India’s future looks dark in Netflix’s second Hindi original series after Sacred Games – literally so. Along with democracy, justice, liberal thought, due process and decency, electricity seems to be in low supply in the grungy Orwellian future in which the horror-laced Ghoul is set. Somewhere in this artful gloom, a military recruit seeks answers to the secrets at a detention centre and a series tries to justify its fantastical premise.
Ghoul, which began streaming on Netflix on August 24, has been written and directed by Patrick Graham, while the dialogue is by Kartik Krishnan. The three episodes are set in a tomorrow that reflects present-day Indian realities, and they play out in an unnamed city that is identifiably Mumbai and its extended suburbs.
The military has taken over after “sectarian violence has reached crisis point”, the opening credits inform us. Clandestine prisons have been established to straighten out undesirables and dissidents, including opposition leaders, student activists, and members of the Muslim community. A hunt is on for terrorist mastermind Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj).
It’s a time for binaries and literal-mindedness. The first, and weakest, episode, lays out Nida Rahim’s situation. Bent on proving herself as the perfect soldier, Nida has disavowed her liberal father Shahnawaz (SM Zaheer).
Shahnawaz, like the rest of the dissidents, is sent to Meghdoot 31. This detention centre that is supposedly the nerve centre of the regime’s “reconditioning” programme (code for torture, brainwashing and killing), but discipline seems slack. Centre head Sunil Da Cunha (Manav Kaul) barely looks like a man in charge, both of his facial fuzz and his handful of staffers. When things begin to get out of control, the prison officials are slow to catch on, belying their reputation for extracting deadly results.
The events are set over a day and a night. Nida, played by Hindi cinema’s current favourite worrywart Radhika Apte, enters the prison in Clarice Starling-like fashion, determined to do her job but unaware of the events that lie ahead. When Ali Saeed is caught and produced for interrogation, he has a special message for Nida.
Despite the jump scares, gory torture scenes, ominous background music and grisly make-up, the horror is minimal. The sluggish pace and lack of suspense cancel out the momentum temporarily built up by the suggestion that Ali Saeed might be from the beyond, while the tendency to spell out what should have been left unsaid undermines the allegorical possibilities of Ghoul.
The series shoehorns into genre conventions a commentary on the state of Indian politics – the real ghoul in this yarn, it is suggested, is state-sponsored repression. Liberal (and paranoid) viewers might cheer the attempt to use the premise for high-minded ends, but Ghoul doesn’t work hard enough to make the leap. The nightmare that Nida confronts is not quite 1984 or, for that matter, 2019 and beyond.
The characters are as unconvincing as the treatment. Radhika Apte’s tense, reactive heroine is an extension of her character Anjali Mathur from Sacred Games. Despite Apte’s immersion in the role, Nida has no inner life to make her interesting. Manav Kaul has his moments, but he suffers from Graham’s inability to provide convincing examples of Sunil’s amorality and cruelty.
The one character who briefly registers her humanity is Laxmi (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee). Sunil’s fractious deputy has the temperament of a fisherwoman and a tendency to speak of herself in the male gender. “I like nightmares, they relax me,” she says with an evil grin.
At least on the level of ideas, Ghoul sets itself up a counterweight to the soft-core nationalism that has washed over vast parts of show business. The political undercurrent that drives the narrative gives Ghoul an urgency and relevance that are not always followed through by the storytelling. With a crisper running time and better writing, the familiar premise – the oppressed have resorted to occult practices to take revenge against their oppressors – might have worked. Such statements as “The ghoul shows us our guilt and it kills us!” might have been consigned to the rubbish bin, allowing the rich and textured atmospherics (Jay Oza is behind the camera) to speak for themselves.