Synopsis – In a totalitarian near-future India, a mysterious prisoner is sent to a remote military interrogation center where he turns the tables on his captors by exposing their most shameful secrets and unleashing a demon from Arabic folklore.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E03
My Take – It still seems like a dream when I realize that Netflix has now begun creating original content for India. The streaming giant is a perfect platform for Indian filmmakers to unleash their load away from the censer boards, political hues and cries and of course genre tropes which unfortunately a major section of the Indian audience refuses to let go. Here, continuing its efforts to break into the massive television market in India, Netflix has followed up Sacred Games with another series from Phantom Films, which is also co-produced by Blumhouse Pictures and Ivanhoe Pictures – a three-part horror miniseries with a surprisingly strong sub-text.
While originally conceptualized as a film, this series from director Patrick Graham based on the Arab folklore monster known as ghoul, is yet another reason why Netflix should get comfortable in India, as I can proudly say that this one will hit the global audience really hard. Without quite relying on standard genre tropes, here, director Patrick Graham plays it straight, treating this series like a drama first, adding a couple of spooky flourishes only towards the end, a much-needed departure from all the horror-flicks Bollywood has gifted us till date. It is short, it is thrilling and I found the narrative to be quite refreshing. While you can see a bit of other Blumhouse films, especially a tinge of Insidious, the series despite having things that you have seen before, still manages to entice and lure into its eerie world and leaves you speechless.
Set in the near future, in an India where Muslim-Hindu tensions have gone past breaking point, which has led to a state-sanctioned persecution of Muslims, especially by the military. The story follows Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), both a Muslim and a top student at the NPS, an Army branch that trains the officers in various skills. A firm believer of the state ideology, Nida considers her religion a crutch and doesn’t hesitate in getting her father arrested because he taught ‘anti-national’ literature, thus is now branded a ‘terrorist’.
However, a month later Nida is called in to report at Meghdoot -31, a secretive military detention facility used for the torture of the ‘Terrorists’ by the interrogators, that too five weeks before her training is scheduled to end. Upon arrival, while her commander, Sunil DaCunha (Manav Kaul) openly accepts her, Nida’s religion is questioned by the other members of the facility, especial by Major Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), but this is soon taken over by an overarching sense of fear, as things begin going horribly wrong the moment a terrorist mastermind known as Ali Saeed Yacub (Mahesh Balraj) is brought in for interrogation. As it turns out he is not a human, but a ghoul who feeds off guilt and insecurity. Soon all the members of this basement facility turn on each other and all hell breaks loose as the ghoul picks and eliminates his targets.
The whole set up is gripping, CGI is on point, and the right amount of gore/violence makes it terrifically satisfying. Yes, the story line of this three part miniseries will make you uncomfortable but at the same you will be glued to the screen. It will make you think about your love for the country comes first or accepting the establishment’s decisions. A question that is more disturbing than outright scary. Considering that when you search for Bollywood horror on Google, you end up finding a list consisting of films from Ramsay Brothers and Vikram Bhatt, this Netflix series is very different in the regard as it focuses more on symbols than action.
The series is a strange hybrid: it’s somewhat dystopian, yet the main protagonist is a military woman. It has the high-quality production we expect by now from Blumhouse, though with few of the tedious jump scares; though the series does feature some very bloody deaths and over-dramatic music at times. While horror films have become more nuanced lately, and this one, while still a thrilling watch, is anything but. It’d be silly to call the ghoul a metaphor for guilt; it’s a literal guilt monster. The final episode’s title, ‘Finish the Task, Reveal Their Guilt, Eat Their Flesh’, rather succinctly summarizes this one’s shtick. The ghoul unearths dark secrets among the characters, throwing the interrogation center into violent chaos as they come to light.
Not a moment goes by in the series where you aren’t thinking of five different things at one time, trying to understand each character’s motivation and what the hell this ghoul will do next. It’s nail-biting action, where action isn’t physical rapid movement as much as lots going on within a confined space. Director Graham cleverly uses the Arabic trope of the ghoul, a demon who eats human flesh, turns your guilt into sin and takes over the image of the last person it conquered. Given its lack of subtlety and very straightforward mythology, spelled out by an aging prisoner with one eye. The series feels like a throwback monster movie, old-school in its approach, a zombiefied story with a modernized look but old tropes and story structures.
As far as the characterization of the series is concerned, the element of fear is predictably scary. Here, director Patrick Graham does a good job, no doubt in balancing the tone for the miniseries. While you might think you have seen similar shows with similar concepts; the thing that kept the series going on for me was the well-maintained suspense and the steady pace. Apte’s Nida Rahim changes sides frequently and finally discovers the truth and learns her lesson. It is a story where nobody is the winner; there is loss everywhere in this dystopian world. With blood, gore and a claustrophobic setting, all the scenes are terrifyingly satisfying.
The monster itself looks nightmarish but strays from ever being too campy by reigning in any lingering reveals. Its sallow face hovering behind an unknowing Nida evokes the most disturbing shot from Insidious, one of the best horror films of the past decade. However, the series is much greater than its provocative demon. More than a horror series, the series is a satire on the current state of proceedings. From mob lynching to defining nationalism, it raises many pertinent questions. Essentially a psychological thriller with a supernatural element weaved in, the series is an allegory to the rising polarization and communal divides engulfing contemporary India and other parts of the world.
In it, a futuristic India has turned into a Hindu nation—almost all of Nida’s colleagues at the detention camp are upper-caste Hindu men and she’s constantly treated with skepticism for her religious identity. In the first episode of the series, a Muslim man is stopped by the police who ask him for his ID. The man flashes what ostensibly appears to be his Aadhaar card, a clever move by the makers, as later on, we learn that India has transitioned into a surveillance state run by a totalitarian regime.
The state, with access to sophisticated snooping apparatus, has instituted covert detention centers—a Guantanamo Bay-meets-Abu Ghraib industrial prison of sorts—where professors, dissidents, student activists and opposition leaders are thrown in. In this dystopian India, the military appears to have absolute power and anybody questioning the state is sent for ‘reconditioning,’ a euphemism for third-degree torture. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t take names. The puns are not complicated either, so everyone will get it. Here, being a war veteran is the highest honor and gives you a free pass to be an entitled prick.
The morality of war is an alien concept to the inhabitants of this world. Words like “anti-national” are thrown around like a badge of dishonor. ‘Waapsi’, an ideological conditioning of citizens who are previously deemed too intellectual is now a commonplace. Terrorists are among us, reads a signboard. Islamophobia and power are clearly black and white concepts here. Coming from Blumhouse productions, the production house behind films like Insidious, Split, Get Out and Sinister, among many others, the series fits right into the mold of an intelligent, spooky thriller.
While the relevance of the show to the current discourse cannot be overstated, the show suffers from expository writing, especially in places where the viewer’s intelligence should’ve been respected. The dialogues by Kartik Krishnan feel a bit over-written and verbose. Could it have been better paced? Yes. For a show that has only three episodes, the series can feel like it’s too long. Certain stories, certain characters deserved concrete background and the series lacked it. There are certain little loopholes in the story, however, this horror story engaged me enough so as to let me let go of those faults.
Yes, this is Radhika Apte‘s third back-to-back appearance on Netflix (after Lust Stories and Sacred Games), and she is there in every scene and the entire show pretty much revolves around her, a role which she pulls off ably. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee also has a terrific screen presence. Her portrayal surprises me and demands attention. Her role is kind of unsettling and she, for one, does not disappoint. Manav Kaul’s military chief is quiet, humble and introvert, and that’s what creates the magic. A military personnel with a different outlook adds freshness to the story. Mahesh Balraj does not have any lines for a few minutes neither does he display a lot of expressions but even then he commands the screen in a room full of acting talents. On the whole, ‘Ghoul’ is an atmospheric, partly disturbing, fully gripping three-part series which manages to provoke as well as scare quite well.
Directed – Patrick Graham
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix