Betaal Review: When Netflix created waves with their first Indian Original series, Sacred Games, all eyes were on what they will come up with next. The answer was Ghoul, a mini-series, directed by Patrick Graham and starred Radhika Apte in the lead. While Ghoul didn't manage to create the same kind of euphoria as Sacred Games, the horror series did grab plenty of eye-balls. Now with Betaal, Patrick Graham, along with co-director Nikhil Mahajan, has got an elevated platform to display more of his horror flair, thanks to the backing of a certain Mr Shah Rukh Khan. Does the result give India its answer to The Walking Dead? (Minor SPOILERS ahead) Betaal: Shah Rukh Khan Gives You a Chance to #SpookSRK, Announces a Contest to Shoot a Scary Movie Indoors.
Truth to be told, Betaal is a more contained series, with just four episodes. It does end in a cliffhanger, but most likely, it's an open ending. But it has plenty of zombies( zombie British soldiers actually, including an undead drummer boy) with added ingredients of grisly killings (spilled guts, flesh chewed out and more) and some nightmarish sequences. In totality, Betaal is gripping in most parts, though like with Sacred Games and Paatal Lok, it does seek out controversy.
In 1857, during the Indian Uprising, a tyrant British general, Colonel Lynedoch (Richard Dillane) discovered something powerful in a mysterious tunnel in a hillock called Betaal Hill and his enture unit is lost. In the present times, the villagers near the hill are worshipping the power of Betaal, to keep it contained. They are also fighting the government's efforts to connect their hamlet to the rest of the country.
A greedy industrialist Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi) wants to get the now blocked tunnel reopened, but faces tough resistance from the villagers, led by a dauntless Puniya (Manjiri Pupala). So he, using the help of the corrupt Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai), gets a CIPD team to evacuate the village, and arrest and kill those who resists them.
The team is led by Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar), who is haunted by what he did in the previous mission, and also consists of the scarred Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra), a cynical Assad Akbar (Jatin Goswami) and his cousin, the rookie Nadir Haq (Siddharth Menon). The industrialist is accompanied by his wife (Meenal Kapoor), their teenage daughter Saanvi (Syna Anand) and his right-hand man Bunnu (Ankur Vikal). Why would they bring their kid to a spot, where killings were bound to happen - even without zombies - only God knows!
The CIPD team, disregarding the villagers' warnings, finally opens up the tunnel, only to face the horrors within. Soon they find themselves barricading against the unspeakable evil and they try to survive the night, while their own men join the army of the undead, one by one.
Betaal might be a zombie series, but it is more of a twisted, ghoulish take on the Vikram Aur Betaal stories. Not to put any spoilers here, but the series draws quite a few parallels with the folklore, especially through its protagonist. And maybe throw a wink at the unquestioning citizen with us. Shah Rukh Khan Celebrates Betaal Wrap-Up Party With Aahana Kumra, Vineet Kumar and Others – View Pics.
Not just that, there are plenty of nods to other horror films of similar genre. The basic premise of soldiers taking on the undead is something we have seen in films like Dog Soldiers, or if you want something zombie-y, then Dead Snow and Overlord.
There are also nods to George Romero's Living Dead series (loved the nod to the famous 'Choke on 'Em' dialogue from the Day of the Dead) , the Evil Dead films and even John Carpenter's The Thing (people trapped within a shack and not knowing who could be infected).
Movie references apart, there is also a disguised commentary on totalitarian authority, power-hungry figures, rampant industrialisation and blind loyalty to authority figures. Sometimes, it is difficult to fathom which is more dangerous - the evil unleashed from the tunnel or the one outside that caused it. Pretty sure that the series' use of Naxalite uprising is bound to create outrage. At times, it also binds itself into a knot, when it can't determine which is the bigger sin - superstition or corporatisation. Ah, the troubles that come when you make a regular horror series that also has to make a statement.
Even if you are not a fan of these series turning into socio-political commentary, Betaal still has the substance to keep you hooked. Contained within just four episodes, the treatment is tight, even if the writing threatens to be cliched and hackneyed (especially in the final episode). Could have avoided some of the convenience tropes, though. Certain characters behave in a very dumb manner, as you expect in a lazy horror film. Or pick up unexpected skills that we never expect them to know, like a tribal girl suddenly shown knowing how to operate an automatic rifle.
The atmospheric horror created within a derelict British outpost, as the soldiers and the civilians race against time to saved themselves from hordes of undead, provides enough pulsating tension. Add some unexpected character turns and surprising deaths, and you can't just take your eyes off the screen. Thankfully, Graham and Mahajan also avoid needless jump-scares, instead relying more on the inherent tension and suspense.
The macabre set design deserves special mention, along with the decent VFX and the ghoulish makeup and costumes used. The camerawork also helps in creating the needed tense-filled atmosphere, snaking its way through the rusty, slime-stained corridors.
The dialogues could have been better, though, an issue I also had with Red Chillies' last series, Bard of Blood. Despite jibes on British's Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Brexit, the impact of the lines aren't as effective as they should be.
Watch the Trailer of Betaal:
The performances are a trump card. Viineet Kumar delivers a solid act as the conflicted team leader, who has his own demons hidden in the closet. Aahana Kumra does good with her role of the bold soldier, who isn't as blinded by loyalty as her supervisor. Suchitra Pillai brings a lot of creepiness in her role. The scene at the table where she first shows signs that she isn't okay was hair-raisingly chilling.
Siddharth Menon is terrific as the rookie, especially with the turn that the character takes later on in the series. Jitendra Joshi, the human antagonist of Betaal, delivers a wicked act, though his character borders on horror movie villain-caricature.
The standout performer is, however, Manjiri Pupala who is simply cracking as the rough, but fearless tribal girl.
- Keeps You Engaged Throughout
- Couldn't Resist on Chomping on Horror Cliches At Times
Within just four episodes, Betaal manages to create a nerve-racking horror series with plenty of homages and metaphors. If you are a fan of puny humans taking on the might of flesh-eating undead, Betaal provides enough moments of such guilty pleasures, with enough blood and gore. The series is streaming on Netflix.