Paatal Lok: Bollywood's most controversial hit series

Anushka Sharma is one of Bollywood’s best-known actors and is married to Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian cricket team. She recently co-produced Paatal Lok, the hit Amazon Prime thriller, but when she posted a screenshot of her virtual wrap party after shooting she had no idea just how controversial the show would be.

While its nine episodes were hailed for their accurate portrayal of India’s caste, religion, fake news and crime issues, the series also attracted a long list of complaints. Right-wing Facebook groups labelled it “anti-national” and “Hindu-phobic” for portraying how minorities are treated and a legal notice was served for a scene where a woman is raped by Sikhs. Soon the hashtag #BoycottPaatalLok was trending on Twitter. Nandkishor Gurjar, a member of the Legislative Assembly of the ruling BJP party, even filed a complaint against Sharma for using his picture in the series without permission. Gurjar’s photograph was used in a scene in which Balkrishna Bajpayee – a corrupt politician in the show – formally opens a highway. Gurjar even demanded that Virat Kohli divorce Sharma for making an unpatriotic show.

One of the lead actors, Abhishek Banerjee, feels the thriller’s success is due to its uncompromising realism. “It’s very important for individuals, especially as citizens, to understand what kind of society we are living in. Gone are the days when we used to live in a fantasy about our country,” he says.

The series sheds light on issues such as discrimination through the lens of Ansari, a Muslim policeman, who is constantly taunted for his religion at work. In one scene, another character tells him: “On politically loaded questions, sound positive and progressive. This is important for someone like you.”

With more than 160,000 Instagram followers, Banerjee aware of this reality growing more apparent for the younger generation. “I can see people talking about political issues. I can see that ongoing debate; people are not cooped up in their comfortable, privileged lives anymore.”

Banerjee’s co-star, Neeraj Kabi, plays an investigative journalist Sanjeev Mehra. He is hailed as a role model for honest journalism in the first episode after carrying out an undercover investigation, yet by the end of the show he is a poster child for fake news. “My character is about the failure of integrity and honesty,” Kabi says. Of the way the character develops, he says. “It was not because of the pressures from outside – that is always there for a human being – but you either choose to succumb, or you choose to be courageous and a fighter. Sanjeev chose to be more powerful.”

We are all Indians, we live here and love our nation. Why would we create something that is anti-India?

Abhishek Banerjee

When it comes to the controversy surrounding Sharma, Banerjee admits to “not feeling bad for her”. Kabi agrees: “The producer created this series and knows exactly what she has done.” Banerjee does find the accusations that the show is unpatriotic bewildering though. “I was born in this country. My father was a government officer. We are all Indians – we live here and love our nation,” he says. “Why would we create something that is anti-India?”

What makes the issues covered in the drama so harrowing – from Muslims being lynched to the oppression of Dalits (the lowest tier of India’s caste system) is that they are still prevalent. On 6 June, a 17-year-old Dalit boy was killed by upper caste people in his village for entering a temple. In February, more than 50 people were killed in Delhi riots over a law that deprives undocumented Muslims of citizenship rights. Of those who died, two-thirds were Muslim.

One scene in Paatal Lok shows a Muslim being lynched by a group of saffron-clad men chanting ‘Lord Ram’ – a reference to Lord Rama, a major Hindu deity. In another, there is police brutality as a transgender person is kicked while in custody. The series also touches upon the case of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was murdered outside her house, additionally highlighting the harassment of a local reporter who reports truthfully during elections.

“Now that a debate is ongoing and there is a backlash, it means that the point that was supposed to be made has been made, without actually giving an opinion,” says Banerjee with a sigh. “If you will feel bad about seeing something so brutal that’s actually happening in real life, why aren’t you feeling bad when it happens? Why aren’t you voicing your opinions then? How are these people quiet then?”

Is showing such scenes the only way to dissent?

“I think that’s the only way for art. It is the only weapon I have right now. If I can communicate something and get backlash for that, it means I have done a good job.”

There is still a long way to go before the stars of India’s vibrant screen culture are able to speak out freely.

  • Paatal Lok is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.