Thode aur thoughts on Paatal Lok!

Updated: May 27, 2020, 07:34 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Where do you stand on the 'art versus artiste' debate? I say, keep your morality; the loss is yours.

A screen grab from Paatal Lok; the cover of Tarun Tejpal's The Story Of My Assassins. Pic/Youtube, Google Books
A screen grab from Paatal Lok; the cover of Tarun Tejpal's The Story Of My Assassins. Pic/Youtube, Google Books

Mayank ShekharAny similarities to real persons is not coincidental. It is intentional." Thus cleverly begins Costa Gavras' Z that, as a French-Algerian film, was in many ways to the Oscars in 1970, what the Korean Parasite was in 2020 — nominated in both Best Film and Best Foreign Language categories, and having picked up the latter, besides bagging Best Editing Oscar from among Hollywood's A-list elite!

While equally a robust, dark political-thriller, why am I particularly mentioning Z in a post/piece on Paatal Lok? Because that's the movie the journalist-character plans to watch, with his "Anglo activist" type girlfriend Sara, on New Year's Eve, before he disappoints her, having bounced off to a pind in Punjab to be with the pir/seer, who guides his life.

No, you did not blink through that moment in Paatal Lok. It's there in Tarun Tejpal's book The Story Of My Assassins. The Amazon Prime series wholly omits this "sacred" aspect from the journalist's life, I'm assuming, to steer it clear from further comparisons with the equally expansive, dystopian Netflix India series, Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra's novel of the same name.

My copy of Chandra's novel is 900 pages; Tejpal's is 522 pages — am only addressing a pet peeve to do with books, which is that no one ever discusses/mentions it by the number of its pages, while the running time of a movie is inevitably everyone's paramount concern!

A fine web-series is the new novel, you can tell, as you watch Paatal Lok — so strong on sub-plot, neatly, patiently chapter-ised, although killing imagination for the reader (of course). For all Paatal Lok characters in the book — journalist, girlfriend Sara, wife Dolly, cop Hathi Ram, assassins Hathoda, Chakku, Tope, etc — the elaborate descriptions on the pages go to die with two-dimensional faces attached to names, and places, in a film/series, that is set in stone and set to motion at the same time.

This is probably why fans of a book rarely, if ever, are satisfied by its screen adaptation. Fans of a film, on the other hand, hardly ever visit, forget about devouring, the book it was based on! What's the point?

Yet both serve such different purposes. It's impossible to viscerally sense/feel the filth/depth/depravity/gratuitousness of crime/violence, for instance, with the same gravity as you experience it on screen. Those with issues with realism of violence on the screen itself, I suspect, would much rather live in denial. Or keep safe-distance through daily news that objectifies humans into statistics on crime.

The series Pataal Lok appears as a visual attempt to reverse just that. What about such scenes normalising/encouraging violence in society? We've been through this before. It's like blaming Hamlet for every time somebody kills his uncle. Where do I remember this analogy from? A column Tejpal wrote in Outlook from back when I was a kid.

His book, as he couldn't have made it any clearer, is the story of his alleged assassins. While I continue with my stray thoughts, I suggest those who haven't seen Paatal Lok disembark at this point, and probably watch the show instead (spoiler alert).

The entire operation of nabbed hit-men and the exposed target in the series/book is a complete set-up — a trap of sorts put together by the deep-state/government, that primarily acts against its people through the police. And that it gets to lord over by winning people's trust/vote through an election! By all accounts, Tejpal's was apparently a true story. The state had put him under surveillance, to scare the shit out of him as a journalist, yes — but to settle an altogether separate score. with his supposed assassins elsewhere!

In fact, it's the same story of set-up and actual encounter that a top movie-star once told me about his alleged assassins from the '90s. The police-boss and a major minister informed him about them. Those guys were gunned down, a few days later, right outside his house, while he was abroad! What kinda assassins show up without even ascertaining their target's current location?

I felt Paatal Lok owes so much of its narrative skills/style to David Simon's HBO series The Wire — to think, that was 18 years ago! The level of filmmaking — especially the blocking in chase-sequences — is world-class. Its purpose, including performances, examining origins of crime, in terms of layer/depth is only a few feet short of Joker. But the fact is: If there was no The Story Of My Assassins, the book, there would not have been Paatal Lok, the series.

Tejpal, the author, is a rape-accused. This would've probably put people off, from delving into his art/writing. Which is totally unrelated to his crime. And that he deserves punishment for, once proven in a court of law. You can be moralistic about criminals, alleged or otherwise; and choose not to benefit from their works, in art, scholarship, and elsewhere. That's your loss.

And we can debate this forever. Or, you can totally be like the platform of a show, that picks up an author's work, but completely does not credit the original material, plus the creator — pleasing everyone in the bargain. Wah!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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