Synopsis – A remote village becomes the arena of a breathless battle when an undead East India Company officer and his battalion of zombie redcoats attack a squad of modern-day soldiers.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E04
My Take – While Bollywood horror refuses to evolve from the staple revenge seeking supernatural story lines, as seen from this year’s brilliantly mounted but poorly executed Bhoot – Part One: The Haunted Ship, and whatever writer-director Vikram Bhatt is allowed to release every year, the genre seems to be dying a painfully slowly death, at least in the Hindi film industry.
Though some filmmakers have tried to steer away from the norm (like Tumbbad, 13B, Go Goa Gone), the lack of initial eye balls have kept potential productions at bay. Yes, 2018’s Stree was able to find both commercial and critical success for itself while breaking away from tradition, the film was more in the vein of a comedy with spooky elements than a straight up horror.
Also, two years ago, Blumhouse Productions (Insidious, Purge, Sinister, Get Out, The Invisible Man) stepped into the Indian Market by presenting Ghoul, a three episode foray into previously unseen terror. Now, re-teaming with Netflix India and director Patrick Graham, and bringing abroad director Nikhil Mahajan (Pune 52) as a co-director and Shah Rukh Khan‘s Red Chilies Entertainment to co-produce, they aim to bring a fresh-take on the zombie genre plagued albeit mixed with Indian superstition.
Having gone through all the four episodes which are each approx. 45 minutes long, I can affirm that, though a step in the right direction, the end results are deeply flawed, especially considering the talent aboard. However that is not to contradict the fact that it, nevertheless, makes for an engaging watch, with something in it for both those who appreciate stories seeped in mythology as well as ones looking for a dash of gore.
In simpler terms, if you have nothing else to watch, the series is a good option to kill time, but in case you are looking for a horror experience loaded with jump-cuts and slick narrative, this wouldn’t suffice your need.
The story follows Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar), the second-in-command of a special task force named the Baaz Squad led by Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai), who along with his fellow soldiers, DC ‘Ahu’ Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra), Assad Akbar (Jatin Goswami), Nadir Haq (Siddharth Menon) among others, are tasked with clearing the premise of a whole village, in order to allow Ajay Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi) and his construction company to lay foundations of a highway road that goes through the village into the blocked tunnel of the Betaal mountain.
Though the villagers including the feisty Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) warn them against do, little do the task force and their corporate overlords know that a curse lies dormant in the belly of said tunnel, a curse as old as the British invaders in 1857, waiting to once again rule over India in the form of flesh-eating zombies led by their undead commander, Lt Col. John P Lynedoch (Richard Dillane).
Right off the bat I must say, the concept is very interesting, and all the four episodes are intense, keep you intrigued and at the edge of your seat. The tone of the series is set well in the opening shot itself and you know you are in for a thrill ride. Another thing that works in series’ favor is it’s deeply rooted in Indian ethos, as it manages to walk a tightrope of balancing the ancient folklore of Vikram and Betaal with contemporary, stylized-zombie violence, simultaneously amalgamating and turning both tropes on their heads.
The story is shrouded in mystery and keeps you engrossed enough to know what happens next. Plus, at just 4 episodes, it’s perfect for a binge-watch. The series has some really impressive practical effects, actually some of the best I’ve seen in a while, and definitely the best when it comes to Bollywood horror. The creepy imagery, the background score, the atmosphere inside the barracks – were all on-point. The makeup of the possessed/turned people were believable as well and were extremely well done.
The locations, production design, camera angles and gory images from decomposing carcasses to visceral human bodies straight up suggest that creator Patrick Graham, who also doubles up as writer with Suhani Kanwar and director with Nikhil Mahajan, means business. However, on the downside, the storytelling goes haywire halfway through. Mainly as the series is riddled with editing and dubbing issues, with obvious moments where characters speak with moving an inch of their face.
Speaking of characters, except for Vikram, none of them get any background as such, with most character arcs blandly conceptualized. For example, DC ‘Ahu’ Ahluwalia’s has a disfigured face, but except a few hints, we never know what happened to her.
Also, at start the series seems to be inching towards making social commentary on the poor, government, the controversies related to Naxals, and greedy rich people who manipulate others, but is quickly thrown out once the zombies come into play. The climax, too, is little contrived, however, that parting shot does tease an intriguing return for season 2, if there is one.
Performance wise, Viineet Kumar brings his natural aura to his role, though his character suffers a bit through the final episodes due to bad dubbing, he manages to hold his own. While Aahana Kumra is criminally underutilized, Manjiri Pupala manages to put in an enduring performance. In other roles, Jatin Goswami, Siddharth Menon and Jitendra Joshi are also good. Richard Dillane makes for a terrific villain. On the whole, ‘Betaal’ is a step in the right direction as far as the genre goes, however despite the fresh concept, the unfortunate failings hamper the overall impact.
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Amazon Prime Video