There is so much to unpack in Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok, that is produced by actor Anushka Sharma. If you thought Netflix’s Sacred Games was bold, especially when it came to political commentary, then let me tell you, Paatal Lok will shock you. Over the course of nine episodes, this thriller offers a stark commentary on casteism, Islamophobia, fake news, and left wing hypocrisy, all while throwing at us gory and disturbing visuals of skulls smashed to pulp, child abuse, transgender abuse, and rape. But one of the things this show gets spot on is the way toxic masculinity governs how our men act and how they don’t. It is not an easy watch, but you simply cannot take your eyes off the screen. Although the show isn’t without its flaws.
I do wish the show had done a better service to its women. I wish they were not mere peripheral characters in this tale of broken men. I wish Dolly had left her entitled husband to have a fresh start on her own. I wish Gul Panag’s Renu had less of the constantly-nagging-her-hardworking-cop-husband-for-a-promotion to her character arc.
Starring Jaydeep Ahlawat ( Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary), Neeraj Kabi ( Sanjeev Mehra), Abhishek Banerjee ( Hathoda Tyagi), Ishwak Singh ( Imran Ansari) and Swastika Mukherjee (Dolly Mehra), Paatal Lok is all about men. Men who have been let down by the system, men who abuse the system, men who turned criminals out of oppression and as a last resort, and men who are toxic , because that’s the only way of life that they have known. Since the creative team behind the show is largely male, it looks patriarchy from a male gaze, and given the times that we live in, that’s a narrative that needs our attention.
Almost every male character here has endured oppression in one form or the other Hathiram was raised by a single father who would beat him without any mercy. Imraan is reminded of his religious identity by his majoritarian colleagues almost every step of his journey. Even while being congratulated for clearing his UPSC exams a character remarks how a lot of people from “his” community are doing well these days. Then there’s Hathiram’s son who is being bullied at school because he classmates feel that he does not belong there, and thus develops a fascination towards guns – a sign of dominance and masculinity among men in Northern India.
We have seen such men around us, we have come across their stories in news papers or in viral videos of men brandishing a gun in the lobby of a five star hotel. What makes them act like they do? Paatal Lok doesn’t shy away from pointing its finger in the direction of patriarchy. Be it via dialogues heavy on cuss words, or the horrifying visual where a man rapes a young man’s mother ( after telling her that the 10 men accompanying him will follow) because he attacked his son despite coming from a certain cast, or when three young adults casually offer their father to rape their cousins, in order to settle issues over land ownership .
Does it glorify this virtue of masculinity. No. The suffering is crystal clear and you are made aware of how in the end it is the system which prevails, like a puppet master that makes men run in circles. Differences over cast and property lead to rape and dissent, which in turn lead to violence, which only leads to more violence. It just never ends.
In the last episode of the series a police officer remarks that while the system may appear to be decrepit on the surface, when you look closer, it is a well oiled machine, where each part knows what it has to do. And if it doesn’t, it simply gets replaced. Can the same be said about the equation patriarchy shares with men? Doesn’t it used them as cogs that must keep the machine running? Who are replaced by others once they have served their purpose or when they refuse to pay by the rules?