Betaal – a four-part Netflix original starring Shah Rukh Khan as a non-producer – is marketed as the first Indian series with Zombies. Except they’re not zombies at all. Sure, they like to bite humans and change because of them. But they do not chase their prey fast. Instead, Betal’s undead act at the behest of their leader, who can command them and speak through them. After resurrection, infected people remember who they were and speak clearly. Betal also adds an Indian touch to it, with the undead unable to pass the combination of turmeric, salt and ash.
They are a welcome update to the overdue zombie genre. Unfortunately, Betaal doesn’t carry that sentiment to the rest of Netflix’s series. The writing duo of Patrick Graham (Ghoul) – who made, co-directed and had a cameo on Betaal – and Suhani Kanwar (Leela) delivers a three-hour horror series that operates in clichés and tropes, making Betaal feel like it belongs to him classic style era, Graham and the team have talked about introducing Indians to zombies, but to be honest there is little need for it in 2020. Even those with horror know-how know how zombies work. But Betaal has zero self-awareness, be it with its plot or characters.
For what it’s worth, there is some effort at socio-political commentary. In Betal, tribal villagers are forcibly rehabilitated to make way for a highway, in the name of “development”. They are labeled as Naxals, while the politician-maker alliance pays counter-rebels to remove them and clear a tunnel. It is here that the counter-rebels encounter a slain East Indian Company regiment.
Through all this, Betal touches upon the political and middle class apathy, the unquestioning, blind loyalty of the soldiers and the greed of the former colonists. What Betal wants to say is that these are real zombies, feasting on the flesh and blood of the underprivileged, but the message is buried, entangled and superficial.
Betal opens with a tribal ritual ceremony on the outskirts of the village of Nilja in the middle of India, as they pray to a god, Betal. An elderly woman communicates with the statue before falling to the floor and having a disturbing sight: “Don’t open the tunnel.” Under the supervision of Ajit Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi from Sacred Games) the workers were preparing to clear a tunnel under the Betal mountain. His wife and daughter Saanvi (Saina Anand from Mere Pyare Prime Minister) are forced to tag along for a press photo-op. But as the villagers began to protest, and a deadline was hanging over his head, Ajit called on the military side.
It brings in Commandant Tyagi (suchitra Pillai from Karkash), the head of the eagle squad of the CIPD (Counter Insurgency Police Department), who during his TV performance tells people unhappy with their work to “go to Pakistan”. Happily working for Tyagi is Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar from Mukkabaaz), who has slightly better morals. Also, Sirohi is obsessed with being “a good soldier”, which means he does as he says. That – staying true to oneself and obeying others – is an impossible balance, and why Sirohi has PTSD from an earlier mission, killing a young girl who was a witness to a massacre.
Things take a disturbing turn after the eagle squad reaches Nilja village. Villagers with sticks are no match for the tooth-wielding CIPD, who later smack the village to the ground and burn it down. But as soon as the tunnel cleaning resumes and the workers come in, things take a terrifying turn—as they should for the narrative. Further investigation by the CIPD reveals a platoon of the undead dressed in British India-era attire with bright eyes. On the advice of the captured local Punia (Manjari Pupala from the party), Sirohi and the rest move to an abandoned British barracks nearby for safety. Behind them are the undead, who can shoot – bullets also infect – and play drums.
There’s a lot of material here that lends itself to black comedy, but Betaal is so honest one can’t recognize any of it. This comes closest to being comical, when a CIPD sniper curses the British for stealing India’s evil spirits – who are said to be behind their power – having already stolen everything from land to resources in the colonial past. .
Betal also jokes about “hard Brexit” (mis-fitting) or Jallianwala Bagh (pop patriotism), but the common problem is that it all surfaces. There is no depth in it. To make matters worse, the Netflix series is more successful at being unintentionally humorous.
After the CIPD entered the British barracks, one of them noticed that Pramukh Tyagi’s hair suddenly turned white. Squad medicine says there may be “shock” behind it, and everyone else accepts this as a valid reason. are you kidding with me? As you might expect, keeping Solitaire alive proves to be a curse to their existence. Unfortunately, the characters – in this case, trained soldiers – behaving silly on Betaal becomes more common as the show progresses. In one situation, one of them casually approaches a citizen they don’t already know how to trust. Naturally, this results in death. Betaal needs this to take his story forward, it is a sign of extremely poor writing. On top of that, it’s easily avoidable.
Betaal’s expository troubles are equally troubling. Its characters’ motives readily search for or discover information when the audience needs that context. The third episode begins with a long monologue that expands on the background of the East India Company regiment, when a book about them is found in the abandoned barracks. OK then. As the second part of Betaal progresses, characters take a chance on episodic paths that fit into the ongoing story and establish future plot points.
And a character only exists to serve as a narrative device. The only interesting character dynamic is that involving Punia and a CIPD member, who evolves from a place of overwhelming distrust to co-dependence. It’s a shame he doesn’t have the time or place to go anywhere.
Part of the problem is that Betaal unfolds in a single day, which doesn’t give much room for character development or character arc. Except that it’s far from the only problem. It fails as a genre piece, it fails to say anything meaningful, and ultimately, it fails other talented artists including Kumar, Pillai, and Aahana Kumra (Lipstick Under My Burkha). In relying on people who hadn’t delivered before — Khan’s Red Chillies was behind the irresponsible parody that was Bard of Blood, while Graham’s Ghoul also falls short in both horror and commentary — Netflix has shown that It is not learning a lesson from its mistakes.
Betaal is now streaming on Netflix in Hindi, English, Tamil and Telugu.
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