BY GAUTAM DEKA
Content Warning: This article contains mentions of rape, violence, sexual harassment, Islamophobia, and casteist slurs.
Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, an actor-singer from Maharashtra recently asked Twitter why recent Indian web series have been so dark and violent. Although it may seem silly at first glance, it is an important question. Recent Indian series on OTT platforms like Sacred Games, Mirzapur, Delhi Crime, and ‘Paatal Lok,’ all deal with dark themes and are not afraid of depicting gratuitous violence. OTT platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Zee5 have truly revolutionized Indian content. The recent influx of dark and violent shows is a sign of freedom; storytellers who have wanted to tell real stories about the dark underbelly of the Indian society are finally getting their chance. It truly feels like the rot of India is surfacing. Stories that were suppressed due to their controversial subject matter are coming to the forefront now, and this is a cathartic time for storytellers who previously were side-lined.
A show in this vein is ‘Paatal Lok,’ produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films and written by Sudip Sharma of ‘Sonchiriya’ fame. ‘Paatal Lok’ is especially gory, it does not shy away from violence. In an interview with Film Companion, Anupama Chopra asks the creators of the show about the violence and Prosit Roy (one of the directors) replies by saying “horror exists in our society, therefore it has to be horrific.”
‘Paatal Lok,’ which translates to hell or netherworld is a show precisely about that: the horrors of Indian society. It explores India’s deeply entrenched caste system, rampant religious discrimination, deep-rooted bigotry, and violence, how that is interlinked with class, and where it all comes from. In a sense, ‘Paatal Lok’ is not a series about violence but a series exploring the origins of violence. It tells us how violent systems produce violence and how it is a perfectly symbiotic relationship. Violent individuals serve this flawed system because the system rewards them for their primal behaviour. As one of the characters says in the last episode “This system may seem rotten from the outside, but once you spend time in it, you realize it is well-oiled machinery.”
It is a show that is concerned with systems and circumstances and how they affect individuals. Hathi Ram is a perfectly conscientious police officer. For the first time in his career, he is offered a high profile case. The first time in his life that he is given any legitimate power. In an interrogation scene, we see Hathi Ram brutally batter a Muslim character called Kabir M and calls him a ‘Katua’ (a derogatory slur used against Muslims), and no one stops Hathi Ram. He suddenly realizes that he went too far, comes out of the interrogation room, and in a subdued and regretful manner, apologizes to his fellow officer who is also a Muslim. Hathi Ram’s face reveals surprise at his own behaviour. It’s a powerful scene that exposes how an environment can direct what people are capable of.
Episode 3 is titled ‘A History of Violence.’ This episode perfectly encapsulates the cycle of violence, how one drop of it only bursts open the flood gates. In this episode, we delve into the backstory of one the arrested suspects, Tope Singh. He is a ‘Manjaar,’ (a backward caste) mercilessly mocked because of something he can’t control. His family bowed down to the relentless discrimination but Tope Singh could not handle it, this results in humiliation for Tope and he resorts to the only tool he sees all around him: violence. We see how circumstances moulded Tope Singh, and how he was the vulnerable victim of a twisted system.
This episode also shows a police officer seeing the report of a rape case on TV and getting angry at the fact that the media reports the news on their local channel, not at the fact that a rape occurred. He shouts at his subordinate, telling him to threaten the reporter who reported it, on the pretense of a silly technicality. This depicts the intense normalization of violence, the police are so used to it that they do not bat an eyelid. There’s so much violence that the police are forced to give up. “They’re all gangsters here, that’s how it is over here…Lord Ram couldn’t destroy them, what can I do then?”, the police officer says.
One thing ‘Paatal Lok’ does especially well is induce a feeling of empathy in the viewer. It awards empathy to even the lowliest of criminals, the bloodiest of people. It shows us how these people are made, that they don’t come out of thin air, that circumstances make them the people they are. At first sight, Vishal Tyagi looks like a full-blown psychopath - someone who keeps his eyes squarely fixed on his (next?) victims. But he isn’t a purposeless psychopath, something triggered him and turned him into this cold-blooded murderer. He kills three young boys in broad daylight, but he kills them because they raped his sisters, and these young boys were ordered by Tyagi’s uncle to commit this heinous act.
How are individuals supposed to behave when there is an incentive hierarchy of violence against women? In Tyagi’s village, a ‘Chhota Kaam’ is equivalent to fingering, a ‘Bada Kaam’ is rape and a ‘Pura Kaam’ is equivalent to rape and murder. A brutal and inhuman system like this only goes to show the incredible depths of violence that the Indian society is plagued with. Why wouldn’t a system like this produce criminals? It’s not surprising that brutal individuals come out of brutal conditions. A Violent rape culture breeds people who are okay with the idea of rape.
‘Paatal Lok’ tells us that criminals do not fall from the sky. It is concerned with deconstructing the past and the oppressive systems of power that led to a violent present. It also tells us the disinterest of people in studying the past, and how often we simply label these people as monsters without understanding the lack of choices that they found themselves with. At the same time, the writers do not absolve individuals of their personal responsibility. Hathi Ram’s abusive father becomes the driving force behind Hathi Ram’s actions - in one episode he says that half his life his father told him he was a loser, and that he does not want to see the other half of his life being considered a loser by his son. There are times when abuse can drive you forward but it takes immense courage to not let it break you down.
‘Paatal Lok’s’ violence is not entertainment, it is a tool to reflect the uncomfortable truths that India holds. In fact, a 2018 survey held by the Thomson Reuters Foundation declared that India is the most unsafe country in the world for women. ‘Paatal Lok’ forces us to confront this reality. Sudip Sharma, the creator of the show said in a recent interview with Film Companion- “we are not going to sensationalize the violence, the idea is not for violence to be glorified, not to have fun with the violence, but to make people flinch, to make you realize what violence can do, how horrific real violence can be, that was really the objective with it.”