'We wanted to explore the divisions in India -- be it class, caste, language, religion or gender.'
There were various angles he wanted to explore in Pataal Lok, a thriller unfolding through the eyes of a jaded Delhi cop trying to solve an assassination attempt on a journalist. But the most important were India's religious and caste faultlines, says the show's writer-creator Sudip Sharma.
The show, which airs on Amazon Prime, has earned acclaim for its layered and incisive look at caste, class, gender and religion equations in the country and how they define the fate of four suspects at the centre of the investigation by Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat) and his subordinate Imran Ansari (Ishwak Singh).
"We wanted to explore these divisions in India that run crisscross -- be it class, caste, language, religion or gender. Caste and religion are two prominent faultlines," Sharma tells PTI in an interview.
"What makes them different is that it's possible to outgrow class through a change in socioeconomic status, but it's impossible to grow out of your caste or religion in the country," he adds.
The nine-episode Paatal Lok is a giant leap of faith into long-form storytelling for Sharma whose writing credits include acclaimed movies like NH 10, Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya.
"Working on the show was akin to finishing up a novel after writing many short stories," he said.
Also, the structure gave him the freedom to explore his cast of characters and their backgrounds, including the four suspects: Hathoda Tyagi, Kabir M, Cheeni and Tope Singh.
Kabir's story is about this boy and his father's attempts to have him grow out of his religion and their realisation at the end that it is impossible in this country.
"We also wanted to place the religious angle in a different socioeconomic class with Ansari. What it means to be a rookie Muslim cop trying to make his way up, young and gifted in these highly radicalised times," says Sharma.
Each episode begins with a prologue which makes it impossible to hate the obvious villains of the story, something that was important for Sharma, who said he and his team of writers -- Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta and Gunjit Chopra -- channelled empathy rather than judgement while looking at each character.
For long, cops have either been romanticised as do-gooders or seen as rude, incompetent and stupid in pop culture but Sharma said he wanted to change that aspect with the show.
"We wanted to revert that and look at us through the eyes of this Delhi cop. What he sees when he sees us. What it means to do a job which earns Rs 35,000, Rs 40,000 a month in a city like Delhi and to be subjected to all the crime and violence day in, day out and then go back home," says Sharma.
"Hathiram can be rude and politically incorrect but as we spend more time with him and start seeing his world through his eyes, something changes in our perception of him. That was the idea," explains Sharma.
The series also looks critically at the media through the character of Neeraj Kabi's Sanjeev Mehra, a famous investigative journalist, who is unable to pull in TRPs and finds it impossible to sustain without compromising on his liberal ideals.
As someone who grew up looking at some of the prominent journalists of 1990s and 2000s as they set the discourse in the country, Sharma says he wanted to look at what changed in the profession.
"Some of it changed because the country changed, and some of it changed because the values that we aspired to as a country, they changed. But some of it was also the doing of the media, their moral failure and giving in too easily. The show attempts to understand what happened there and what went wrong with these people," he explains.
"Also what it mean to be a mediaperson in India today, to take all the abuse that you get on social media everyday and still be able to do your job with some amount of dignity," he adds.
The mythic elements of the show, which opens with Hathiram telling his fellow cop a story about three mythical divisions -- Swarg (heaven), Dharti (Earth) and Pataal (Hell) -- were to give a timelessness to the story but with in a tongue-in-cheek way, says Sharma.
This is why, according to him, when Hathiram ends his narration, he says, 'It is written in our Shashtras, but I read it on Whatsapp.'
"We are also trying to say something about these times when history and mythology are sort of merging into each other, almost becoming one. We are trying to define our history because mythology is history that we want to be rather than what it is," says Sharma.
"It is glorified history and somehow we are falling into that trap. It also gives a sense that the story has been told over and over again," explains Sharma.
Another allegorical thread that runs throughout the story is its characters's attachment to dogs, taking the narrative forward at key moments.
Sharma says he found the attachment dogs share with humans beautifully tragic.
"Dogs are weird animals and I love them but the kind of loyalty they have is almost tragic. In this story, they stand for something that's tragically beautiful and naive. That became a concurring metaphor in the story."
Asked about the criticism about the lack of women characters in the show, Sharma admits they don't have as much of screen time as their male counterparts, but "they were equally important characters".
"We wanted to keep it organic. As much as Pataal Lok is political, we did not want it to feel like we were overtly pushing agendas."