There is no other way to say it. I have perhaps the lowest tolerance to horror or scares of any kind. But as I sat through the four increasingly painful episodes of Betaal, now streaming on Netflix, I was reminded of Joey’s reaction to Chandler dressed as a pink bunny. So, to Netflix, I ask, “Dude, what happened?”
The series is produced by Blumhouse Television, SK Global and Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, and created by Ghoul showrunner Patrick Graham. Zombie thriller meets Indian folklore’s Vikram-Vetaal or Betaal here, is a great one-line pitch for a show. But, creator Patrick Graham and his co-writer Suhani Kanwar throw in the legacies of colonialism, the dangers of neo-colonialism, corporate greed, and even a splash of PTSD in the hope to create a relevant to current times zombie thriller.
When Mr Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi) realises that his ambitious highway project has hit a roadblock quite literally with a blocked British era tunnel that the villagers won’t let him open, he calls in an elite military/mercenary squad led by Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai). Tyagi’s second in command is Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar), an inexplicably loyal soldier who suffers PTSD from a previous mission. His significant colleagues include DC Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra) and Assad Akbar (Jatin Goswami), who is the now done to death ‘jealous of the hero’ supporting character.
Vikram, who hopes to take Tyagi’s position soon and behaves more like her lapdog and less a respectable soldier, is told that the village is filled with Naxals and insurgents who are not allowing development to take place. Clearly, they all live under a rock (actually they live in some barrack, where sunlight cannot enter,) and don’t bother to do any fact-finding before they head out to potentially commit mass murder and raze a village to the ground.
Before Vikram and his team clear the tunnel, an appropriately scary looking old woman warns them of a terrible curse that will be unleashed if the tunnel is opened. Instead of sparing us the horror that follows, the team does end up blowing the tunnel open, only to awaken an army of undead British soldiers, led by a zombie commander Colonel Lynedoch (Richard Dillane) who speaks in some hybrid has-to- sound western accent and dreams of ruling India again.
Quite like Dibaker Banerjee S tale in Ghost Stories, Betaal also examines ideas of exploitation, of Indians colonising their fellow citizens and how the poor and downtrodden continue to be victims of a capitalist economy. The tragedy is that instead of choosing a genre and sticking to it, Patrick tries to say too many things in just four episodes.
Betaal could have just been a funny zombie comedy of delusional British soldiers, or a serious commentary on how so many Indians attained freedom from a foreign power only to be oppressed by Indian ones. Unfortunately, the show indulges in too much unnecessary gore and jump scares and fails to make a point. The weak writing leaves us with lines that can safely fall into the it’s so bad its funny collection of dialogues. I mean what else can you say about a soldier shooting a zombie and saying, “This one is for Jallianwala Bagh, this one is for Bhagat Singh”, a man who uses his engineering background to fix a century-old cannon and create old world explosives, or a character saying “this is called a hard Brexit” before killing a bunch of British zombies? You want to laugh, but all you can do is gape in inadvertent horror.
Instead of using every opportunity to build up horror or examine strange events, the writers just dismiss them leading us to expect something scarier. So, when a character’s hair turns white all of a sudden, it’s explained away with a “shock ke wajah se hoga (must be because of shock”. Also, the whole idea of a zombie commander who controls his entire battalion with his mind and aims to take over the living is shockingly similar to the Night King and his army from A Game of Thrones. In fact, I am going to stick my neck out and say it’s a direct lift of the concept.
To give credit where it is due, Tanay Satam’s camerawork helps to build suspense and intrigue in the first two episodes as do the editing and post-production. I especially enjoyed a short sequence where the screen is divided into the feed from multiple night vision body cameras from the soldiers and you are genuinely scared for a few minutes. Another good scene is where two dead bodies disappear after being examined by a soldier, and the complete silence heightens the drama. But sadly, there is little else to redeem Betaal.
Viineet and Aahana who are both brilliant actors have to work with poorly written parts which offer them no depth or dimensions to explore. Even Jitendra who was so memorable as Katekar in Sacred Games is forced to play a Tamilian who equates broken Hindi to an authentic accent. Suchitra is perhaps the only one who gets to have some fun in her role, but there is little she can do to salvage this gory mess. I was especially disappointed with poor VFX and prosthetics for the zombies who look like paper-mâché figures with red bulbs for eyes that are more funny than fearful.
This has not been a good year for Netflix India, who seem to be working with popular names but creating poor content. Perhaps a shift from ‘who is the celebrity making the show’ to ‘what the show is about’ is in order. We are being forced to deal with enough terrible news and visuals these days. Avoid watching Betaal and compounding your misery.