Film: Web series: Betaal
Director: Patrick Graham
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Jatin Goswami, Jitendra Joshi and Manjiri Pupala
Hamara sona le gaye, hamare paise le gaye, ab hamare bhoot bhi le ke jaaoge... a churlish thought or an amusing one addressed to the British officers of yore; it does make you chuckle though! Alas, the series, which goes back in time to 1857, when cruelty reigned in the shape of this British officer Lt. Col John Lynedoch, makes you wince more often than enrapture. Juxtaposing the past with the present, as the series opens, the first episode shows promise.
The Naxal infested jungles of futuristic and somewhat dystopian India appear to be just the right milieu for serving us a cocktail of zombie horror. The tunnel, which the greedy businessman (Jitendra Joshi) wants to rip apart, is where some dark secrets of Betaal lurk. The slimy and corrupt businessman hires a battalion of special-task officers, headed by the unscrupulous Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai).
In cahoots with each other, they give two hoots about the tribal protests. Masquerade it is, in the name of development. Thus, the premise not only rests on the supernatural, but also ropes-in a significant issue. The nexus between corrupt officers and businessmen is not alien to our sensibilities. But in a zombie fest, it does add some meaning. Only, as they set on their ignoble ‘noble’ mission, zombies are unleashed, secrets of past tumble out and we walk into the rather familiar ‘waking of the dead’ zone.
But the problem with a zombie fare, Indian or phirang, always is that while the first time the zombies make their presence felt, you are taken by surprise, even startled out of your wits, but, thereafter, both astonishment and shock go for a toss. Indeed, it takes an exceptionally well-made Game of Thrones to bring to life the dead and that too in just the right dosage. Here, the sight of rotting flesh, man-eating zombies, men and women possessed, becomes more tedious than terrifying.
To be fair, the technical knowhow and the treatment is on point...The redcoat zombies of East India Company are suitably attired and have the right feel. But the storyline flounders and there is no cohesive adhesive to stitch the two narratives. From one corrupt officer to another, the crisscross between two timelines could have served as a perfect analogy and deepened our interest further. The creator, Patrick Graham, who had earlier made Ghoul, did promise more substance and allegory. But after two episodes or so, the makers seem unsure of which path they want to tread; to scare us or enlighten us, and they succeed in neither.
Competent actors such as Vineet Kumar Singh (who was also seen in Red Chillies’ earlier outing The Bard of Blood) and Aahana Kumra try their best to make the proceedings spirited (pun intended). But, they can’t salvage a script where only zombies bite.
Frankly, there is no real spirit in this tale of the living dead, the power of turmeric and some other mumbo jumbo. The fact that the hero is called Vikram (Vineet) in a series titled Betaal should say something, but the obvious hint is a cursory tell-tale rather than a riveting tale.
Though you easily move from one episode to another in this four-episode series and almost binge-watch it all, like the restless zombies you remain un-satiated. Not for a sequel, which it dutifully leaves room for, but a better series. And while we can’t tell you whether the heroes and the heroines (Manjiri Pupala as the tribal mighty heart too has a solid presence) emerge ‘undead’ or not, we are not quite sure of our state of mind that oscillates between deadened and somnolent.