Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Ahana KumraCreator: Patrick Graham
Zombies in Hindi cinema and TV shows have had a chequered past. Despite initial interest in the twenty-tens, a few very clever films in the genre like Go Goa Gone by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK went unappreciated and some got shelved after some filming. Industry insiders blamed it on the lack of understanding of the Zombie phenomenon among Indian audiences. But some of that resistance may change courtesy Betaal, a new web series on Netflix.
The idea and origin of the word Zombie is said to have originated in West Africa from where people were sent as slaves to sugarcane plantations run by the British and French in the West Indies. Haiti in particular, the seat of Voodoo, is believed to have contributed much to the Zombie lore. However, the Zombie-horror cult really found its breeding ground in popular American culture. Scores and scores of films, TV shows, comic books, podcasts center on the cult’s manifestation of the dead rising from their grave, their mechanical robotic walk and their mindlessly barbaric lust for human flesh.
Although it belongs in the horror-supernatural category, Betaal mercifully, is not a jump scare horror show. Sticking to the core ideas within the Zombie-horror tropes, in Betaal, writers Patrick Graham and Suhani Kanwar, find the perfect peg of mercenary colonial forces to hang the story on.
A contemporary anti-insurgency security squad is in the process of displacing tribal villagers who are resisting the construction of a highway somewhere in the Indian hinterlands. Much to their horror and dismay, they discover that in doing so they have let loose an army of Zombies, all erstwhile Raj-era British mercenary soldiers. The writers’ choice of historical context is both smart and intriguing. Who doesn’t like a story about haunted forests and forts? The British have a thriving tourism industry based on it!
The first episode is brisk and gets your attention immediately. However, the reveal of the central mystery occurs pretty rapidly —the unleashing of the Zombie force- but after that, the ensuing episodes struggle occasionally to keep pace. Fortunately, the show tides over the problem with a story that has the right emotions at the heart of it. Where the writing slips, is in skimming through details that would have made the turning points in the story live up to its immense potential. It is precisely this weak link that prevents the material from transforming from good into extraordinary or memorable.
Actors Vineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra, Manjiri Pupla, Jitendra Joshi, Syna Anand, and Suchitra Pillai play key roles efficiently. The young Syna Anand and Kumar are particularly good. Joshi, always a consummate actor, unfortunately, does not get enough screen time, in the flurry of rapidly unfolding events.
Betaal has been created by Patrick Graham and co-directed by him along with Nikhil Mahajan. To the directors’ credit, even in the compressed duration of merely four episodes of roughly 45 minutes each unlike an 8 or 10 episode series, the show establishes a bevy of characters rather effectively and the cast delivers.
The production design team shows agency in the way that sets and scenes have been constructed to bring in the supernatural elements. A haunted old army barrack is where a majority of the events unfold with a few additional locations shot around the cursed mountain in the village and a tunnel and the touch of minimalism works well.
Betaal ends with a grandiose, striking visual of old British ships coming into view over the horizon at Bandra Sealink—now that does leave you with some food for thought. Will Season 2 be bigger and better? Some Zombie-horror fans will be dying to know.