The Netflix web series Betaal is a horror tale as imagined by someone with a double major in history and sociology. The short of it is that a bunch of zombies attacks a group of people in a confined space, who then fight their way out even as some of them perish in the bargain.

The long of it tries to rev up a regular scarefest with complex ideas about colonialism, neo-colonialism, corporate greed, corruption and the exploitation of tribals and their lands. Despite the ample virtue signalling, Betaal cannot be taken seriously even if its makers want you to.

The four-episode series has been created by Patrick Graham (Ghoul) and written by him and Suhani Kanwar. Graham has also directed the series with Nikhil Mahajan.

Betaal has 180-odd minutes at its disposal to peddle the conceit that the colonial tendency for loot and plunder has survived Independence. It’s a little longer than the average movie, and yet not expansive enough to contain the idea that blindly following orders, rather than your conscience, can get you mauled or possessed by evil spirits. At the very least, the texture of your skin will be ruined and your hair will turn white.

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In Netflix’s ‘Betaal’, East India Company zombies and horror with a social purpose

Set over the course of a very long day and night, Betaal plays out in a village somewhere in central India. Here, tribals are resisting a construction project that will blast its way through a tunnel inside which an East India Company regiment was buried alive at the time of the Indian Mutiny. The tribals believe that the evil spirit Betaal, who is being controlled by the regiment’s colonel, lives in this tunnel.

The project head Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi) doesn’t care a fig for the sickle-wielding, occult-believing tribals. He has the muscular support of the paramilitary Baaz Squad, led by the lean, mean Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai). Tyagi orders her posse, headed by Vikram (Viineet Kumar), to kill at will and get the pesky tribals out of the way. Vikram is obedient for as long as the series needs him to be.

The feisty Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) leads the tribal resistance. Puniya has figured out that the zombies can be kept at bay by a homegrown concoction whose chief ingredient is turmeric. This true atmanirbhar soul is ignored by the Baaz Squad and dismissed as a Naxalite for as long as it takes for half of them to be slaughtered.

Viineet Kumar and Manjiri Pupala in Betaal (2020). Courtesy Red Chillies/Blumhouse/Netflix.

The fun begins when the British soldiers get reanimated and stagger about in search of recruits. The Baaz Squad gets corralled into British-era barracks with poor lighting and lots of dusty corners in which the undead may thrive.

Fortunately for all, Mudhalvan has brought along his nerdy teenaged daughter Saanvi (Syna Anand), who is destined for a pride of place within the mumbo-jumbo. Equally fortuitous is the fact that some infected victims hold on to their senses long enough to deliver an exposition on exactly why white-eyed monsters in red coats are trundling through the forest. Just to be absolutely sure that nobody is in the dark (even though the power supply is rather weak), a big fat book with archaic drawings and cursive text is at hand.

There are some solid scares, aided by slick production values, sound effects and prosthetics, as the characters try to save their skins. The notion that the East India Company has been reborn as the Baaz Squad and that the occupiers have merely swapped uniforms is a bold, clever one. But it needed more focused storytelling and rigorous pacing to be delivered.

The banal dialogue includes two gems that indicate that nobody actually knows who the real enemy is: “This one is for Bhagat Singh, [expletive]” and “This is what you call a hard Brexit, [expletive].”

The best line is, of course, of the variety usually found in such adventures: “What a stupid [expletive] idea.”

Among the actors who rise above the banal tour of evil are Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra as his courageous deputy, Manjiri Pupala as the tribal wonder woman, and Jatin Goswami as the rebellious Baaz Squad member Akbar. Ankur Vikal and Jitendra Joshi are wasted in their roles. Joshi has the added ignominy of being saddled with a Tamil name, Mudhalvan, and a Marathi accent.

Betaal (2020).