'Paatal Lok' has catapulted Amazon Prime Video into pole position

The rave reviews garnered by Amazon Prime Video’s new series Paatal Lok, which debuted a few days ago has the potential of pushing the streaming wars to the next level.

Up until a short while ago, Netflix managed to remain the first name to pop up in people’s minds the moment someone mentioned original made for India content on OTT platforms. That might not be the case anymore.

Despite shows such as Inside Edge, Mirzapur and Four Shots More Please!, which managed to get not only audiences’ approval but also a great degree of critical acclaim, Amazon Prime appears to be playing catch up.

One of the reasons why Netflix seemed first amongst equals might have to do with the scale of its content generated in India that also attracted A-list names such as Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Saif Ali Khan and such but the days where a Sacred Games was enough to give it the edge are now more or less over.

Based on Tarun Tejapal’s book The Story of My Assassins, Patal Lok is a crime thriller that follows a disillusioned cop Hathiram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat), who lands the case of an assassination attempt gone wrong.

First published in 2012, Tejpal’s book got excellent reviews in the west where novels such as Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, both published in 2008, had set the platform for piercing narratives that  captured the realities of contemporary India ranging from the lavish abodes of the elite to the seediest slums.

Produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films, Paatal Lok is directed by Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy and features Gul Panag, and Neeraj Kabi besides others. The series has already been hailed as one of the best Indian crime thrillers, and a few critics compared it Netflix’s ‘Sacred Games moment’ and beyond. In some ways, Patal Lok follows the footsteps of Netflix’s Delhi Crime that was inspired by heinous 2012 real-life Delhi gang rape that took the nation. Both Patal Lok and Delhi Crime score top points for their authentic depiction of the city’s police force and the challenges that they overcome. 

Unlike Netflix, Amazon Prime’s roster consists of more shows that seem to be real-life or real-incidents inspired. Moreover, while the former’s shows such Selection Day, Leila, Ghoul have a strong element of fiction, and even escapism, the latter has demarcated the genre of its shows.

Another aspect that separates both the streaming giants in terms of India-specific content seems to the way they are exploring the format. Looking at shows such as Mirzapur and now Paatal Lok, Amazon Prime appeared to be better poised when it comes to breathing life into content that seems to be made for streaming platforms.

The audience is no longer interested in seeing Bollywood-inspired content that most satellite television channels fell prey to, and therefore, is willing to pay for stories that are unlike films.

The reason why Paatal Lok has caught the attention of one and all is simply this - you won’t see similar content elsewhere. By comparison, Netflix’s shows such as Sacred Games and Leila seemed an extension of the cinema of the likes of Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Kashyap and Deepa Mehta.

Moreover, the anthology series that Netflix crafted with the quartet of Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar - Lust Stories (2018) and Ghost Stories (2020) ends up looking like a continuation of the filmmakers’ Bombay Talkies (2013), a series of four short films celebrating the 100th year of Indian cinema. 

In terms of brand recall, the splash that Netflix made with Sacred Games remains unparalleled. But it’s follow-ups as Ghoul or Bard of Blood that had an impressive budget and top names to boost, it was produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies and featured Emran Hashmi, failed to relive the magic.

On the other hand, Amazon Prime’s comparatively smaller shows like Four Shots More, Please! Got international press when The New York Times called it India’s own ‘Sex and the City’.

In the same way, the relatively low-key Mirzapur that revolved around drugs, guns and lawlessness as it chronicled the life of Akhandanand Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi), a mafia boss of Mirzapur in Northern India, who made millions exporting carpets, spawned a cult following. 

Paatal Lok success across the spectrum despite a controversy that seems to be brewing, the makers paid journalist Tarun Tejpal extra to not use his name on the credits hasn’t gone down too well with a few critics, has put Amazon Prime Video in the pole position.

While Netflix executives might have gone back to the drawing board, the viewer is in for exciting times as the streaming wars enter a new domain.