Brutally realistic, Paatal Lok—aka The Story of My Assassins—is set in Delhi, home to India’s biggest political, financial and media manipulations. A city of wild fantasies and devious schemes, where nothing is what it seems, where friends and foes change sides by the day, where heroes become villains overnight.
Former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, once described by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the most attractive Indian writers inEnglish of his generation, is back in the headlines after his globally-acclaimed novel, The Story Of My Assassins was adapted into a hit series, Paatal Lok, for Amazon Prime Video.
Reprising the novel that hit the bookstores in 2009, the Amazon series is about India’s great faultlines: caste, class, religion, language, inequality, injustice and how cash and power manipulate and undermine everything in India.
Tejpal, still battling a sexual misconduct allegation in a court in Goa, has not talked about the reason he is not credited for Pataal Lok. But sources confirm the book was bought by Amazon through his agency Tulsea for adaptation as a series a few years ago, and even a cursory crosscheck of the book and the television episodes reveals that it is a faithful adaptation, not a partial one.
The series, which revolves around a plot to kill a bold editor, and then proceeds to examine the life story of the assassins is a copy paste from the novel that many claim was based on Tejpal’s life. In 2001, Delhi Police had arrested five contract killers who the police said had taken a supari to eliminate Tejpal. The police had said the supari was given by the ISI of Pakistan. At the time, and for five years afterwards Tejpal was given Z category security by the Indian government, which means around the clock protection by a posse of armed policemen. Even six years later a lanky cop armed with a pistol always followed Tejpal during his time in Tehelka, and elsewhere.
During the time we worked at Tehelka, the story of threats to Tejpal’s life were often discussed on the edit floor. Many of us genuinely believed Tejpal was being hounded by some powerful people for the various investigations and expose carried out by Tehelka journalists. His security guard, who often shared salted peanuts and tea with us right outside the edit floor, laughed when asked if there ever was a threat to the life of the editor. He merely said he was doing his duty.
Later when Tejpal published his novel, The Story of My Assassins, which he maintained was a work of pure imagination, it was possible to see the source of some of his inspiration, especially in the police paraphernalia surrounding him.
Anyone who bothers to flip through Tejpal’s novel will instantly recognize all the characters of Paatal Lok. Hathiram the cop, Hathoda Tyagi the hammer killer, Tope Singh alias Chaaku, Kabir M the muslim car thief, Chini the north-east orphan, Sara the feisty mistress, Donullia Gujjar the dacoit, Gwala Gujjar the political henchman, Rajbir Gujjar the coach, Bajpayee the politician, even Felicia the maid and Katua Commando the henchman are all characters drawn directly from Tejpal’s novel.
The similarities don’t end there. The much-praised gritty feel of the series echoes the book, which makes no concessions to middle-class squeamishness in telling the truth of India. Also, the entire plot, in all its details, is picked from the book. Who is targeting the editor? Why is he being targeted? What saves him? The twists involving Bajpayee and the dog are exactly as written by Tejpal in his book. Even the small telling details that make the series memorable come straight from The Story of My Assassins — the Ganga water carried around by Bajpayee for his cleansing baths after he has met with his dalit associates, the medical certificate for circumcision Kabir M carries in his pocket to pretend he’s not a Muslim, and the travelling film show in the railway slum along with the glue-smelling. The main setting of Chitrakoot, which is at the heart of the story, is also precisely as it is in the book.
For lovers of the book what is missing entirely from the series is the humour, irony and wit that laced Tejpal’s prose. As one reviewer, Manjushree Thapa, had written, “Assassins not only illuminates, it also entertains…it is full of laugh-aloud lines”. And Pulitzer prize winner, Katherine Boo had called it “Deeply humane, raucously funny, dizzy with social and psychological insight! A masterful account of 21st-century ambition, inequality, and power from one of India’s most fearless writers.”
For its sprawling themes, its Dickensian cast of characters, and its uncompromising tone of self-examining all aspects of india, the book had garnered rare acclaim everywhere. Critic Pankaj Mishra had said, “Combining a fierce political imagination with a tender solicitude for the losers of history, it sets a new and formidably high standard for Indian writing in English.” While Jason Burke had written in The Guardian, “ A complex, dark, exhilarating novel… Tejpal avoids cliches to render the tragedy, comedy, colour and violence of modern India better than anything else I have read in my three years as correspondent here.” And the Wall Street Journal review had said it was an “erudite and exhilarating mix of Alexander Dumas and The Mahabharata”.
Paatal Lok and its screenwriters have managed to successfully capture some of these gritty and authentic attributes of the book, and these seem to have found eager recognition among viewers. Just as The Story of My Assassins was not written to cater to any western readers, the series has been made to address its own audience, Indian viewers. This has made it a critical and commercial blockbuster. Curiously, the last project of Sudip Sharma, who is formally credited with the Pataal Lok script and idea, was a lemon that closed at the cinema halls in less than a week. It was called Sonchirya, since many may not have heard of it. The success of Paatal Lok is a tremendous comeback for him.
Tehelka, with its international reputation for hardnosed, left-liberal journalism, collapsed when Tejpal was accused of sexual misconduct by a colleague. Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar personally held press conferences on the matter. Eventually Tejpal spent seven months in a Goa jail, and is currently on bail. The offices of Tehelka in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash II market have been rented to Spa operators and those running exclusive matrimonial services.
Brutally realistic, Paatal Lok — aka The Story Of My Assassins — is set in Delhi, home to India’s biggest political and financial and media manipulations. A city of wild fantasies and devious schemes, where nothing is what it seems, where friends and foes change sides by the day, where heroes become villains overnight, where more injustice is meted out than justice, where the only central principle of life is the acquisition of power, and where the lives of hundreds of millions of unsuspecting Indians hang in the balance every day.
As Hathiram, the sub-inspector at the heart of the story says in the beginning of the book, “I told you, sahib, those above us order us and we do. Our job is not to ask why — otherwise there will be a mountain of whys, and no job.” And a paragraph later, “Sahib, I did not become a sub-inspector by going to big colleges and answering three-hour examinations. The force is full of lovely boys whose teeth are still milky white and pubic hair still boot-polish black, and I am sure they know things of which I know nothing. I became an SI by dragging my khaki ass through the alleys and byways of this benighted city for thirty years, and one of the things I learnt, wearing out my soles, is that nothing in this city is what it seems. But I also learnt that one of the best ways to deal with things is to keep them simple. Small men like me can go deranged trying to figure out the motives and the means of big men.” In the series, Jaideep Ahlawat, has played Hathiram with tremendous aplomb, and made it the role of a lifetime.
While Hathiram is done justice to, and Hathoda Tyagi is fleshed out reasonably, the other assassins — Kabir M, Chini and Chaaku fail to match their rich complexity as written in The Story Of My Assassins. Kaalia, the runaway son of snake charmers, seems to have been dropped altogether. The journalist — editor — in the crossfire is done poorly. In the book he is a cynical, self-mocking man. In the series he is pompous and self-important. Sara, his lover, in the book is an angry, erudite activist around whom much of the stories of the assassins are unearthed.In the series she is at best a self-assured counterfoil to the editor. Guruji from the book, through whom the author tracks India’s workaday philosophical approaches, is missing from the series.
The makers of Paatal Lok have said in interviews that they locked themselves up in an office and visualised the film and its characters from a 450-page script. The film was shot over 120 locations with over 200 actors in extreme climatic conditions. The effort shows – the non-urban sequences are superb and give real power and authenticity to the show.
Tehelka – where I worked happily for many years – had under Tejpal’s editorship pushed the bar of quality journalism very high. Both the book and the series reflect the core concerns that obsessed the journalists at Tehelka. Injustice, inequality, caste conflict, class battles, dalit mobilisation, religious persecution, corruption — all these were the staple work of Tehelka journalists. And it won every kind of journalism award for its work. Personally for me it is good to see them highlighted so successfully in Paatal Lok.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says movies which show life’s grim realities will find more space because the Indian filmmakers and audience are trying hard to move away from the typical stereotypes of Bollywood. “That content is the king has been said a million times but now OTT, which has taken over in a big way, is weaving characters perfectly, forcing many to sit up and think. Everyone knows what they are seeing is the truth because they see it every day in their homes, neighbourhoods. There is nothing like good or bad, black or white, it’s all shades of grey, shadowy figures with murky motives.”
Dipankar is right but Paatal Lok took all this from a novel that the grand dame of lettersNayantara Sahgal called “The best Indian novel in English I have ever read”, so why has it not been credited. Is the existence of the criminal case against Tejpal the reason? Does this mean that every writer, artist, creator has to first get a certificate for purity from the certifying authorities ? By that standard, much of the world’s great creative work can be nullified. Or should the creative work stand on its own, irrespective of the legal status of its creator?
Only the Paatal Lok viewers who bother to read the book will get a true picture. For the moment the mystery of the missing credits has ironically become like something out of Tejpal’s own book — lost in mists of hidden motives, hypocrisies, lies and doublespeak.