pataal lok S1

Why is pataal lok, in my opinion, one of the most important, and enjoyable television ‘seasons’ to have come out of India in recent decades?

Just the other weekend, I finished watching Special Ops S1. I’ve loved Kay Kay Menon ever since Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. But, spy thrillers have been a dominant genre this century the world over – so it is hard to be completely refreshing within the genre. And the world’s most competitive content market has, in recent years, seen the great content monopolists Disney, Amazon and Netflix fix their gaze on the Indian market like Sauron looking for the One Ring. Which means more drone shots, more international shoots, more establishing shots to make sure you have understood, lots of mixed martial arts; and of course much more pressure to succeed. Despite these constraints, at the end of season 1 of Special Ops, I came away thinking – “this was so well made!”

As someone born in the ’80s – the glut of insanely well made content coming out in rapid succession from India never feels quite real enough. Is it really possible that the best actors are getting opportunities of a lifetime at leading and shaping television in the same nation that regularly churns out various versions of the ‘naagin’ story? The same nation that is gleefully consuming re-runs of 1990’s Mahabharat?

“That’s easy to answer”, I hear you saying. “of course not”.

The nation can be understood and categorised a million different ways. Can it even be treated as the same market? And with some of the greatest human tragedies and inequalities unfolding since the Partition right now, it is easier than ever to not just intellectually understand, but to feel how diverse our realities are in this country – how deeply our realities shape our hopes and fears, make us who we are, how we think. How do you, as a Production team or house appeal just enough to different sensibilities, different ideas of ‘entertainment’, without compromising on what got you excited about the concept in the first place. I think the way in which – to use gaming industry language – ‘triple A’ productions (which I think are different from pure ‘blockbusters’ in that critical appeal is essential to success, while A list ‘stars’ are not) are beginning to answer this, is becoming the key difference between ‘well-made’, and ‘important’. Every content sales person worth their salt will talk about how all that matters is the story. “We all love a good story, don’t we?” But what kind of story? good vs. evil? The hero’s journey or coming of age? The unmasking of the real face of power and pain in society, and the individual’s struggle against it? In a deeply fractured country which operates more than ever on labels, perhaps it is the story that helps you see beyond them, to really connect, to feel – despite the numbness that binge watching and the horrors of the news cycle ensure, that actually still triumphs. Only these stories – and they are really very rare, will probably stand the test of time. Everything else may, in retrospect, just remain as something that was specific to that era. Something that was good, but not important.

In a nation that loves increasingly to only moralise and polarise – ‘pataal lok’ is filled with narratives that are deeply empathatic. It strives for nuance, it strives to show both sides, and the importance of circumstance in shaping individual and social identity. One of the episodes is titled ‘A history of violence’. How apt for this republic.

Ours is a culture with millenia old, immovable, immutable ways of framing and containing success, progress, self, the other, heaven, earth and hell. Many texts have covered caste, the ‘real India’, poverty and the injustice of the system. Many of these texts have won the National Award. I don’t know if pataal lok will win any awards. Going by the consistent use of the word ‘triumph’, and ‘brilliant’ in references to it seem to indicate it will. At the very least it will see an effortless funding of season 2. And will launch a few new careers. For me, the show transcends its genre and its medium because…

  1. It manages to help you see beyond the label. Beyond the words. It takes you into world where you can suddenly see again. I think it manages to do this because in it you are seeing very everyday locations. Very everyday clothes and uniforms. Very everyday villages. Everything in pataal lok feels very familiar. Like the cover of magazines you read or saw lying around the house, the headline of the newspaper on your father’s lap; the story of the school gangs your friends were sharing with you just the other day; the frustration you felt about eating the same thing every day. The moment of dread and fear you felt if you are a woman walking the streets alone and spiders crawl up and down your spine; the child beggars and drug addicts you try and un-see when you stop at a signal or station on your commute or travels. Despite its heavy name and the tendency of some characters to quote scripture, pataal lok is an unfolding, a lens. And ultimately, it leaves one with just enough questions to leave you haunted about the grooves in which all our lives move without intersecting
  2. The cinematography – where does one start – I wish I had the language to describe it, but I can only say that what Mr. Arun and Goswami have managed to do with tight frames and shots is extraordinary
  3. It pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to the lived reality of being a middle-class Muslim boy in India – it is so well done that it never feels preachy and yet you do nothing but squirm in your seat.
  4. It is one of the most searing yet restrained indictments of the corridors of corporate power in India. One of India’s finest theatre actors delivers perhaps the finest and most restrained performance I have seen that I can remember in recent times (do we say this every-time he is given the right material?). And through it, he makes us wonder how it is even possible that we have only turned to satire & parody for this depiction of the turn of events previously

Perhaps the one failing of the show, that will impair how well it ages, is the predictable ‘mard waali‘ lens it has in its portrayal of the role women play – be it in corporate India, the police station, or the home. The standard tropes, the standard progressions, the standard justifications of needing to depict how things are from the male lens. But, I wonder, is that too, a commentary? Perhaps not a deliberate one. Also, I wonder if we can move away from the tropes & language of the Mahabharat soon. Thankfully they were subtle, and just enough that they draw in other demos than just the one this blogger falls in, without alienating him. 🙂

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