Before watching Netflix’s new original series Betaal, I was hooked on to a Korean zombie drama - Kingdom. Unlike AMC's The Walking Dead - of which I’ve only watched 5 seasons - Kingdom was fast-paced, had a decent plot and more importantly gave a fairly convincing outbreak story.
Coming from the same streaming platform, expectations were high from Betaal. Also, the show is written and directed by Patrick Graham, who has previously helmed the unnerving and brave miniseries Ghoul.
Moreover, the makers of Betaal had the premise set extremely well. Tribals being branded as Naxals, corruption in the armed forces, rapacious builders cum politicians and at the core of it all - the colonial-era zombies. Unfortunately, the premise never sees the light of the day. Pun completely intended.
In order to build a highway, a closed tunnel dating back to the British-era has to be blown apart and the tribals residing nearby have to be evacuated. Baaz Squad, a team of elite military persons, is called in for the task. Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai), who lashes out at “left-liberals” on Television debates and yawps “go to Pakistan”, is incharge of the mission. Her second-in-command Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar) is a “good soldier”. Sirohi carries out each and every order without questioning his boss - be it slaughtering innocents. There is deputy commandant Ahluwalia (Aahana Kumra). She has a brutal scar on her face, however, we never find out the reason as the writers haven’t given her a back story.
Meanwhile, the villagers oppose the reopening of the tunnel as they are well aware of the devil inside. Blinded by greed, builder Ajay Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi) coerces the squad to do as required. Little did they know that the tunnel houses Lt. Col John Lynedoch - the commander of the 90th Taunton Volunteers - and his dead troops, awaiting to rise and claim the land with their pistols from 1857.
The hare-brained plot starts minutes into the 4-episode series when a tribal woman Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) says that a lakshman-rekha of haldi-namak-bhabhuti will keep the blood-hungry soldiers at bay. In a scene when the Baaz Squad is pelting bullets at the British zombies, a soldier screams - this is for Jallianwala Bagh and that is for Bhagat Singh. In another scene, Sirohi uses a cannon to shoot a host of zombies and says, “This is what you call a hard Brexit”. Hilarious right? That is certainly what the makers didn’t want to make you feel.
The actors Vineet Kumar, Ahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Jatin Goswami, Manjari Pupala and Jitendra Joshi have done a fine job given the material they had at hand. The camera work and the sound design does manage to create an eerie atmosphere. However, it is the simplistic writing which fails to form a connection to the Indian mythology and in turn the audiences.
This Shah Rukh Khan-produced show only reminded me of my grandma’s lame tales - designed to make me fall asleep. Betaal adds to the long list of Netflix’s failures in India and alas with a promise of a second season!
Cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Jitendra Joshi, Syna Anand, Jatin Goswami, Manjiri Pupala, Ankur Vikal and Richard Dillane
Directors: Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)