Betaal review: A depressing, uneven zombie horror
Patrick Graham’s show suffers from terrible pacing and unimaginative characters
Why settle for a rushed start if you are going to slow things down eventually? Thirty minutes into Betaal, an entire village is razed, the resisting population rounded up or shot, heroes and villains sharply drawn. The breakneck pacing would have worked if the show wanted to throw down quick, bring out the zombies and the gore.
Well, not quite. After giving us a glimpse of its undead breakout — at a tunnel being cleared by a team of commandos — Patrick Graham’s series grinds to a halt, as the surviving characters scurry into an old barrack and ponder their means. The effect is depressingly jarring. Imagine being shown the kick-off of your favourite derby match and then having to wait while the players sit out the rain.
Cast: Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra, Jitendra Joshi
Streaming on: Netflix
Directors: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan
Streaming on Netflix, the 4-part miniseries is produced by Red Chillies Entertainment and directed by Patrick and Nikhil Mahajan. It stars Viineet Kumar — an odd fit for the material, given the actor’s tendency to take every narrative beat seriously (though he eases up wonderfully near the end). Viineet plays Vikram Sirohi, the deputy in an elite counter-insurgency squad. They are ordered to clear out a highway route through a forest; all hostiles promptly neutralised. But this forest holds a mountain — named for the infernal ‘Betaal’ — and in meddling with its ancient underpass, the squad ends up reviving an army of redcoat zombies.
The premise had me hooked. Pitting modern colonizers against their bygone bosses is a fun idea, and the perfect excuse for a grisly gunfight, the kind seen in online zombie shooter games. “Think of this as a game,” Sirohi tells a young girl in the show (the moment itself is a trope, a hardened mercenary leading a special kid to safety).
Yet, Betaal does not commit to its inherent gaminess for the most part. With the zombies held off by impenetrable doors, the show languishes in vain strategising, none of it interesting or particularly clever. The characters are dull and one-note: Sacred Games’ Jitendra Joshi is hard to take seriously as a villain, coolly negotiating with the dead in reasonable tones, like a liquor peddler during lockdown (“I can get what you crave...”).
The show sticks to genre rules. Bitten survivors are deemed ‘infected’, to be killed off before they flip. This leads to the same moral hand-wringing so elemental to the genre (Sirohi appears more confused than conflicted about his choices). There are nods to Naxal killings and tribal displacement, but the commentary doesn’t cut as deep as Dibakar Banerjee’s short film in Ghost Stories. The shadowy temple and occult figurines might recall Tumbbad (2018), but the myth being spun here feels half-baked, while the Betaal statue looks modeled on late actor Rajesh Vivek.
In the 1980s, Ramanand Sagar produced the Vikram Aur Betaal TV series for Doordarshan. Watching it now on YouTube, the gaudy make-up and terrible sound effects seem out of touch. The tacky aesthetics might not draw new viewers, though there are those who remember the show fondly, an endlessly loopy yarn of clever dilemmas, to be discussed and dissected with the whole family. Patrick’s series is sturdily built and features some stunning prosthetic work. Yet it leaves out the most important element: the wit at the heart of this fable.