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Paatal Lok Attempts To Be Progressive But Disappoints By Falling Back On Toxic Masculinity

Posted: May 20, 2020

Amazon Prime series Pataal Lok, attempts to critique Islamophobia, casteism and other regressive societal aspects but manages to dilute its own stance.

Even before one watches Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime, one is, as a feminist, disappointed. It is after all, ‘inspired’ by the book, ‘The Story of My Assassins,’ by Tarun Tejpal, who is out on bail after being accused of rape by a colleague.

As reported by Mid Day, Amazon had initially axed the show at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2018, to avoid a backlash. However, as has always happened, abusers and harassers just need to wait for some time. And soon, someone wants to bring them back into the mainstream, even if under disguise.

After all, not publicly crediting Tejpal allows the makers and the show to maintain their ‘progressive’ image. And this can be done without having to do the actual work –which, as it turns out, is pretty much what happens in the rest of the show as well.

A mere crime thriller would have sufficed

I can understand why the show is garnering so much praise. Jaideep Ahlawat’s performance as Haathi Ram Chaudhary, an underdog cop who is handed a case of a lifetime, is superlative. He inhabits the character and his insecurities, and carries the viewer through the murky political and social landscapes of both big cities and small towns.

The show is gritty, unfiltered, and perfectly paced, moving fast enough to keep the viewer interested, but not so fast that it becomes difficult to keep up. A truly creative twist in the end that tugs on the heart strings while tying up loose ends is also worth appreciating.

If the show were just this –a crime thriller, one could just take it or leave it. However, it becomes social commentary as well, and that is where it becomes formulaic and comes off as insincere.

The show has been slammed, predictably, by the Hindu right wing for being ‘hinduphobic.’ However, simply because a show doesn’t pander to the conservative base, doesn’t automatically make it progressive. It attempts to comment on the prevailing islamophobia, transphobia and casteism in India. But does so by brutalising many of the minority characters and never allowing them to rise above the narrative of oppression, in the name of being realistic.

The makers either patronise them or demonise them

As Sidharth Shankar (Social Media Editor at Youth Ki Awaaz, Hindi) pointed out in a series of tweets about the Savarna gaze of the series, “It seems the only Dalits Savarna film makers can accept are those who are helpless, who don’t assert their identity and has no political awareness. They not only patronise Dalits but also demonise those who don’t fall into the Savarna’s definition of a Dalit.”

Similar patronising attitudes are extended towards other marginalised groups. In places it displays a distinct lack of sensitivity, in the way that it shows them as targets of violence.

For example, in one shot, a Muslim man opens his lunch box containing a non-vegetarian dish, in a train compartment. Predictably, his Hindu co-passenger doubles over retching in disgust. Meanwhile, a group of sloganeering, saffron clad people march on the platform outside.

To anyone who is even remotely aware of current realities, it is pretty obvious what is coming next. There was no actual need to show on screen the lynching that follows. But hey, it worked to brand Sacred Games as anti-Islamophobic, so why not use it here as well!

The identity of minorities in victimhood

Similarly, when a child character, Mary (a transwoman), who has been leched at by the local goon is summoned by him, the menace and danger is established. There is no need to show the child being sexually abused, but the show goes ahead and does just that.

The same character, as an adult (played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) , is shown as being beaten mercilessly by the police (the protagonist, in fact!) Her ‘crime’ was presenting herself as a woman. In yet another scene, in prison with men (who clearly see her as a ‘woman’ where the law fails to) she is masturbated to by a fellow prisoner as she bathes.

This is how, the show constantly locates her identity in her victimhood. The character (from one of India’s north-eastern states; the show does not clarify which one) is also referred to with a sexual and racist slur. Which is something that the Gorkha community has started a petition against. Coming at a time when people from the North East are already facing racist attacks due to COIVID-19, this is especially serious.

One wonders at the purpose of such scenes

One argument usually given is that it is used to ‘raise awareness,’ but that doesn’t even make sense. To those from these communities, it is a painful truth that they get enough of in real life. Allies too, are aware of the struggles.

And the stone-hearted bigots who dismiss real-life lynchings and other hate crimes as “fake news” or propaganda, are not going to be moved by fictionalised portrayals of it.

Another argument is that this is the reality, and that such issues much be discussed. While I agree that we must speak about these issues, there is a way to do that with sensitivity. As I pointed out above, the scenes preceding the actual violence make it very clear what is happening.

Are they merely there for shock value?

The violent scenes are there only for the shock value, and end up cheapening the real message.

In fact, the show itself avoids showing the rapes of the sisters of one of the characters. Though it is spoken of in a voiceover, you know the makers understand violence need not be shown to  be conveyed. Yet, when it comes to the rape of a Dalit woman, it doesn’t have the same scruples.

Quoting from Revolucinema’s Facebook post about Paatal Lok, “When a filmmaker chooses to depict in a close up the traumatised face of an oppressed caste woman being gang raped and then goes for wide angle shot to show the full act and when a child is getting sodomised it is no longer art or cinema or literature, it is just the supremacist filmmaker/writer/artists’ display of power not very different from the on screen perpetrator. Graphic recreation of trauma and atrocity in cinema is a process of dehumanisation of the audience. On the outset it is an assault upon survivors who have undergone abuse and violence.”

But some characters make it worth watching

The few memorable women in the series –Swastika Mukherjee playing Dolly, Gul Panag’s Renu, and Sara, played by, Niharika Lyra Dutt, stay with the audience long after we are done watching. This is not because the writers have done a particularly good job of writing them, but because these talented actors have made the best of the limited roles they were given. They honestly deserved better.

Coming to the protagonist, Haathi Ram Chaudhary –he is shown as a deeply flawed character, frustrated by the fact that he is perceived as a loser by his colleagues and by his family. I truly hoped that his character arc would involve him fixing his relationships with the use of kindness and communication.

It deceives you into believing its progressiveness

Instead, it only takes him beating up a local rowdy and threatening another one with violence, to gain the respect of his son. A slap delivered to his wife (duly returned by her, because that is the only ‘progressive’ response to marital violence that our film makers can think of) is enough to start the road to recovery in that relationship. Ultimately, it is embracing toxic masculinity, and not its rejection, that makes him the “hero.”

This is why the progressive veneer of Paatal Lok is deceptive.

It reminds me of an insightful discussion between Sidhart Shankar and Himanshu Singh. They spoke of how such ‘progressive’ film makers attempt to garner sympathy and support by making movies/series on the lived experiences of marginalised communities. At the same time they don’t want to put in the effort to take care of the connotations that make those portrayals problematic.

Paatal Lok, unfortunately, is yet another example of the same tendency.

Picture credits: Still from the series Paatal Lok

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