Creator: Patrick Graham
Writers: Patrick Graham, Suhani Kanwar
Directors: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan
Cast: Viineet Kumar Singh, Jitendra Joshi, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Manjiri Pupala
Streaming on: Netflix
Betaal, for much of its four episodes, is a brilliant homegrown spoof on the zombie-folk horror genre. The zombies are utterly useless, spending their time knocking on closed doors and being butter-fingered flesh eaters. They’d make for terrible kabaddi players. One of them crawls on a ceiling and another appears from under a bed to corner a shocked little girl, only for the next shot to show her throwing books at them from the door. How exactly did she escape their clutches? Another human-turned-zombie narrates the entire backstory – the why and the what – to his curious ex-comrades while he is chained. Famished, talkative demons make for comical exposition devices. The human characters are not lesser idiots; when someone’s hair turns grey in an instant, another chimes in with Sherlock-level detection skills: “It must be the shock”. Another genius mentions that he was an engineering college topper who loved fixing things, when the Scooby-Doo-level gang chances upon an ancient cannon with gunpowder.
The setup, too, is delightfully harebrained: An Indian military squad takes shelter in an old army barrack when surrounded by the colonialist corpses of an infamous British regiment from 1857. The disfigured redcoats, who look like retro Ramsay Brothers rejects, spend three episodes sounding a war cry from outside. They keep beating the drums, and wait forever before launching an attack. It’s all very clumsy and funny.
The only catch: Betaal isn’t meant to be a spoof. Creator Patrick Graham is dead serious about the undead. Unlike his previous series Ghoul, Betaal has physical priorities – it uses sociopolitical horror as a banal front to present a loud collection of every single trope in the zombie notebook. The premise is sharper than the treatment. A shady contractor, Mudhalvan (Sacred Games’ Jitendra Joshi), hires a special squad to demolish a tribal village and suppress its people so that an old tunnel in Betaal mountain can be excavated for a state development project. The squad leader (Suchitra Pillai) is bribed to convince her sincere team members – namely Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar Singh) – that the villagers are dangerous naxals. The only female member of the squad (Aahana Kumra) has a scarred face. A young tribal, Puniya, who looks like a college girl at a Warrior Princess costume ball, superstitiously warns the soldiers that the tunnel will unleash a hellish curse if they bulldoze their way through. Naturally, they don’t listen.
It takes all of two episodes for Vikram to reveal the burden of Betaal (see what I did there?) to cynical colleagues who refuse to believe the supernatural angle. These contrivances occur only to stretch out the meat of one episode onto the bones of four. Once they’re onboard, the rules emerge: All the bitten humans, including the contractor’s wife and a young Muslim rookie, will soon morph into ferocious demons. Most of the show unfurls in the barracks, with gorefests and hocus-pocus happening in every other space. There’s no sense of dramatic continuity – a book is being read in one room while a screaming man is being mauled to shreds in the next. In a Sonchiriya-style arc, the protagonist Vikram is haunted by a past mission featuring an innocent child. Which is why the contractor’s young daughter – she is bespectacled so she must be nice – is central to the plot.
Betaal’s metaphor, of domestic colonization and corruption reflecting the blood-thirsty greed of colonial Britain, is as subtle as its zombies’ ruby-red eyes. An evil ghost of history uniting the soldiers and the tribals is an interesting thought, but oh boy, does it take some soiling. At one point, while a soldier takes aim at the strangely lethargic zombies from a window, he punctuates every bullet shot with chants of misplaced patriotism. “This is for Jallianwala Bagh! This is for Bhagat Singh!” is followed by “They took our land, our gold, our jobs, now they’re taking our evil spirits also!” – which is admittedly amusing. Technically, he’s right. Though he forgot Ben Kingsley and Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscars.
The writing is so flimsy that it makes an actor of Viineet Kumar Singh’s calibre look perpetually panicked. His face is at constant odds with the simplistic lines coming out from his mouth. He deserves better than “This is hard brexit!” followed by a mother-hating expletive. This is the Mukkabaaz star’s second Netflix-Red Chillies series after Bard of Blood, and one hopes it’s his last. Betaal’s swing and miss is all the more visible, because a series, as opposed to a film, is prone to expanding the concept of time. This is self-defeating in the time-strapped ecosystem of narrative horror. If the horror isn’t incidental to a human story (example: The Haunting of Hill House), it’s just a futile repetition of jumpscares, gutted intestines and urgent escapes. Yet, perhaps the scariest thing about Betaal is that it promises a second season.