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Betaal review: Impressive storyline, good cast let down by sloppy handling

Release Date: 24 May 2020


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Shriram Iyengar

Nikhil Mahajan and Patrick Graham's horror creation has all the elements right but fails to maintain the tension required to keep the audience enthralled.

Horror, arguably, is one of the tougher genres to write, despite the feeling being one of the most primal for humans. From the first scene, Betaal lets you in on its deepest, darkest secret and the core that drives the drama. A development plan through a village deep in the jungles wakes up zombies that had been cursed to sleep for centuries. These evil dead are a bunch of red-coated English troops who continue to guard their territory. If the setting feels like a 1980s Ramsay Brothers flick, the production design and scale belies it. 

The secret told, it becomes easier to expect what is coming for the rest of the series. The story begins with Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi), a contractor running the gauntlet in a village deep in the woods. Mudhalvan is anxious to reopen an old tunnel to connect the village's development centre to the closest highway, and to have it reopened by the minister. The villagers, though, are familiar with the more ancient 'betaal' hidden in the tunnel and fight the proposal with all their might.

In comes the CIPD, a patriotic task force recruited to root out 'naxals', which is what any group of tribals opposing development is automatically branded. Led by the calculating Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai) and a hero Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar), the battalion troops into battle with all the technology it has. Except, it is dealing with something it can scarcely believe.

With its deep-dive into ancient symbols, history and rituals, Betaal combines elements of 1980s-style camp horror with some seriously upgraded handling. The Netflix-level production design and soundscape do throw some chills your way. The only letdown, perhaps, is the staid arc of the story, which fails to build on the initial high. Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan seem to be split on the direction the series should take. With only four episodes between them, neither arc is fully explored.

The cast of the web-series is a big plus. Vineet Kumar plays the CIPD commandant Sirohi with a stoic presence, dealing with his own demons while fighting new ones. The actor's talent certainly adds value to the storyline. He is backed up well by Aahana Kumra as the feisty DC Ahluwalia. Then, there is the mysterious rebel Puniya, played by Manjiri Pupala, to add a touch of realistic voodoo to the story. Jatin Goswami's Akbar adds to the equation.

Jitendra Joshi feels a little underused as the corrupt Mudhalvan but has the earnestness to make up for it, although it is unrealistic to expect him to deliver a Katekar every time he is on Netflix. Stephen Dillane is charged with playing the ghoulish Colonel Lynedoche, who has been zombified to protect the tunnel, and continues to do so 160 years later. While the cast does a good job of capturing the emotions, it suffers from the lack of depth or unpredictability in the plot.

Betaal provides too much information too soon, because of which the audience knows what arrives next. Perhaps the intention of the writing team (Adhir Bhatt, Patrick Graham, Suhani Kanwar) was to meld a rustic Indian folk tale and myths with a more modern moralistic tale. However, this leaves the series hanging in the middle. This tug-of-war between the two styles often affects the narrative and its impact on the viewer. There are moments where the web-series dawdles.

Some key moments are well used. The sense of the Indian myth of devils in limbo, demons being pleased to stay calm, the use of 'haldi' as a taboo for ghouls are all very much in the 'aatma' nirbhar zone. The other interesting angle is the use of a political take on the usurping of natural resources by mega-corporations and corrupt governments. Any people who oppose these acts are branded naxals and the 'true' patriots of the army are called in. This could have been a good take on the current situation in the country but is not exploited to the fullest. The ghouls, though, are created with care, but lose their fear factor after the first appearances.

Surprisingly, this is from Blumhouse Production, one of the makers of Get Out (2017), which is the perfect example of a slow-burn horror film. The web-series simmers mildly, but does not reach a crescendo at the right time.

The thrill is there. The four-episode format of the first season ensures there is a little thrill for a serial binger. However, it would not have been enough if the season had exceeded four episodes. Perhaps, there is a better storyline planned for the longer run. For now, this web-series has tried something new but does not deliver the fear the genre needs.

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