armed force as he has friends and family working in the forces. It just felt he is the right person for it.
The places shown in the show seem to have been chosen with much thought. How did Chitrakoot or a Punjab village come into the narrative?
These are places that I have closely looked at, researched and visited as part of my previous work. The show is set in Delhi, Haryana, parts of Punjab and Bundelkhand. In NH10, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya, I have covered these places extensively and I had a little bit of understanding. Also, when I looked at it, I felt I wasn’t done with these places. There were more stories to be mined. Udta.. did manage to explore the drug angle of Punjab but not the caste angle, which is quite prevalent in that society. Punjab has the largest population of the dalits in the country. It just seemed right to explore the caste angle. Similarly, all the other places.
Then, mythology runs deep through the show, almost beginning and ending with it. How did that come into play?
It’s a light touch that we have used with the mythology angle. We didn’t want to push it too much. It is as much as it gets in our daily lives. So the opening lines are a perfect indicator of how we are looking at mythology in our show. Hathi Ram talks about how the world is divided into three parts, and then says “aise toh ye shastron me likha hai par maine whatsapp pe padha hai”. It’s mythology looked at through the eyes of a WhatsApp user. You’ll be surprised at how much mythology is pushed at us through WhatsApp. It was so fascinating for me. I get so many messages in my family group talking about the glorious past of the nation. I thought it could be used as bookends for the show.
The sentiment towards the media fraternity is very close to what we are witnessing now. How did you go about it?
I grew up in the 90s and the liberal English media journalists were our heroes. They were the ones leading the discourse in the country. They were the ones setting the socio-political agenda. I still remember the image of one of these journalists reporting from Kargil and how heroic it was. But in the last 10 years or so, the landscape of this country has changed. I don’t know if it has changed irrevocably and irretrievably, but it has changed. Suddenly, those people who were our heroes are no more in the driving seat of the cultural landscape. There was something fascinating about that. It was something that I thought about over and over again. What does it mean to be a journalist such as him (Sanjeev Mehra) – somebody who is not just relevant anymore, but he is someone who is much lampooned at. He can’t log in to his Twitter account without being trolled and without being called all sorts of names. I mean the word presstitute has come into our lexicon in the last five years so. That says so much about the state of affairs. That whole idea of exploring a character like that, phenomena around that, it’s not just speaking about the media but a larger issue. It’s speaking about us and who we have become in the last couple of decades. How did we get from there to here? This is something that is happening the world over. There is the president of America who is constantly pulling down reporters, constantly calling very legit news sites as fake news portals. This was [focussing at] the lampooning of intellectualism. This is something that keeps me engrossed all the time. The winners of the Second World War had set up the liberal agenda, of the last 70-75 years or so and somehow in the last 10-20 years, we are letting go of that. We are letting go of whatever was globally, or a large part of the world, agreed upon. And, we are choosing a new world order, which is seeing a new churning.
Your last film, Sonchiriya, I think was praised by everyone who watched but didn’t do well at the box-office. Does doing a digital show take off the pressure of the box-office success?
Not too many people watched it though. It was a big disappointment. It’s the most favourite of all my scripts and all my films. I think we were able to come up with pretty decent film. I don’t really care about box-office numbers. It’s all just economics, but I would have liked a lot more people to have seen the film. A film release comes with a feeling of exam result coming out. You work for one year, two years on something and your fate is decided on one weekend. If you don’t hit the number in that one weekend, you are forgotten. There is this weird sort of a vibe to it. I don’t quite enjoy that. Not all films can fit into that marketing and sales approach. It might work for the tent pole films, but there are some films that need to be discovered and need to gain from word-of-mouth, but the distribution does no have that kind of bandwidth for these slow-to-pick films. The greatest joy of OTT is that once you make something it’s there for posterity. There’s only joy to be had in that.