Patrick Graham’s latest Netflix miniseries Betaal follows a counterinsurgency squad that accidentally activates a curse in the eponymous mountain, where they have arrived to displace tribal villagers and make space for a highway.
The curse awakens an army of East India Company soldiers. Over 24 hours, the forces, led by Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar), have to fight the zombie soldiers led by the undead Colonel Lynedoch (Richard Dillane). Betaal will be premiered on May 24.
The four-episode Hindi miniseries has been created by Graham and Suhani Kanwar, and directed by Graham and Nikhil Mahajan. Graham was the showrunner of the 2018 Netflix miniseries Ghoul, in which an ancient demon attacks its military captors in a totalitarian India. Mahajan has directed the Marathi-language thriller Pune 52 (2013) and the superhero-themed Baji (2015).
In Betaal, Graham merged his fascination for “retro-zombies”, like the Nazi zombies found in the video game series Wolfenstein, with Indian lore about the betaal, a reanimated corpse that haunts cremation grounds and dispenses knowledge.
“Then came the idea of the evil colonel who commands zombies as the betaal-like vampire,” Graham told Scroll.in. “The betaal, the head of the necro-spirits, whispering and guiding Vikram, sat nicely into that idea.”
When Mahajan read the screenplay, he was drawn by the “human drama” of a “motley of characters thrown in an extraordinary situation, where their worst internal fears come true”.
Drawing comparisons with the classic zombie films of George A Romero, Mahajan added: “As you see in his films, even in the most drastic circumstances, people find it difficult to work together, and only when they are able to set aside their differences, they survive. So the aspect of different types of people, stuck together, trying to fight their own demons, as a bigger demon lurks outside, appealed to me.”
While Graham isn’t new to scary fare, this is Mahajan’s first release in the horror genre. “Pune 52 had heavy drama elements within a thriller set-up, and Baji had a lot of high-octane action, and I drew from both these experiences for Betaal, which is a mix of drama, horror, and action,” he said.
The series was shot in Igatpuri and parts of Lonavala in Maharashtra. “We built our own village at Lions Point in Lonavala,” Graham said. “We also found these colonial barracks there, whose facade we repurposed for the series. In Igatpuri, where we shot in the beginning of monsoon when it became literally one of the best-looking natural locations I have ever seen, we found a fantastic railway tunnel which is central to the story.”
Prior to the shoot, the directors divided their responsibilities on the basis of “logistics based on locations and actors”, Mahajan said. Both of them shot Betaal simultaneously with their respective units in different locations and soundstages.
Graham picked Viineet Kumar as the lead after his performance in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2018). The ensemble cast includes Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Manjiri Pupala, Jitendra Joshi, Siddharth Menon and Ankur Vikal.
The look of the series is “dark and gothic”, and nothing like anything else in Indian cinema and television, Graham said. “We tried to make Betaal as identifiable as possible, with a look and feel unique to it, and with more time, we could be more experimental,” he added.
A key element was the makeup of the zombie soldiers. “We knew we had to create a cool, novel monster,” Graham said. “In fact, I am hesitant to call Betaal something in the zombie genre, since these are not traditional zombies, which are shambling corpses, but more like weird mutated husks of what used to be human beings.” The United Kingdom-based Millennium FX worked on the masks and prosthetics.
In Ghoul, the theme of a totalitarian Indian state paying the price for mistreating minorities was overt. Betaal, with its premise of colonial soldiers pitted against their present-day counterparts hired by not dissimilar capitalist powers, appears to be just as political.
“All I can say is that the theme Suhani and I were pursuing was that just because you’re wearing an uniform or getting orders from above, you are not doing what’s necessarily right, and neither does your position give you the right to abandon your morals as a human being,” Graham explained.
Betaal follows the ongoing trend of social horror. “In India, the parameters of horror are narrow,” Graham observed. “Besides the underlying horror of Betaal, it has emotional depth, drama, action, and suspense, quite like the films of Jordan Peele, which are horror, but do not have a jump scare every five minutes.”
Any criticism of a horror movie that delves into sociopolitical themes instead of sticking with genre thrills doesn’t hold water for Graham. “If I’m spending a year doing something, it has to say things I’m passionate about,” Graham said. “The things explored in Ghoul and Betaal are quite general to humanity. I certainly do not set out to invite controversy, but I can only make something on a topic I’m interested about.”