Betaal sets loose an uninspired run-of-the-mill zombie tale that could have been much more.
Betaal is a zombie horror Indian Netflix Original based on Indian Folklore. It’s about a zombie attack in a small village, with the undead resembling both zombies and vampires based on Indian spirits. It starts out slow and somewhat political, but slowly the series unfolds the folklore.
This first season consists of 4 episodes with each a duration of 45-49 minutes. It’s a continuous story that plays out during one dark night in which zombies rise to lessen their hunger. It’s highly recommended to watch this series with its original Hindi audio and with subtitles in your own language if possible.
In the small village of Nilja next to the Betaal Mountain the villagers make sure that a deity Betaal can’t be freed. But when the government gives order to Surya Construction to develop a freeway through this village, everything is about to change. Ajay Mudhalvan, owner of Surya hires a BAAZ unit to clear out the village, with force. The villagers want to prevent a monumental tunnel, once built by the British but closed off in the war in 1857, from opening.
Now Surya wants to open the tunnel, but when they do they discover that an ancient curse has been brought back to life. Lieutenant Colonel John Lynedoch and his 90th Taunton Volunteer regiment were buried alive by the rebels in the tunnels and now they are coming back to conquer India and the world. Only a handful of CIPD soldiers and Puniya a woman from the village can hopefully prevent this from happening.
Why you should watch it
The series is very short, within 3 hours you have watched the whole first season. The story plays out in one night, which results in a very dark looking series. Some shots and images are hard to see which can feel as cheating and it makes it also more difficult to enjoy what’s happening.
The first episode introduces the audience to all the key players. First the villagers with Puniya and her husband as the main characters who know about the curse and how to stop it. Mudhalvan and his wife, his daughter Saanvi and his assistant Bhunnu are the ones who want the villagers gone, with force and violence if necessary and Mudhalvan even wants to play foul game if there is some money to gain. To accomplish this he hires a BAAZ team with Tyagi in command and Vikram Sirohi as her second in command and Ahlu as Sirohi’s second and friend.
It’s also an introduction to the political and religious social system in India, with social commentary. This can be somewhat difficult to grasp if you’re not from India and don’t know anything about underlying power struggles. The Naxalites are mentioned who are a communist group and is seen by the government as terrorists. To accuse the villagers of being Naxalites and if they attack first, the BAAZ team is allowed to use firepower. A system which can easily be manipulated.
But once past this introduction and after the tunnel has been opened, the zombie game is on. The legend of Lynedoch is based on the tales and legends of Vetala Panchavimshati or Baital Pachisi and tells the story about King Vikram who wants to capture a spirit a Pischacha or Vetala who hangs upside down in a tree and inhabits dead bodies and can even raise them. This Vetala can be similar to a zombie or a vampire and in Betaal it’s a combination of both.
The reanimated spirits of the British soldiers are hanging upside down from the ceiling of the tunnel and Lynedoch has powers to possess people and control them or glamour them like a vampire can. There are more references to these tales and Sirohi’s first name Vikram is one of them. Another is that Lynedoch whispers to him and says if he is prepared to be a good soldier and to carry him on his shoulders. Just like king Vikram did in a story of Vikram Aur Betaal when he took a dead corpse out of a tree, carried it on his shoulders, and which Betaal then possessed and told him riddles he had to solve.
After the first episode, the story is forming a new take on these old folklore tales. But unfortunately it isn’t done in the most gripping or thrilling way. Most of the time the soldiers and Puniya and her husband and Saanvi and her father are locked in an old British barrack to shelter from the Redcoats army. These cursed undead look like veined zombies with vampire teeth and red glowing eyes just like the pirates in The Fog (1980).
The story comes to a halt for most of the time with underdeveloped characters, except maybe for Vikram, and the characters don’t develop much either. The story is cliched and the cinematography is okay, although the storytelling isn’t flowing, while the music feels like it comes straight out of the nineties. Although the overall idea is good, the execution isn’t. The last episode brings in more thrills and finally something happens, but for a series that for now consists of 4 episodes, it might be a little too late.
Although it isn’t a bad thing that this series doesn’t bring anything new or original to the scene, the overall execution must therefore be key. But the story stays too bland, flat, even a bit tedious and it moves too slowly to become gripping and doesn’t manage to get your attention. It’s entertaining enough to be enjoyed but it can’t rise above its peers or even amount to them.
My favorite part
The series wasn’t able to hold my attention. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t especially liked it very much either. But the last episode, finally something happened. Of course we were shown what really happened with Vikram and the little girl from the papers, which was as expected. But finally there was some action, some tension and the pace picked up a bit more. As if the series eventually came to life, just like the zombies.
And the final scene was very promising for a second season, which could expand the folklore and the whole vibe of the series. Hopefully not all in complete darkness so it has something to show.
Scare factor: ★★☆☆☆
Thrill factor: ★★☆☆☆
Entertainment factor: ★★★☆☆
Cast and crew
Betaal is created and written by Patrick Graham and cowritten by Suhani Kanwar. It stars Viineet Kumar (Vikram Sirohi), Aahana Kumra (Ahlu), Suchitra Pillai (Tyagi), Jatin Goswami (Akbar), Manjiri Pupala (Puniya), Jitendra Joshi (Mudhalvan), Syna Anand (Saanvi), Ankur Vikal (Bhunnu) and Richard Dillane (Lynedoch).
Music: Naren Chandavarkar, Benedict Taylor. Cinematography: Srinivas Achary, Tanay Satam. Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Red Chillies Entertainment, Sk Global Entertainment. Original network: Netflix.