Before actor Neeraj Kabi took on the role of a media tycoon who escapes assassination in his latest project "Paatal Lok", he was eyeing the part of Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary after he read about the fascinating journey the character goes through. It was Jaideep Ahlawat who eventually played the washed out cop who lands the case of a lifetime when four suspects are nabbed in the assassination attempt of a prominent journalist, Kabi's Sanjeev Mehra. Kabi, best known for films "Talvar", "Ship of Theseus", and web series "Sacred Games", said the Amazon Prime Video Original was a "dream project".
"I was waiting for a good show on Amazon and 'Paatal Lok' had all of it -- good script, story, and cast. It joined all the dots beautifully.
"I remember I got attracted to Hathiram's character first. 'Kya kamaal ka character hai ye Hathiram ka, kya likha hai'. I thought 'What a journey he is going to go through.' I was not even looking at my own character," the actor told PTI in an interview.
But then he began reading his "Macbeth-like" character, who rises to power after but at the cost of his personal integrity.
"The writing and the arc were beautiful. The series begins with Sanjeev's downfall. He was once a great hero. He was the poster boy of investigative journalism. Then suddenly, because the TRPs of his channel were down, his boss decides to sack him. He's a slightly broken man who later decides to fight back."
"Paatal Lok" is a neo-noir show which takes a deep dive into the hinterland India in the form of an investigative thriller, while talking about crime, politics, caste, and class divide.
Creator Sudip Sharma of "NH-10" and "Udta Punjab" fame found the germ of the nine-episode series in 2009 novel "The Story of My Assassin", by Tehelka magazine founder Tarun Tejpal.
The actor said the show only drew basic idea from the book and Tejpal, who is accused of sexually assaulting his former woman colleague, is not associated with the series.
"The whole plot that this is a story about the four people who are into crime and you are trying to take us into their personal, human world. Not their world of crime, we are telling you how it all began," he added.
Kabi said unless it's a biopic, he doesn't draw inspiration from real-life characters. He has played Mahatma Gandhi in Shyam Benegal's 2014 television series, "Samvidhaan".
"For example, if I'm playing Gandhi, it's going to be everything about him. But if it's a profession like journalism or engineering, I never take one character because it's too limited a vision.
"What I took here was the entire concept of journalism. I read on the country's great journalists in the 1990s and understand their philosophy, mindsets and what made them had that courage."
The 52-year-old actor said at one point of time, the viewer will come to empathise with the people of 'paatal lok', a metaphor used in the series for the lower class who have been referred to as 'worms'. "People from the 'Paatal Lok' are not always criminals. They might perform the crime or be connected to it, but there are another loks (classes) - dharti (middle) and swarg (upper) which initiate that crime. The doers are different and the creators are different. That's the dichotomy of the series," he said.
An acclaimed film and theatre actor, Kabi gained popularity as the corrupt DCP Parulkar in "Sacred Games", a series which was a fight to finish to save the city of Mumbai from a nuclear attack.
The actor admitted that both "Paatal Lok" and the Netflix India Original share certain doomsday undercurrents but both shows have their own identity.
"They have those undercurrents, in fact 'Sacred Games' had it in a very, very big way. Having read the script, there are certain sensibilities over there. But I don't believe that one show supersedes another. 'Sacred Games' was a great show and had its own time, so is 'Paatal Lok'.
"People might feel that because now comes another amazing series. Each of these shows has the power to stand on its own. They are magnanimous mountains of work. I don't think they were made to outdo any one."
In the times of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation is grim and Kabi believes the audience will react to a gritty, graphic thriller like "Paatal Lok" according to their sensibilities.
"Some of them are finding it as a great relief to see something wonderful under lockdown at home. I have got responses from people saying that 'anyway things are not good outside and now to see a show like this it's really pulling me down and I'm feeling emotionally low', even though it is a great watch.
"This is bound to happen because the show is coming out at a time when things are very grave outside. We are living in very poor times. Times when people are falling sick and dying. This is not just an incident, it's a phase of humanity we are going through. We have never faced this. How people see wars, we are seeing this time," he said.
Next for Kabi is a mainstream Hindi feature film with a leading female actor and a Hollywood web series.
He had begun shooting for the series in March but the project is on hold due to the lockdown.
"That's a wonderful project and a nice role. I'm very happy about it."
Produced by actor Anushka Sharma's Clean Slate Films, "Paatal Lok" also features Gul Panag, Abhishek Banerjee, Swastika Mukherjee, among others.