In a nation furiously torn apart on most matters, Paatal Lok is a surprising unifier. Truthfully only for urban India with liberal access to high-speed internet, but that too is no mean achievement. Inspired by homogenous feedback from otherwise heterogenous minds, I too succumbed to the invitation, impressed technically and enslaved emotionally.
The production values and quality of acting are certainly best-in-class, which always helps in creating traction and loyalty. As is the format of presentation typical to the OTT genres, a lengthy narrative which can be consumed flexibly, although many have watched in a solitary transfixed sequence. It also comes across as brutally original and indigenous, not a merry knockoff from Korea or the USA. But the real reason for this affinity, I believe, is a heartfelt desire of most of us to return to the ‘old normal’, tyrannised currently by the mysterious and threatening ‘new normal’.
You must have by now experienced facets of the ‘new normal’, as evident in our living and dealings. Social distancing is a polite but exclusionary nomenclature, masks and video calls restricting human interactions. Restaurants are shut as are theatres and most damagingly, travel is now non grata. Even offices are opening with a stutter, public display of camaraderie abjectly discouraged. Our bank balances are affected with cuts galore and overall, a forbidding new equilibrium is rapidly emerging.
In all this turmoil, Paatal Lok is a fine representation of the ‘old normal’, scathingly familiar in our socio-cultural memory. The narrative is entrenched in unshakeable prejudices – media-politics nexus, perils of class and caste, dark underbellies of justice, money over merit and much more. Now, these are neither contemporary nor universal triggers but timelessly and quintessentially Indian, thus the cause of intuitive affiliation. Which enthuse us with a strange sense of comfort, any form of the ‘familiar’ even if problematic, considered a symbolic restoration of how life used to be. A popular culture version of Stockholm Syndrome, the audience relieved to be prisoners of a known devil, in this age of invisible assassins.
This hankering for the ‘old normal’ is going to be an important part of consumer behaviour in the period, continuing rather indefinitely. Many wellness aficionados are publicly clamouring for samosas and egg rolls, even the dubious coffee in CCD solicited for the elusive conversations. Monday mornings, the fabled symbol of corporate oppression, is now sought like cotton candy, locked-down fellows pleading for the biometric access. Red-eye flights at the mercy of punitive CFOs suddenly seem like excursions to wonderland, even leg-oppressed Spicejet will do if the conference is in Bangkok. The deeply polluted air of Khan Market, under constant scrutiny of AQI apps, is being eagerly desired as if an Alpine resort and when newspapers made a comeback, digital natives were scrambling to society entry points. A self-driven 10- minute jaunt within the sectoral confines did feel like coveted liberation, when finally permitted.
So, quite like Paatal Lok, brands which strategically pander to this restoration of the ‘old normal’, will gain enviable currency. This includes every ‘comfort’ experience, which helps to re-embrace the past while suspending the present. You would be familiar with the Lipstick Effect, how expenditure on smaller indulgences increase during recessions, to compensate for inabilities to buy bigger things. Consider this current scenario in urban India to be an emotional version of this ‘Great Depression’ theory, we will spend increasingly on familiar indulgences, as per pocket size, to restore mental equilibrium.
Let me imagine a few illustrations of the ‘old normal’, as fodder for business owners. When travel reopens, urban migrants will wish to visit their hometowns instantly, reconnecting with people and places, much before the next exotic destination. Dining out will be to the original favourites, the Chinese from Nanking and the kebabs from Karim’s. In content consumption, I do predict a resurgence of ‘progressive retro’, as contexts and not necessarily timelines. Miniature pilgrimages, a trip to the most affectionate place of worship, will rise sharply as we review our spiritual contracts. Just as the neighbourhood store will resurface with a bang, the age-old association proving to be the most reliable.
Family and romantic relationships will take a decisive turn, either permanently secured or speedily severed. As people start afresh, they will quickly identify elements of the old they wish to hungrily retain, thus merging them with the ways of the new. Whether we get more inner-directed or extroverted will be discovered over time, but every mature individual will define her own path. Since stern conformance to social protocols will be unavoidable, the right to choose will be sincerely enforced whenever possible.
On Paatal Lok, it must be said that rarely has darkness been portrayed with so much light. Light, as in the clarity of the imagery, sharp directorial and cinematographic skills. Light, as in the clarity of the concept, imagination crafted with realistic finesse. It is the ‘old normal’ at its creative finest, an inspiration for many beyond its domain.
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