Paatal Lok creator Sudip Sharma: Agenda minus good art is propaganda
The writer discusses his 9-part investigative series set to stream on Amazon Prime
In recent years, prestige television in India has largely translated to expansive crime dramas with political heft. In that sense, the new Amazon Prime series Pataal Lok appears rooted in familiar terrain. The show follows a tense, cross-country investigation into the attempted murder of a primetime journalist. Its framing metaphor, established in promos, alludes to the mythic realms of heaven, earth, and hell. But crime and mythology figure among the show’s many layers, which seeks to examine the complex fault lines of Indian society.
“I resisted the long form for quite some time,” says series creator Sudip Sharma. The writer of critically-acclaimed films like NH10, Udta Punjab, and Sonchiriya says he wouldn’t watch international TV shows until five years ago. Then, on the urging of his manager, he checked out classics like David Simon’s The Wire, which he now hails as the ‘gold standard of television writing.’ “I grew up being a complete cinema boy,” he says. “But once you shake that inhibition and embrace the long-form format, there’s nothing more satisfying for a writer. It’s like going from writing short stories to working on novels.”
Paatal Lok is produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Filmz. Besides Sudip, the co-writers include Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli and Hardik Mehta. The show borrows its ‘basic storyline’ and several characters from Tarun Tejpal’s 2009 novel, The Story of My Assassins. In a previous statement, Amazon claimed that Tarun, who is facing rape charges since 2013, was not involved in the development and production of the show.
Sudip maintains he and his team of writers used the book as a starting point. “We started off from there and then various other inspirations came in,” he says. “I read The Story of My Assassins about a decade ago. I’ve been working on this show for the last 4-5 years. Given that it was just a starting point, and given how much we have moved away from the source material, it didn’t feel wrong.”
One key diversion was making Hathiram Chaudhary, a jaded cop in the Delhi Police, the protagonist of the show. Played by Jaideep Ahlawat, the character becomes our portal into the colliding worlds of the story. Sudip says he wanted to explore the life of a Delhi cop through Hathiram’s eyes. “What does it mean to find dead fetuses on the job and still go back and have dinner with your wife?” Another track involves the buddy cop equation between Hathiram and his junior Ansari (Ishwak Singh). “I came across a statistic that the representation of Muslims in Delhi Police is 1.5%. It was a shocking number for a community that makes up 13-14% of the state population. I wanted to explore what it’s like to be a rookie Muslim cop in a heavily Hindu-Sikh force.”
On the other end, far from Hathiram’s world, is journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi), the presumed victim of the plot. To Sudip, the character represents the decadent English media elite, a fading tribe in the shifting dynamics of the country. “In the 90s, these English media journalists were our heroes. They set the larger cultural agenda which we all followed. However, something changed in this nation in the last ten years. Today, the same liberal journalists are at a crossroads: Should they give in to the populist way or risk becoming irrelevant? What is it like to be a hero at one point and now be consistently trolled on social media?”
On the concept of divine realms, Sudip says it perfectly captures the class and social segregations in India. “The class divides in this country have always disturbed me,” he says. “It’s far more complex than just economic inequality. You also have caste, which by the virtue of its definition has a pyramid classification built into it. Then there is the regional divide — across metros, B-towns and villages. The socioeconomic choices and freedoms available in these places can be vastly different.”
Paatal Lok was shot over 110 locations across North India. Chitrakoot, a holy city along the borders of Uttar Pradesh, was a major location. The 9-episode series is directed by Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun. While thematically loaded, the show sticks to the core pleasures of an investigative thriller, Sudip assures. “For any writer, there’s a constant tussle between projecting your worldview and telling an engaging story. For me, the latter is always the primary focus. Agenda minus good art is just propaganda.”