Maybe it is a decade of living in Delhi, or listening to the gaalis and being witness to the everyday violence that makes Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok more appealing to me. It could also be that I am a sucker for a good story. Either way, move over Sartaj, my latest ‘grey’ character crush is Hathi Ram Chaudhary.
I might even find Jaideep Ahlawat more appealing than Saif Ali Khan, but it is more to do with their characters, as is the case with Hathoda Tyagi over Gaitonde as a villain.
Kahaani, kahaani, kahaani
I am probably one of the few enthusiastic kids at college who read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games for pleasure — it is, after all, a mammoth 900-plus pages novel. So, I was happy with how the narrative unfolded in the Netflix’s two-part adaption of it. But now, my loyalty has shifted because Paatal Lok tells a far better story.
The references in Paatal Lok are more colloquial, more invested in everyday lingo. In one of the scenes, Hathi Ram says, “I read this in a WhatsApp message” about Yudhisthir’s journey to heaven, even though Mahabharata or teachings of Gita are part of Hindu scriptures. So, if Sacred Games opts for more ambitious metaphors (such as Epic of Gilgamesh), Paatal Lok responds to the fact that a larger section of Indian society now sources its information from TV shows and WhatsApp forwards than referring to books and scriptures.
Delhi vs Mumbai, Sartaj vs Hathi Ram
‘Which is the better city between Delhi and Mumbai’ is an old battle, and one that will never go away. But if Sacred Games is Mumbai, then Paatal Lok is Delhi, and Paatal is what I would choose.
I would choose Hathi Ram too, because I can relate to his ambition. He wants to make it big in the small way — he just wants a promotion. He is not looking to save his soul, or the city. It’s his personal ambition, which feels more real and attainable than Sartaj’s moral dilemma in Sacred Games.
I might never get to save a city, but I might do something good at my job, and that is why Hathi Ram is my chosen favourite. He falters, messes up, tries to be good, but is not morality incarnate. I can live with that.
Jamuna paar Delhi
Jamuna paar, or the other side of Yamuna river, is an invisible class divide. If you are from ‘Jamuna paar’, you are not really a Delhiite, and you do not belong to the classist society it perpetuates. Even in our casual West Delhi/South Delhi jokes, ‘Jamuna paar’ does not feature. But it does in Paatal Lok, even though the manner only reinforces the established stereotypes.
You might dismiss it as just another gag, but people in Delhi take their pin codes very seriously. One Google search is all it takes to see the endless articles discussing it.
For this classist society that carries its ‘rich and elite’ identity on its sleeves, Jamuna paar is about daily violence, stolen bicycles, assaulted wives, and flashing guns. It reminds me of history classes in my graduation days — London’s theatre houses were on the ‘other’ side of Thames because ‘respectable’ people did not want the ‘crass’ entertainment of the ‘lower’ classes.
‘Tu jaanta nahi mera baap kaun hai’
‘Do you know who my father is?’ Delhi flashes power like no other city. From the small-time criminal to the highest person in power, there is a ‘well-oiled machinery’, as a character says in Paatal Lok.
And that is where Paatal Lok’s story draws its thrill from — the baaps reacting to the nobody beta becoming their ‘overlords’. Hathoda Tyagi hammers his way into the show as the ‘avenger’ of his sisters’ honour, and the baaps now have to figure out how to control the ‘lowly’ spawn. And since caste, class and religion are at the centre of every battle, be it the Babri Masjid demolition or someone taking over a village’s thugdom, the need to establish oneself as the ‘baap’ is also of paramount importance, and propels much of the narrative.
The crass, sexist jokes, the Islamophobic slur, the Hinglish sentences, the wannabe cooldom — Paatal Lok uses very trope common to Delhi. And the dialogues, of course, reveal which ‘lok’ you are from.
Mary Lyngdoh/Cheeni, who is simply ‘Thailand ka maal’ in India, or the rape of Hathoda Tyagi’s sisters being referred to as ‘bada kaam hua (a big incident has happened)’ might leave you disturbed, but you also know that is how people in Delhi, or in most of North India’s hinterlands, really talk.
I definitely want season two of Paatal Lok, because I want to know if Hathi Ram makes it, if he gets a promotion. And while Sartaj saving Mumbai or not from a nuclear explosion might seem like a more thrilling scenario, I root for small victories in life.
Views are personal.