Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers from the show.
One of Amazon Prime Video's finest 2020 offering, Paatal Lok, is easily one of the most engrossing, riveting crime-dramas to have released on an OTT platform. A neo-noir web series set against the backdrop of India's dark underbelly, it neither glosses over the grim reality, nor does it dramatize the situation for shock value.
Its unflinching look at the 'netherworld' that exists on Earth makes for a difficult but engaging series. But ultimately, the series' biggest win is Jaideep Ahlawat's flawless performance as a down-on-his-luck inspector, Hathiram Chaudhary.
Vaise toh yeh sab shaastron mein likha hai, but maine WhatsApp pe padha tha.
This is Hathiram's preferable ending quote to conversations. It is also a perfect summation of the aam aadmi that Hathiram Chaudhary represents - the one who will strive for a better life, but fall for the superstitions listed in a forwarded message.
Hathiram Chaudhary isn't a suave police officer solving crimes with more style than sense. Nor is he a 'supercop' who uses brawn over brain.
Rather, he is the police officer who will not be politically correct but will make a genuine effort to help you. The one who isn't exactly noble, but also hasn't learned the art of greasing symbolic bureaucratic wheels to reach the top.
Thus, when he is finally given the chance to investigate a high-profile case--a murder attempt on leading journalist Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi)-- he jumps at the chance of finally bagging the coveted promotion and winning his teenage son's elusive respect.
What starts as a seemingly straightforward investigation, soon turns into a trip down each characters' past - the convicts, the victim, the cop. The show makers expose how a society's flaws, namely rape culture, caste-system, religious intolerance, and child abuse, are what give birth to 'criminals'.
However, as the investigating officer, Hathiram Chaudhary is the string that ties these disparate stories together.
At every step, with every revelation, you can see Chaudhary's transformation - from a cop looking for a promotion to a man whose conscience prickles at him to hunt for justice.
Jaideep Ahlawat strikes just the right balance between a seasoned cop, used to the system's failures and a concerned inspector, looking to solve a case.
His exasperation at the society's failure, his sense of shame at his own actions, his unmistakable fear in the face of danger, and his determination to unravel the murder mystery - Jaideep Ahlawat gives each emotion, each experience due consideration, and completely draws the audience in.
Ultimately, you are left rooting for his story, even when you know how cop-dramas end. Even when you see his character commit acts you'd never accept in reality.
It's because Ahlawat's performance elevates Hathiram Chaudhary from being just another cop to an honest, raw, and relatable representation of the flawed society we are a part of.
Ahlawat, who has been a part of the industry for almost a decade, has always delivered solid performances in the past, with movies like Gangs of Wasseypur, Raazi, etc.
But, much like Powder allowed Pankaj Tripathi to move out from the shadows and showcase his talent before he achieved widespread fame, Paatal Lok gives Ahlawat a chance to showcase his extensive range as an actor.
While Powder never did reach the kind of popularity it deserved, with the advent of web series, Paatal Lok may easily prove to be the project that allows Ahlawat's popularity to soar. And it would be a well-deserved flight indeed.
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