Team Betaal on zombies, military action and shooting in the hills
The team behind Betaal on the challenges of shooting a new-age zombie horror
Director Patrick Graham calls Betaal his ‘hate letter to England’. Produced by Red Chillies Entertainment and out on Netflix, the 4-part miniseries is a modern-day zombie horror with a colonial twist. The show focuses on an elite counterinsurgency squad who arrive at a remote village to clear out a highway. In doing so, they end up triggering an ancient curse, which unleashes an army of East India Company zombies.
For Patrick, the battle between new and old colonizers was a blast. “In England, they like to think of their glorious past, when in reality it was a series of atrocities,” says the British writer-director working in Mumbai. “So it’s a bit of a cathartic release seeing modern-day Indian soldiers machine-gunning a whole bunch of redcoats.”
Betaal is created by Patrick and co-directed by him and Nikhil Mahajan. Nikhil is known for directing the 2013 Marathi-language thriller Pune-52. He also helmed the Shreyas Talpade-starrer superhero film Baji (2015).
For their new venture, Nikhil and Patrick wanted to blend the zombie genre with the figure of the Betaal, a revenant who haunts charnel grounds and is analogous to the western vampire. “We picked up elements from the known Vikram Aur Betaal stories and merged them into our fantastical zombie-action narrative,” Nikhil says. “While the show is not based on that legend, it has the right amount of familiarity for an audience to smile.”
Betaal is led by Viineet Kumar, making his horror debut after a slew of sports films (Mukkabaaz, Gold, Saand Ki Aankh). Viineet plays Vikram Sirohi, the deputy of the crack Baaz Squad. Along with his team, he’s tasked to uproot a tribal settlement and make way for the lucrative project. Blinded by duty, Vikram uses force and violence on the alleged insurgents, while also reeling from PTSD.
“I was not interested in the stereotypical portrayal of a military man,” Viineet says. “My character, Vikram, is deeply troubled, confused, and weak. I wanted to explore that psyche, the internal battle he fights alongside the external one.”
Being a doctor, Viineet researched about the mental health of soldiers who return from conflict. “I have many friends in the forces. PTSD is a common thing among our military personnel, though in India we don’t talk much about it.”
Aahana Kumra, who plays deputy commander Ahluwalia, says she always wanted to essay a soldier. Aahana’s grandfather was in the police force. Her mother has been a police officer for 40 years. “I’ve always had a deep admiration for female officers,” she says. “I think if I wasn’t an actor I would have been in the armed forces.”
Betaal was filmed in Igatpuri and Lonavala in Maharashtra. Aahana recalls the grueling shoot in the hilly jungle terrain. “We were shooting at a 45-degrees temperature with guns, batons, and knives in our hands. It was monsoon with scorpions and snakes around us. I also got to experience prosthetics for the first time.”
Actor Jitendra Joshi plays the antagonist in Betaal. His character, Mudhalvan, is a greedy contractor, and nothing like the affable cop he played in Sacred Games. Jitendra argues he was eager to break type. “Playing another Katekar would have added one more room to my house,” he says, “but not bring creative satisfaction.”
The actor points out the legacy of yesteryear actor Pran. “Pran Sahab was a wonderful human being but whenever he came on screen, people would be scared of him. I wanted to do something similar with Mudhalvan. I wanted to disgust the audience.”