Disclaimer: The opinion in this piece is solely that of author's and isn't an absolution of anything.
I did not really give the whole direct comparison between Paatal Lok and Sacred Games a genuine thought until I read a couple of pieces. And even though, there may not be a direct parallel, inspiration and obvious similarities is the sole reason for putting both these shows in the same frame. This, in turn, is a testament to Paatal Lok specifically.
Here's a piece of how and why Paatal Lok might just surpass Sacred Games now as possibly the best show to come out on Indian web scene with respect to the genre-
A Lot Of Factors Going For Itself
Sacred Games became a huge phenomenon and deservedly so but it had a lot of things going in its favor in the traditional and practical sense. Considering mainstream, it had the biggest possible names associated with the project as the likes of stars Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui making their debuts along with specialists like Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane creating the world. Practically, it was the first Indian original on a gigantic streaming platform that is Netflix. Thus there was a hype but no added pressure otherwise.
With Paatal Lok, not only have times changed with respect to the Indian web scene but also the challenges. There is an onslaught of shows coming in to and fro on the web and to be actually standing out in the current scenario is truly praiseworthy.
Same Same But Different
Firstly, let me just put it out there. I am almost too excited to finally have worthy INDIAN shows to over-analyze, nerd-out and have debates over. It is fascinating to see how similar the worlds of Sacred Games and Paatal Lok are and yet so different-
Two Parallel Worlds – Both Completely Opposite
Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) belonged to a more moral world which was relatable in several aspects while Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) belonged to an immoral but almost alluring world. The treatment of these worlds was done in a manner to make you feel that you are watching two different shows yet everything being entirely connected.
That is also what happens with Paatal Lok. No secret anymore as to how, Sanjiv Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) belongs to the ‘swarg lok’ which involves money, luxury, arrogance, and pretense in every aspect; while Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) belongs to the ‘paatal lok’ which is a constant reminder of the grim reality we live in and even though it might not be appetizing, there are always moments of hope and love that make it worthwhile.
Also known already, Sacred Games was directed by two directors Vikramaditya Motwane (Season 1) and Anurag Kashyap (Season 1 & 2) in each season (Neeraj Ghaywan taking over in Season 2 with Kashyap). And Paatal Lok is also directed by two directors, Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun.
Commentary On Several Issues
Sacred Games might be a distant memory now but the way the show did a commentary on several issues immediately caught the surprise of viewers and critics alike. In many ways, it was direct and to an extent, rather controversial too. When it comes to Paatal Lok, the show takes it not one but several steps further providing a commentary on the many evils. Managing to dangerously tackle probably too many topics, the Amazon Prime Video show actually does justice to all of them a whole lot better than Sacred Games or any other Indian web original so far.
Hidden References & More Similarities
If you are a nerd just like us out there, you might have noticed the intriguing and eye-popping references that Paatal Lok makes with respect to Sacred Games. In one of the final scenes of the show, Mary Lyngdoh aka Cheeni (Mariambem Ronaldo Singh) talks about how she has left two and a half lacs at Kukoo’s parlor. Ring a bell? Kukoo (Kubbra Sait) was one of the most loved and bold characters of Sacred Games also owning a parlor. Whether this intentional by the writers or not but the inspiration behind writing an LGBTQ character certainly seems obvious here. To their credit, Paatal Lok does a finer job in not only writing the character arc brilliantly but also with representation as Mariambem is a transgender actress in reality too.
Even though Sacred Games has two seasons to dwell on, the outcome of both Games and Paatal Lok is yet another similarity that is captivating. The final moments of Season 2 of Sacred Games leave all of us scratching our heads and while it is open to interpretation, you are reminded of how that isn’t really a good-wins-over-evil climax and reality is much complicated than that. The same is all the more clear with Paatal Lok where in spite of knowing everything about the evils that happened, Hathi Ram is a realist to understand that he cannot actually change anything. The situation is beautifully articulated and worded by DCP Bhagat (Vipin Sharma) in the end about the system being a well-oiled machine and how there is never an actual clarity of right or wrong.
Finally, A Tight Slap To The Idea of Masculinity
It is rather amazing how both Sacred Games and Paatal Lok are testosterone-filled shows with possibly not adequate female representation but they still manage to slap all the stereotypes of masculinity and also make statements on feminism. In spite of roping in a conventional A-lister Saif Ali Khan as the cop in Sacred Games, the treatment of his character wasn’t about glorifying his toned abs (in fact, he was shown to be overweight), muscles or hitting men in a way that they fly in the air. Paatal Lok takes it a notch higher giving an actor like Jaideep Ahlawat much-awaited due of his talent and not focusing on how he looks conventionally but his character arc.
The hegemonic idea of masculinity is instantly shattered with such shows and it reminds the viewer how it is okay to be vulnerable, and how masculinity isn’t about just being a ‘hero’ in a situation. Characters like Jojo Mascarenhas (Surveen Chawla), Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte), Sara Matthews (Niharika Lyra Dutt), and Renu Chaudhary (Gul Panag) are subtle reminders of the evolution of female characters and one that deserves appreciation.
To end the debate about which show is arguably better in a particular sense, I lean towards Paatal Lok for its unabashed yet effective treatment of a barrage of topics. While that isn’t really important in terms of comparison, what is important is how the Amazon Prime Video original is a re-affirming reminder of how the web scene isn’t necessarily just being bombarded with mediocre shows, and every once in awhile, there can be one show that changes the perception for the better.