Fresh out of film school in London, unable to find suitable employment in the United Kingdom and encouraged by a classmate from Mumbai, an Englishman who was fairly unexposed to Indian cinema moved to Mumbai. The year was 2010.
Patrick Graham’s six-month exploratory trip has turned into eight years. In this time, he worked on short films, television films and commercials. He has also written and directed Ghoul, the three-episode series that will be released on Netflix on August 24. What started out as a feature film idea morphed into a three-part series when Netflix came on board.
Horror is Graham’s go-to genre and he counts John Carpenter, George A Romero, Mike Flanagan and James Wan among his favourite horror filmmakers. During his time in Mumbai, he’s also gained quite an education in Indian cinema.
“Before coming to India I had – at best – heard of Satyajit Ray and Lagaan,” he said. “There are so many amazing films we have not heard of abroad. I am a cinephile, so I try to consume as many films as I can. I have always been drawn to genre stuff and I like scary stories. I like being told scary stories and I like telling scary stories. Pari, Raat, Vaastu Shastra and Bhoot are some Indian horrors I have enjoyed. I also quite liked the first half of Ek Thi Daayan and the Ramsay films were fun as kitsch horror.”
Ghoul unfolds in a dystopian futuristic setting. The story pivots around Nida (Radhika Apte), a military officer trained in advanced interrogation. Nida is posted to a high-security facility where she is enlisted to tackle a top-level prisoner. Graham describes it as a “slightly skewed alternative reality to what we know today and the dystopia is kind of generic in that it looks like your archetypal right-wing, fascist, totalitarian government”.
All hell breaks loose when a monster is unleashed in the confines of this prison. Graham found inspiration for the ghoul in Arabic mythology. “I wanted to take a monster from mythology that hasn’t been seen before,” he said. “Zombies, vampires and werewolves have been done to death, so I wanted to bring a new, old legend to the forefront of modern horror culture.”
The modification from feature to a three-part series would have required embellishing the story. Graham admits that remodelling did take place once Netflix came on board. “It was wonderful, not just because of the marketing and support Netflix brought in, but also because this format gave us the opportunity to flesh out the back stories of the characters,” he said. “We could actually show the emotional connection between Nida and her father. So a lot of the first episode is the extra material that we built to make it a series.”
Two of the dominant characters in Ghoul are women – Nida and Laxmi (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee). Graham says this was not deliberate and that, as a writer, he finds female characters more interesting.
“I don’t think gender politics plays a role in the story,” he said. “I think it’s more like a post-feminist era because there are women holding high ranking posts in the military that they may not have been able to hold in today’s society. And it’s not even an issue. For example, in the 1997 film Starship Troopers, which is an amazing satire on fascism, the men and women are so equal that they are having showers together, without comment. It is not even dwelt upon; it is just there. I found that image interesting.”
Horror’s effectiveness hinges largely on a suspension of disbelief, and the edge-of-the-seat experience should leave little room for thought. However, a streaming or VOD service provides opportunity to stop and start, thereby breaking the flow. Graham hopes this won’t happen and that viewers will find his show is binge-worthy.
Is it possible anymore to find untold stories? “Sometimes originality is oversold, because every story has been told, everything has been done,” Graham said. “But within the rules of your genre, if you can bring some innovation that’s great. Telling a story that people have heard before but with your own original take, that’s important. I applaud audiences that call out plagiarism and things they think have been copied, but I do feel that sometimes they are overzealous because filmmakers do take inspiration from films they have seen and grown with.”
In Ghoul, Graham has tipped his hat to some of his filmmaking idols. “There are shots in Ghoul that I can say belong to that filmmaker and the other filmmaker and I think I am paying homage to them by idealising their work,” he explained. “My homage is to John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, George Romero, David Lynch and others. So yes, Ghoul has elements we have seen before, but I think we have also brought enough elements that, hopefully, people have not seen before.”