The mythology-crime thriller connect

Whether probing the depths of darkness or offering redemption, OTT series are drawing ideas from age-old stories

In a sumptuous collection of mythic retellings, Ganesha Goes to Lunch, author Kamla K. Kapur observes that “Western mythology illumines the dark recesses of the mind, and offers deep psychological insights into the human psyche.” In contrast, “the aspect that Indian myths bring to the surface of consciousness is the spiritual and philosophic.” But if the recent trend of online Indian thrillers is anything to go by, then Hindu mythology can equally be aligned with darkness. From Netflix’s Sacred Games to Voot’s Asur, and Disney Hotstar’s Aarya to Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok, crime narratives resolutely draw their creative potential from the vast realm of age-old stories, even as their action is firmly rooted in the contemporary scenario.

A number of aspects explain this connection. The most obvious one relates to the potency of archetypes, which the Swiss psycho-analyst Carl Jung defined as archaic patterns, symbols, behavioural mechanisms and narrative tropes that recurrently appear across space and time. Even before the episodes begin, Indian crime thrillers often signal such archetypes through their loaded titles. Thus, while Sacred Games indicates the complex dispositions of its characters through allusions to figures such as Aswatthama, Yayati and Rudra, Asur’s presiding archetype resides in the series’ title itself, which prepares the viewer for a demonic tale of corruption and killings.

Inspired by the epic

The same holds true for Paatal Lok, whose title and introductory dialogue by the protagonist-policeman Hathiram Chaudhary refer to the mythical netherworld (Paatal Lok). In Aarya, the most slow-paced yet equally gripping thriller of the lot, the final episode ‘Dharam Sankat’ superbly orchestrates a pop-and-rap rendition of the Bhagavad Gita, which serves as an overarching commentary on the schisms marring the series’ central family, much like the Mahabharata.

Mythical archetypes trigger other abstractions for creative tapping as well. Just as myths by definition take us back to an amorphous sphere of elemental instincts and imaginary beginnings, crime thrillers also rely on convoluted impulses of the past whose discernment serves as the story’s primary fodder. As characters and viewers simultaneously sink into the shadowy abyss of personal and social histories, a general realisation emerges that the case at hand is far bigger and deeper than one could initially assume. In the words of Sacred Games’ anti-hero Ganesh Gaitonde, articulated at the very beginning to Sartaj the investigator: “Yeh khel aapse, mujhse, hum sab se bada hai.” (This game is bigger than all of us.)

The deeper the search goes, the more expansive the story becomes. It isn’t surprising then that sometimes criminal intensity is equated with cosmic forces. While unveiling the mental makeup of villains, both Paatal Lok and Asur riff upon the peculiarly evil arrangement of planets and stars associated with cruel kings such as Hiranyakashyap.

Primitive objects and symbols like hammers and masks and other elusive visual paraphernalia further reinforce the link with devilish psychology, which is determinedly unfathomable and consequently, otherworldly. In spite of the best forensic technology deployed by rationalist characters on the good side, it is often such cryptic signs enshrining a mysterious temperament that need to be made sense of for successful resolutions, a case in point being Sacred Games’ handwritten code-book, which holds the key to nuclear explosion.

If myths generally seek to address our origins as human beings, then myth-inspired crime thrillers tarnish those very origins to inaugurate the foundations of emotional disturbance. Children and childhood thus logically serve as another commonality between mythology and crime. From Asur’s main villain Shubh, who grows into a serial killer due to his father’s constant insinuations about his ill-fated birth, to the extreme childhood trauma of the prime suspects in Paatal Lok owing to poverty and discrimination, young characters embody the incipient appeal of evil.

Hope at the end

But for all their darkness, myths also hold the potential for redemption. As the teenage daughter of Aarya’s eponymous heroine begins empathising with her mother’s harsh burdens towards the end, she discovers hope in the very Gita she had earlier shunned. And in the denouement of Paatal Lok, a softer aspect of the lead murderer Hathoda Tyagi emerges when he is shown to spare dog-loving people — a learning based upon the famous story from the Mahabharata of Yudishthira’s unwavering allegiance to the dog who accompanies him to heaven’s doors, Swarg ka Dwaar, which, interestingly, also happens to be the final episode’s title.

The author is a writer and photographer from Shimla.