It’s been quite a few months since the web series Paatal Lok aired on Amazon Prime and I have been constantly deliberating about the many plots and sub-plots of the show. Reviews published on online platforms and entertainment sections of newspapers focused on the brutal display of violence, Islamophobia, caste-based discrimination, and the inside realities of media, justice, and law and order.
But another jutting theme in this show is the portrayal of its male characters. In all nine episodes, the show is a clear commentary on masculinities that we see in men around us – a very toxic masculinity. We get a glimpse of why men act the way they do. Broken families, childhood traumas, village feuds are some of the many reasons that are responsible for shaping these men into bearers of a masculine culture that entitles them to be violent, criminal, aggressive, vengeful and dominant.
Paatal Lok has a number of male characters and a range of masculinities on display. These masculinities are hierarchical in terms of caste and class. Coming from an influential background and an upper caste, men such as Sanjeev Mehra, the journalist whose attempted murder begins the story, construct their masculinity around their office of power and elitist status. Meanwhile, Hathoda Tyagi, an accused in the attempted murder, constructs and showcases his masculine identity through instances of standing up to bullies and killing them for raping his sisters. In fact, it is from this incident that one understands why Tyagi became a criminal. Masculinity is socially constructed and Tyagi’s revenge is justified by his school teacher, who believes that it was his duty as a brother and a son.
Rape as a display of masculine power and caste hierarchies recurs when upper caste Sikh men rape Tope Singh’s mother for callously injuring some youth who bullied him for being born in a lower caste. More than caste, it is the bullies’ comment about the size of his penis – a crucial marker of masculinity for men – that triggers him to fight back. These incidents of rape are not just about caste hierarchies and men, they point to two things: one, that a woman represents the honour of the family, and honour of which men are saviours. Second, the show of power by men through forced sexual relations is a way to assert their masculinity. The exploitation of a woman’s honour is thus an exploitation of the whole caste and family.
Relationships of fathers and sons is another trope that shows the trajectory of masculinity for the heroes of this show, especially for Hathiram Chaudhary, the investigating inspector of the attempted murder case, and his son, Siddharth. He is offended by his father as his classmates make fun of Hathiram’s name. Additionally, he doesn’t think highly of his father since he is unable to provide him a lifestyle comparable to his classmates and his friends. While boys at his private school claim their masculinity through their economic capital, his friends do the same through their access to weapons.
In order to answer the bullies at school, Siddharth uses a stolen gun and points it at a classmate. He realises his only chance to showcase his masculinity and hence dominance is through terror and violence. As is shown to the viewers, Chaudhary’s father had an abusive relationship with him, which was based on abuse of power and dominance, and he tries hard not to make the same mistakes with his son. But it doesn’t quite work. In fact, Chaudhary finds acceptance as a father from his son only after he beats up local goons who are after him for stealing a gun. Not love, not care, but a father’s fight for his son finally makes him a ‘man’ in his eyes.
The intersection of religion with masculinity is evident in the characters of inspector Imran Ansari and Kabir M, an accused of the failed assassination of Sanjeev Mehra. The hegemony of the Hindu male over Muslims is clearly evident in the social situation depicted – Muslims are identified as lesser males, treated differently, and made fun of because of the practice of circumcision. The Hindi slang for a circumcised man is used as an abuse.
In the sequence where Chaudhary uses this slang to refer to Kabir M, Ansari remains a silent spectator, as if accepting his inferior status. He even refrains from raising any objection to stride remarks made by his colleagues about the Muslim community and his success in the UPSC exam. Maybe he knows that it will not bring any change in their mindset and that his identity of a Muslim male will always sideline his capabilities. Between Hindus and Muslims in this show, the Hindus remain more masculine. It is also shown how Kabir M witnesses his elder brother being lynched on a railway platform on the suspicion of eating beef – the valour of Hindu men as saviours of nationalism underlies such sequences.
Overall, this series presents a wide portrayal of masculine codes and expressions of masculinities in Northern India. The show should have attempted to shatter the stereotypical and flawed notions of being a ‘man’ and relieved men from the struggle of living up to idealised, hegemonic masculinity – unfortunately, all we ended up with is a glorification of the culture of toxic masculinity.