Director: Patrick Graham
Cast: Radhika Apte, Manav Kaul, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, Mahesh Balraj
Streaming on: Netflix
Perhaps the real horror of a show like Ghoul, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or a film like V for Vendetta, lies in the viewer’s willingness to recognise that their dystopian worlds – built on a structure of fear-mongering, military lockdowns, ideological reconditioning and religious/sexual discrimination – aren’t so dystopian anymore.
Ghoul, for instance, is based in an India in which minorities are tortured and exterminated. The terms “waapsi” and “adarsh nagrik” are tossed around. Books are burnt and intellectuals imprisoned by faceless ‘protection squads’. Liberals are declared anti-national, seditious elements. The government has installed academies that propagate Islamophobia and brainwash citizens into becoming patriotic soldiers for whom country must trump family. Terrorism lies within, say their slogans.
For obvious reasons, none of this feels as shocking and fictitious as it should. The year isn’t mentioned, and it’s just as well that much of this three-episode miniseries (originally made as a standalone film) is shot at night. Darkness, after all, has a sense of timelessness about it – the past, present and future are indistinguishable from each other when the lights go out.
Ghoul then, not unlike Prosit Roy’s Pari, qualifies as a work of political horror
This bleakness is further suggested by the name of the remote interrogation facility – Meghdoot 31, literally translating to “cloud messenger” – in which Ghoul, centered on a new recruit named Nida Rahim (a shaky Radhika Apte), almost entirely unravels. It’s hard to tell night from day in Meghdoot, she is told on arrival by Major Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), a suspicious lady who brazenly asks Nida if her religion will be an obstacle. That Nida turned her philosophy-professor father in for “teaching out of syllabus” and inciting students against the system isn’t enough to gain her superior’s trust.
The twelve officers and five Muslim prisoners, who represent the two warring sections of society (the State, and a reactionary terrorist outfit called The United People’s Front), are under the command of hotshot Colonel Sunil da Cunha (Manav Kaul). Both Nida and the Colonel – who is hinted to be an alcoholic and a wife-beater – have evidently sacrificed the concept of family in service of their country. Only one of them is proud. The story unfolds once Nida starts to realize that not only is her presence in this dungeon vaguely related to its latest prisoner, dreaded Front leader Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), but also that this infamous criminal might be…inhuman. That is, this dystopian drama might also be a supernatural thriller.
Ghoul then, not unlike Prosit Roy’s Pari, qualifies as a work of political horror. In that the folklore and jump-scares and hocus-pocus chants are exactly what they should be – the means to an end, and mere devices to present a sociocultural snapshot of its environment. The literal-horror-in-figurative-horror template, when done well, can get the viewer ruminating on all kinds of visual metaphors. Director Patrick Graham, despite some very expository writing, employs the dim indoor spaces to depict the physicality of the crisis-hit nation that accommodates it. More notably, he chooses the right monster to weaponize his plot. A Ghoul, as it turns out, comes with the perfect custom-made set of rules for masala moviemaking: it requires blood to be summoned, eats human flesh, preys on human insecurities, assumes the identity of its last victim and, most importantly, thrives on the art of “acting” and impersonating people.
It’s the protagonist’s mental demons that are more startling than the actual ones
The acting talent accounts for a barrage of truly campy scenes that rely on identity subterfuge, mass paranoia and old-fashioned “who here is a ghoul?” face-offs. In that sense, a ghoul is virtually the MVP of genre storytelling – one that helps a film alternate between creature-horror, slasher-horror, spirit-horror, gory-horror, psychological-horror and back. Not all these moments are effective or even needed, but who can blame the makers for wanting to cram a dark dungeon with precisely the kind of chaos it evokes?
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ghoul, as previously mentioned, is its view of horror as more of an instrument than a language. Invariably, it’s the terrifying experience and its aftermath that brings about the transformation of the protagonist. Ghoul, too, does the same. But here, the maker seems to understand that the very existence of something so frightening to “change” Nida is a reflection of what it might take to defeat an equally frightening regime. It’s her mental demons that are more startling than the actual ones. That this country needs nothing less than the paranormal to course-correct the concept of normalcy is both a tragic and relevant statement in 2018. So many mainstream movies use larger-than-life action heroes and uninspired formulas to achieve this. It was only a matter of time before ghosts and goblins threw their hats into the ring.
In a way, Pari, where a deviant Djinn in love ends up killing the bad guys, and Ghoul, in which innocence is spared, are essentially superhero movies that substitute superpowers with horror. This rehabilitation of ‘horror’ is encouraging. I like that it needn’t necessarily be a negative feeling anymore. At least not in context of the time it occupies.