They always make the same mistake with genre entertainment.
Here, "they" represents a production house/streaming giant that thinks they will be the one to "mainstream" a genre that has traditionally never been able to rise above its niche foothold in India. The genre in question is zombie thrillers, and today, we're talking about the high-stakes Netflix zombie thriller Betaal, co-produced by Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment and Blumhouse Television (Get Out, Sinister, Split, Insidious series etc). The legacy practically writes itself.
Unfortunately, in a bid to make a zombie thriller series more palatable to vast audience, Betaal, directed by Patrick Graham (of Ghoul fame), neither sticks to tried and tested thrills that Blumhouse is known for, nor is able to dive into Indian folklore the way Tumbadd did, leaving it in some weird kind of content limbo.
A still from Netflix's Betaal.
The action in Betaal is set over the course of one day and night (a great horror trope to raise tension, but under-utilised in this Netflix series), and based in tribal-majority Nilja village, in an unspecified part of central India. The first episode begins by establishing the existence of a closed tunnel in Betaal mountain on the outskirts of the village, where a regiment of the East India Company is believed to have been buried around 1857 during the Indian Rebellion. Legend has it that the ghost of Betaal (from Indian folklore) has been captured by the Colonel in command. A certain private company Surya Corporation wants to break open to tunnel to make way for a highway " a move that the tribals are dead against (pun very much intended) since it could unleash a monstrous curse and an army of the dead upon the entire village.
The representative of the corporation, Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi, who plays Katekar in Sacred Games) bribes the chief of the Baaz squad, an outfit of the CIPD (Counter Insurgency Police Department), Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai) to brand the tribals as Naxal insurgents and get them out of the way by killing them. Once the tunnel is open, the horror is (supposed to be) unleashed.
The Baaz squad, headed by Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Singh) and including Deputy Commandant Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra), will have to war with an army of undead zombies " who have been trapped in the tunnel for centuries. The squad spends the whole night learning truths about the curse and how it possessed a battalion, how the tribal community has been warding off the evil with their own unique ways (a blend of turmeric, salt and ash apparently), and fighting gory monsters who are on a killing spree.
Betaal wants to be some sort of social commentary on neocolonialism, tribal oppression and naxalism, but has very little time. Graham's previous Netflix series had the same issue " too much to say but not enough screen time utilised in the right direction. With 3 hours of run time and four episodes, the series could have focused more on the folklore or backstory, or perhaps on the war between the marginalised and the powers-that-be (which Dibakar Banerjee did skilfully in his short film for Ghost Stories). But after building sufficient intrigue in the first two episodes due to excellent world-building and post-production (special mention to the chilly opening and closing credits sequence), the series seems to have decided that it want to recreate a Game of Thrones-esque visual magnanimity without any of the hard work.
Let's be very clear. No one is expecting Betaal to be a World War Z or I Am Legend. You either like zombie thrillers or you don't. There's no middle ground; there can't be. Betaal tries too hard to walk the middle ground and ends up nowhere. The VFX-work and guerilla-style shooting works to an extent and allows you to escape into the series even though the flaws are glaring. There's enough attention given to female characters " from the meaty Ahluwalia (Kumra packing a punch), to Pillai, who brings some gravitas to her role, and the tribal character Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) who matches to her own beat. But is it enough?
The series even touches upon some makeshift humour elements, bringing in the history of British colonialism with references to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Bhagat Singh, and even throws in a Brexit reference, but Betaal is too self-involved to subvert the genre and envelop humour into its tone.
If there's anyone who understands the lure of a good zombie series/film " it is me. I've watched them all, from Train To Busan to Zombieland, from Rec to 28 Days Later, but my most favourite zombie (ish) thriller is this British adventure-horror film The Descent (2005). The film revolves around 6 women who decide to explore the caves of a mountain that has no documented way of getting out. While in there, they battle psychotic humanoid creatures who are >not happy about their visitors. It is a chilly, edge-of-you-seat, hand-covering-your-eyes type of horror film that packs its social commentary and thrills in equal measure (bonus: it also has an open-ended climax that will spark debates).
If you're like me and are willing to watch anything with zombies and gore, Betaal is just about okay. Hand to my heart, I would recommend chucking this series and watching The Descent instead for a >real zombie experience.