A woman Delhi police officer slaps a person of North-East-Indian origin and calls her a “lying Nepali whore.”A man on a scooter in Delhi spits paan at a Manipuri girl and calls her Corona.A dozen gun-wielding upper caste villagers in Punjab walk into a Manjaar (lower caste) household and throw down the decapitated head of one of their youth leaders. They’re here to take revenge for the crimes of the offending son of the family. His crime was to stand up to upper-caste bullies. When the boy’s old grandfather asks them to forgive the boy, the retort is it’s enough that they’re being allowed to stay in the village. The men then take turns raping the boy’s mother.A Dalit farm labourer in a Punjab village has both his arms and one leg chopped off by upper-caste Jat men. His crime? Seeking justice for the gang rape of his minor daughter.An ageing small-town Muslim man explains to a pair of investigating cops why he decided to get a ‘medical circumcision’ certificate made for his son. You can’t miss the defeated look in his eyes as he says with just a hint of irony, “Jisse maine Mussalman tak nahi banne diya, aap logo ne usse jihadi bana diya (I was scared to even let him identify as a Muslim, but you people still painted him as a Jihadi).”‘Paatal Lok’s Gritty Narrative Misses by a WhiskerTwo young Muslim brothers board a Delhi-Mathura train. An argument over seating turns ugly and the other passengers begin taunting them for being ‘beef eaters’. The 15-year-old boy’s dead body is thrown out of the carriage — he’s been stabbed multiple times.Spot the differences. What’s reality, what’s fiction?It doesn’t really matter, does it? What’s common to all these incidents is the utter lack of consequences. Nobody raises an eyebrow — it’s just another day in the life of India.Three of the episodes described above happen on Amazon Prime’s new fiction series, Paatal Lok. The show opens with chief protagonist, Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), describing the three worlds according to the Hindu scriptures (WhatsApp edition) to his Muslim subordinate, Ansari (Ishwak Singh). There’s Swarg (Heaven), which he compares to Delhi’s central districts that are inhabited by the rich and powerful; there’s Dharti (Earth) where mere mortals like us reside; and then there’s Paatal (Hell) where insects reside. ‘Insects’ here refers to those marginalized by society and not seen as part of the mainstream.There are then the layers that exist even within those worlds, and show creator Sudip Sharma has captured these nuances with clinical accuracy. In all his pre-release interviews, Sharma has spoken extensively about these three worlds and what demarcates the layers within them. And the underlying symbolism running through out the show’s writing is not lost on anyone who cares to look. What’s left unsaid in that opening scene though, is the fact that Hathi Ram and Ansari might inhabit the same world but they are not equals. Ansari is Muslim, after all.Being a cop Ansari finds himself thrown into a world that’s dominated by majoritarian politics. In an early interrogation sequence, Hathi Ram gets particularly violent with a Muslim prisoner and generously sprays the K-word, a common communal slur used against Muslims in India. Ansari visibly flinches as he looks on quietly but when Hathi Ram apologises to him later, Ansari says it’s fine because it worked. Having to shrug off one’s minority-identity to succeed in a mainstream career is a story so normalised in today’s India that the show needed to subtly point it out for one to stand up and take notice. Just to hammer that point home, you see others doing a puja in the police station and distributing prasad like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Wearing your religion on your sleeve is obviously a privilege reserved for a chosen few.‘Paatal Lok’ Represents the Society We Live in: Cast For those on the other side of the law though, being the ‘wrong’ religion could hold so much more than just having to play down one’s identity. Kabir M, a small time car thief gets branded a Jihadi when he finds himself a pawn in a larger political game and it instantly gets lapped up by the media because it’s a convenient narrative.Paatal Lok also delves into caste politics with Tope Singh’s origin story (recounted above) from small town Punjab. Standing up to upper-caste bullies might have given him the escape he sought, but the consequences were borne by his family. In today’s India, an estimated four Dalit women get raped every day (as per a report by Human Rights Watch). Rape remains the single biggest tool of subjugation used by upper class landlords in rural India to keep their cheap labour in check.Discrimination has a myriad other faces though, and we Indians seem to excel at all of them. In the past two months, there have been numerous reports of discrimination against people from the North-East staying in other parts of the country. Oh, it’s nothing new — ask anyone from the region about having to deal with the chinki slur. Mainland Indians just have a brand-new excuse with COVID-19.Unfair to Compare ‘Paatal Lok’ to ‘Sacred Games’: Neeraj Kabi Paatal Lok just hammers home these stereotypes through the character of Cheeni, (even her name is a racial slur) and then layers it with transphobia. Cheeni isn’t just othered because of her ‘different’ looks, she’s also discovered to be transgender while in custody. This then sets off a fresh barrage of prejudice. A scene where Cheeni has to bathe while a man masturbates next to her just captures the utter lack of protection our judicial system offers to anyone who’s not seen as ‘regular’.Anyone who is not rich and/or an upper-caste Hindu is an ‘other’ and the same rules don’t apply to these two broad sections of society. This is an uncomfortable truth we’re wont to push to the back of our minds as we go about our daily lives. Every once in a while, something reminds us of this gaping abyss and right now Paatal Lok is that ‘something’. The series has turned a mirror towards the times we are living in and the complete absence of filters has riled up a section of the country. These are those who want to protect the reputation of the country, those true chest-thumping patriots who operate on the ostrich way of living: if we collectively turn a blind eye, it never happened.Propaganda, they screamed. Hinduphobia, they ranted. A malicious and agenda-ridden representation of our country, they cried. There’s also been some noise about how ‘the other India’ should be depicted on screen. But it’s easy to pass judgment while you’re spending your lockdown in your air-conditioned living rooms, watching premium paid content on your flat screen television sets. Perhaps, surround sound does help drown out the voices of the oppressed as they walk home, barefooted and hungry. We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.