Regressive Depiction of Caste & Bad Politics in ‘Paatal Lok’

The narrative in the Amazon Prime series is replete with ideological tension.

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Regressive Depiction of Caste & Bad Politics in ‘Paatal Lok’

Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime Video’s latest original, has been widely acclaimed as the best thriller to have come out of the country, and critics and viewers seem to praise it alike. This riveting series is being praised for its bold, profound and complex weaving of multiple issues of caste, class, gender and violence that continue to plague the contemporary Indian society.

I will, however, point out a major ideological tension that seems to pervade the entire narrative and which is identifiable with a neo-conservative response to many major problems related to the Indian social reality. The series in that sense can be understood to be deeply regressive in its depictions of many issues related to caste and its imagination of liberal politics.


The Question of Caste

One of the neo-conservative readings of caste has always considered the rise of Dalit politics as responsible for reintroducing caste particularly in the urban spaces which are thought to be devoid of caste discrimination. All expressions of caste atrocities have thus been relegated to the countryside where the traditional order is still thought to be the dominant reality. Dalit scholars have consistently argued that the new challenge is to locate the operation of caste in urban spaces and not anymore in the mere relegation of it in the countryside as the latter has been in subject ever since the rise of Dalit politics.

In Paatal Lok, as in Article 15, caste atrocities are brought to the surface only within this frame which seeks to relegate caste as a problem of India’s traditional order.

In addition to this one sees in Paatal Lok a certain re-scripting of Dalit movements as quasi-military organisations, a charge that is often put on Chandra Shekar Azad’s Bhim Army. But anti-caste and Dalit movements, far from being quasi-military, have been artistic and socio-cultural movements. It is due to this character of a strong ideological and epistemological challenge that Dalit and anti-caste movements are often called silent revolutions.

Paatal Lok, by relegating caste to the countryside and colouring Dalit movements as quasi-military organisations, silences the original and more substantial and progressive character of Dalit politics to which they remain committed with the motto of “Educate, Agitate and Organize.”

The real challenge is then to locate caste at the level on which Rohith Vemula committed suicide.

The rest is simply a politics of representation and appropriation which Dalit intellectuals have been fighting for so long. Early on, the narrative is set in such an ideological frame that it seeks to castigate/hide the progressive streaks. Tope Singh’s uncle’s views are worth considering, regarding these anti-caste organisations. He says, “When a man has no way out, he bears it all in silence. But you show him just a tiny bit of hope; hope—it’s a b***h.”

While Tope’s uncle has been able to mix well with his hopeless life in the aftermath of the atrocious event in his village, it is actually Tope’s future, born out of this hope, which has remained arrested within the narrative. This brings out the neo-conservatism I am talking about, and this ideological strain will be reinforced on many accounts within the narrative, as we will see.

A still from Paatal Lok.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Violent Communities & Bad Politics

Communities come to possess identities which are sometimes ascribed rather than earned. The status of Muslims as suspected communities globally is a perfect case and so is the perception of Gurjars as dacoits, goons and ruffians etc within India. The way Paatal Lok responds to Muslim identity is not the same way in which the identity of Gurjars have been handled. This community has a long history of being stereotyped as dacoits, thieves, goons ever since their confrontations with colonisers, which forced them to fight guerrilla wars.

This colonial stereotyping of Gurjars continued in the Indian cinematic universe and movies like Mela (2000) simply minted these hackneyed projections by casting them as villagers. Even Zila Ghazibad (2013) and Bhaukal (2020) have fed on the same representations. However, the reality is quite different, as sections of Gurjars continue to be progressive and it is precisely the disregard to the progressive character of these communities that Indian cinema has remained conservative in its approach.

A still from Paatal Lok.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

The System Is Perfectly-Oiled And Working

Hathi Ram is the protagonist because he sets the framework within which the narrative will play, namely a world that is being divided into three domains - swarg lok (heaven), dharti lok (Earth) and paatal lok (Hell). This division resonates with the class divisions of the most powerful, the middle and the least powerful of all. The conflict of this series will then unfold in having the creatures of pataal lok crawling up to the swarg lok, intertwining the people of dharti lok, and thus causing cracks which can permit the entry of the marginalised into the upper echelons.

A still from Paatal Lok.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In this case, it is a party of Dalits who wanted to make it to national politics that sent these creatures into the swarg lok and dharti lok. But in the end, a coalition between Bajpayee and Gwala Gujjar reflects the shaky bonds of their political aspirations. Towards the end, the conservative rhetoric of maintaining the status quo is delivered by DCP Bhagat. Bhagat tells Hathi Ram,

This system looks completely rotten from the outside, Chuadhary, but once you spend some time in it, you realize it’s a well-oiled machinery. Every part knows its job well. And the one that doesn’t simply gets replaced. But the system never changes.

It is this fate which Hathi Ram must accept and so do other characters like Tope Singh, whose attempt to free himself from caste discrimination ultimately lands him in jail within the narrative chosen primarily by a neo-conservative narrator—a narrator who believes that the system is above all, and each one has their proper place in it.

What’s With The Dog And Eklavya?

Tyagi’s love for dogs is dubious for it needs legitimation from his guru. It’s a love that has no confidence in its own existence. The entire plot is then hinged on this loyalty of Tyagi to his master. Tyagi can’t kill without his guru’s sanction.

This makes Tyagi a full reincarnation of Eklavya who was loyal to his guru, who had obliterated his talent on his guru’s behest. Eklavya’s obliteration is thus not in the act of cutting his thumb but in believing his guru as such. His obliteration is then required and planned by his guru so that the system can be saved from his extraordinary power to challenge the status quo and making a low-born change the system. Tyagi, as a creature of the underworld, must find the same fate where his decapitation spells his death. His death will look as if self-caused, but in reality, Tyagi was being set up, just like Eklavya. It was all about killing Tyagi’s might, meaning the system not only decides what is evil but also provides conditions to eliminate them.

Abhishek Banerjee in a still from Paatal Lok.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

That’s how a piece of perfectly oiled machinery troubleshoots its many ills and as such can only be considered a conservative doctrine of preordained spiritual mechanism. Hence, Tyagi’s birth and death are encapsulated in spiritual oracles.

Towards the end, Hathi Ram says “Tyagi might be a monster but there was still some humanity left in him.” One may ask what died with Tyagi—his monstrosity or his humanity? One may also ask as to what actually is human about this brutal murderer; the answer is quite Freudian in a sense. Hathi Ram calls him human because Tyagi’s love for dogs meant that he is still bound by relations and feelings of love. Freud argues in Civilization and Its Discontents that humans, without the limitations put forth by civilisation, are basically destructive animals. They are human only because they are bound by codes of human social existence.

So, the narrator locates Tyagi’s humanity in a condition of bondage to social norms. As such, it is a conservative doctrine, in opposition to liberal humanism which locates the essence of humanity in an individual’s ability to break free from encumbrances placed by nature and society.

Hence, in Tyagi’s case as well, we come across a conservative underpinning to his moral capacity.

In Hathi Ram’s perspective, the protagonist and the narrator of this world, it was his humanity. But then this means that Hathi Ram himself must remain couched within his conservative worldview, maybe as a lowly trouble-shooter who is run by his bosses. Thus towards the end, he is successful in regaining the confidence of his son, symbolising a moment of harmony ensuring a patriarchal legitimation of power.

(The writer is a PhD scholar in the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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