“Country does not runs on idealism but on capitalism” - Mudhalvan.
One of the most famous quotes of Karl Marx reads, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”; later the Frankfurt school philosopher Herbert Marcuse added another screw to this quote when he said that, “The repetition as farce can be even more terrifying than the original tragedy”.
Even though the makers of Netflix’s India latest mini web series Betaal, might not have in mind the historical-philosophical meanings of the above quotes, nevertheless they have been able to portray the essence of it in their four part horror fiction, presented in a permanent grey and gloomy filter with grotesque violence and suspenseful background music.
Directed by Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan, the show starring Vineet Singh, Suchitra Pillai, Jatin Goswami and Jitendra Joshi among others, is set in deep forestland and explores the world of folklore coming to life in context of state-business-politics- security apparatus nexus. Like recent other web series, Betaal too expresses the contemporary political scene by referring to themes that reflect narratives such as ‘go to Pakistan’, ‘liberal left wing scum’, ‘sacrifice of soldiers’, ‘anti-national’, ‘fake news’, ‘false-flag’ ‘planting evidence’ and ‘branding Naxalite’ etc.; but these are just a minor part of the plot.
The plot revolves around a group of elite paramilitary soldiers (Baaz commandos) assigned with the task of clearing a cluster of tribal villages whose residents have been protesting against land acquisition for a Highway project, and opening a key tunnel. The ‘tunnel’ plays a very crucial role in the entire plot; both as an objective and as a metaphor. The ‘tunnel’ connects two different time periods, it juxtaposes two periods separated by more than 160 years.
The tunnel constructed by the East India Company houses un-dead British redcoat soldiers led by a ruthless ambitious Colonel (who wanted to become the emperor of India) who got trapped inside the tunnel while fighting the Indian rebels during the First war of Independence in 1857. The commanding officer Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai), gets possessed by the un-dead Colonel (Richard Dillane). A perfect juxtaposition considering the ruthlessness of both the characters as well as the actions and aims of both the ‘military’ groups and politics which they represent.
There is no light at the end of the ‘tunnel’ which connects British Imperialism with Internal Colonialism. The tunnel connects the legitimising ideology of colonialism i.e. civilising mission and White Man’s burden with the justificatory ideology of internal- colonialism i.e. discourses of development, progress and civilisation. Thus, the very opening line from the Journal of Col. John Lynedoch which reads as “We came to help these people. But they resist…How dare they?” also gets echoed from the Baaz commandos, who want to help the villagers and take them to a “safe” place.
Colonialism labelled the natives as barbarian, uncivilised, illiterate and dehumanised them; internal-colonialism uses exact these words to refer those communities who have been refusing to join the mainstream developmental project and dehumanises them. “There are no adivasis, there are just Naxals, and they should all just be killed”, says the businessman Mudhalvan (Jatin Goswami) who wants to build the highway, while the Baaz commandos who constantly refer to the tribal villagers as illiterate and uncivilised, are on a ‘hunting’ mission to ‘sanitise’ the area, as if people are pests!
In what can only be called an irony, while shooting down the undead British soldiers, a Baaz commando says “Bloody white men! First they plundered our country, then our jobs, then our gold, our land and now they have even stolen our evil spirits”.
Betaal offers a subtle yet very powerful critique of hierarchical commanding structure practiced in the armed forces which ultimately dehumanises the solider- a theme which runs throughout the series. “A good solider must follow the orders”; “the duty of a good solider is to follow orders”; “don’t question your actions”. Soldiers are not supposed to have emotions and critical reflection; any thought of going back to family, to loved ones is criticised as ‘civilian thought’, which must be nipped in the bud.
Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Singh) is forced to kill an innocent young girl because he was ordered to do so by his commanding officer; and despite of being haunted by it, he continuously keeps succumbing to this psychological training and desire to move up in the ladder. At the same time Vikram tries to redeem himself by saving another young girl, who is chased by Officer Tyagi aka Col. Lynedoch aka Betaal.
In an interesting way, the entire sequence where a journalist accuses a professor (who teaches at a Central University and is critical of land acquisition) of being a ‘liberal left-wing scum’ followed by ‘hero’s (head of a paramilitary unit) response’ to the arguments of the professor seems ‘over-acting’ by all the characters. But this can also be read as mockery or satire upon the entire prime-time debate culture which has developed in the last six years. Similarly, there is another scene where a paramilitary commando is ruthlessly thrashing an old villager, and when interrupted by a senior officer, he folds his hand and says sorry.
Despite of powerful commentary on a lot of socio-political issues and ideology and several successful juxtapositions, the makers have diminished the resistance of villagers and at the same time have attempted to integrate the ‘rebel’ adivasi in the nationalist framework. The adivasis, (who are synonymous with naxalites) are not protesting against forceful acquisition of their land, instead they are protesting to safeguard the ‘tunnel’, which houses evils spirits powerful enough to destroy civilisations. In the last sequence, it is Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) – a tribal woman- who takes up the task of destroying the Betaal and saving the country and its people.
Betaal ends with ships of East India Company - reanimated from the dead due to the fatal mistake of blowing the Betaal Shrine- marching towards Gateway of India. This is where the historic tragedy of colonialism, repeated as farce in form of internal-colonialism, becomes more tragic than the original tragedy, as the threat of new-imperialism arises from the actions of a free nation.
A lot of critics have pointed out that the portrayal of ‘zombies’ in Betaal is comic. That the turning of all hair to white after a zombie attack, and plausible explanation being “yeh shock se hua hoga” betrays logic. Some have called the use of turmeric, salt and ashes as containment strategy as tribal mumbo-jumbo black magic and death of logic.
First of all, we should not understand the ‘betaal’, through the trope of the western ‘zombie’ even though they are both undead. The zombies of Betaal, are inspired from the tribal folklore which has a rich classification of spirit-gods/evils knows as bongas. The glittering red eye, white hair and transfer of spirit from one person to another is derived from Indian tribal folklore. Next, if the western ‘zombie’- which itself is derived from mumbo-jumbo black magic of Hatian folklore- can be killed by silver bullets or by headshot, then why can’t the ‘betaals’ be killed by a mix turmeric, salt and ashes? What makes the former logical and latter illogical?
Secondly, entire human civilisation is based on construction of a meaningful world; of finding an explanation for every events which we encounter in everyday life. We try to locate each and every event into a meaningful order which we as humans have constructed. The basis of construction can be either scientific or religious or both. So when ‘shock’ is cited as a plausible explanation for sudden whitening of hair, - something experienced never before- the explanation comes from a scientific training rooted in modern psychiatry and medicine; the only plausible source.
(Harshvardhan Tripathi is a research scholar at JNU. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)