Produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s production company Red Chillies Entertainment, Betaal is India’s first zombie horror web series. In the four-episode show, a company wanting to build a highway near a village triggers an age-old curse.
A promising premise…
Set in rural India, Betaal is about the clash between capitalist development on the one hand and the interests of people, on the other. A contractor wants to open a sealed tunnel near a village to construct a highway. The villagers try to stop him by telling him that it is cursed. The contractor, of course, rubbishes these rumours and hires a military squad called CIPD to help him remove the villagers from the area. The tunnel is reopened, and just like the villagers predicted, an evil force that causes death and destruction is unleashed. Everyone working on that project takes refuge in an old British barrack in the forest. The series goes on to show how they survive using tact, diplomacy and black magic.
…that fizzles out and fails to scare
What starts off as an intriguing narrative soon falls flat. Betaal tries exploring a lot of issues in four episodes: the legacy of colonialism, dangers of a capitalist economy, superstitions, PTSD. Unfortunately the makers are unable to weave these elements together effectively. The result is chaos. It doesn’t help that the horror is laughable. Some scenes that aim to scare only make you chuckle. For instance, the time commandant Tyagi’s (Suchitra Pillai) hair inexplicably turns white after she’s attacked in the tunnel. And you can’t help sniggering while watching zombies brainstorm and fly about.
That said, some of the performances are worth noting. Suchitra Pillai steals the show, and Viineet Kumar Singh and Aahana Kumra, both brilliant actors, would have benefited from better roles. Alas the performances cannot salvage this sinking ship.
The evil of too many cliches
The makers of Betaal have cleverly given Betaal a folksy flavour. After all, Indian folklore is full of horror. The make-up and sound effects, for instance, do recall visual and aural elements one has seen is in Indian popular culture. In every zombie film, the undead are linked to a social evil. The makers have ambitiously tried tie together ideas of corruption, oppression, patriotism and colonialism. But instead of a layered picture, what you get is a mess.
WATCH OR NOT
Betaal is a cliched horror story in desperate need of some hair-raising scenes. Old tribal women, curses, black magic, grotesque faces and piercing screams make Betaal a case of already-seen.
Directors: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan
Writers: Patrick Graham, Suhani Kanwar, Adhir Bhat
Cast: Viineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai
Streaming on: Netflix