In one unintentionally funny scene during an intense gun battle with zombies, one of the military squad commandant says, “Angrezon ne hamari naukri churai, sona churaya, zameen churai aur ab ye hamare bhoot bhi churaayenge!”. I absolutely cracked up given that these creatures from the dead are supposed to be part of a military regiment of the East India Company, who have retained their Chief Lieutenant Colonel John Lynedoch and archaic bullets for what feels more like zombies for dummies. It’s literally this- the angrez have left but a cursed tunnel and their zombie selves remain stuck here. When corporate greed shows its ugly face we have a situation where the tribals of Campa forest are relegated to the margins with brute force and their land snatched away from them.
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The powerful socio-political commentary in the first episode of Betaal titled The Tunnel holds a promise for an arresting watch. However, by the next episode the deflated energy and the laughable premise makes it tough to carry on. The theme of usurping tribal land, disenfranchisement of the locals, the sinister deals struck to falsely accuse any and everyone who stands up to the establishment as naxals or anti-nationals is a poignant reminder to what is happening around us. Commandant Tyagi aka Suchitra Pillai takes charge as she orders her next in command, Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar), to head the evacuation process and get the tunnel cleared for a highway-building project. Sirohi is a troubled man fighting his own demons. The flashes of a young girl keep haunting him as we wonder what could possibly have left such a deep scar on the soldier’s mind. Brave and conscientious, Sirohi hesitates a number of times when he feels the orders a little too extreme, but each time on the pretext of being a good soldier he is expected to carry on the duties without any delay. This angle of utter surrender to authority and the unquestioning loyalty that is upheld as the highest form of patriotism and governance is another very poignant theme that runs through the 4 episode mini-series but is never adequately focused upon.
Instead, the curse of Betaal is upon us. Patrick Graham who has written the series along with Suhani Kanwar and directed it along with Nikhil Mahajan tries to harness the imperceptible presence of fear to create a foreboding tone, but all we have are a couple of jump scare moments and a lot of gore.
The proceedings stray away from the frighteningly bizarre to comically ballistic with even a line of “this will be a hard Brexit” thrown in. The over simplification of the plot is another problem. Every time a character is possessed with devilish energy, we are given a heads up by that very character about its future course of action. All this explaining has an abrupt comic turn when someone’s hair suddenly turns all white after a particularly drastic zombie attack and the plausible explanation is “Yeh shock se hua hoga”. True, we are in shock too.
As the story drifts along the periphery of the supernatural, Tanay Satam’s camera lingers deliberately on the tribal art, the decaying dark interiors of the caves with ornate doors and scary sculptures but given that we are hardly invested in the story where a fat book with elaborate hand drawings and writings tell us how the zombies will react next, an authentic sense of fear and dread is missing. In fact even mild interest in the proceedings is hard to achieve rustle up. Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar’s music subtly weaves its magic but it’s a wasted endeavour because the plot can’t hold itself together.
One feels bad for Vineet Kumar, Ahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai and Jatin Goswami, who try their best but our state of disappointment remains unchallenged. Manjari Pupala is feisty and Jitendra Joshi in the role of a wily contractor is wasted. These British zombies are hugely disappointing. Instead, our desi Vikram aur Betaal stories are still so much more enjoyable.
Rating: 1 .5 Quints out of 5