An old tribal woman warning about an ancient curse, a long-forgotten tragedy, black magic, jump scares, grotesque deaths, spooky faces and jittery screams, Netflix’s latest web series Betaal has all the elements of a (cliched) horror story. Except, the most important one – fear.
The series, backed by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, begins with a greedy contractor trying to open up a sealed tunnel deep in a forest, so that he can construct a highway. Stopping him are the natives of the area, who say that the tunnel is cursed and opening it would lead to death and destruction for all. The contractor, rubbishing all these as mere superstitions, hires a military squad named CIPD to help him remove the villagers from his way.
When the commandos open the tunnel (after killing the villagers standing in their way, who are later branded as Naxals), they end up unleashing an evil force that threatens human existence. And commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai) looks different. Her hair turns white after they are attacked by certain creatures from inside the tunnel. Nobody seems to care much about this development though.
In order to save themselves from the creatures, the commandos, along with the contractor and his family, seek refuge in some old British barracks in the forest.
In the subsequent episodes, we see them trying to survive, battling the British ‘army of the dead’ that can be stopped by fire, or a mix of turmeric, salt and ashes (the desi equivalent of Dragonglass from Game of Thrones, maybe?)
Oh, and by the way, the show’s protagonist is named Vikram, who struggles with making ‘the right choice’ every now and then. The attempt to blend Indian folklore with a zombie-horror show had potential. And till the first episode, Betaal looks like an intriguing web series. But soon, the makers lose the grip on the plot, and the viewer loses interest.
The problem with the show (in addition to the heavy clichés present throughout) is that it fails to evoke any sense of fear. Moreover, it will sometimes make you laugh even when the protagonists are staring at death in the face. Yes, there are a few jump scares that are good for the series. But apart from that, Betaal has little to offer.
The dialogues appear to be eccentric at times, with forced cuss words every now and then. For example, there is a scene where the fierce tribal woman Puniya (played by Manjiri Pupala) says, “Lag gayi hum sabki.”
The show attempts to take a dig at the corrupt contractors who would do whatever it takes for money and how at times the people in power may misuse their rights. It also tries to bring out patriotism in some scenes by mentioning the revolt of 1857 and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. But such undertones seem to be out of place in a zombie-thriller setting.
In every horror show, sound effects play the key role. Betaal scores full marks in this respect. The costume designers and make-up artists have done a decent job. However, the zombies could have used more attention.
The zombies, (if that is what the makers intended to show) are far from scary with their bright red eyes, matching red overcoats, wicked smiles and not-so-eerie laughs. And that is not it. They have negotiation, and emotional manipulation skills as well. Surprise, surprise! In a scene, a character negotiates with Betaal for power. And in another, a creature appeals to his brother to help him out as he is in pain.
What goes in the favour of Betaal is its length. With just four episodes of maximum 45 minutes each, the show can be easily watched in a single sitting. And the performances by the star cast will make you want to watch it, even though you can easily predict what will happen next.
Viineet Kumar does a fine job as Vikram Sirohi. However, a little more intensity in some scenes would have further elevated his performance. Suchitra Pillai gives a brilliant performance as commandant Tyagi. She is the one evoking a bit of terror in the series. Aahana Kumra fits the bill as the brave and righteous DC Ahluwalia. Jitendra Joshi, after making his mark in Sacred Games, gives a convincing performance as the corrupt contractor. Syna Anand plays the role of his daughter and does justice to her role. Manjiri Pupala steals the spotlight as the fearless Puniya in each frame that she appears in. Others including Siddharth Menon, Swapnil Kotriwar, Meenal Kapoor, Yashwant Wasnik, Savita Bajaj, Ankur Vikal, Krishna Singh Bisht and popular Bhojpuri star Pawan Singh deliver as per expectations.
The last episode of Betaal ends on a cliff-hanger, pointing at a second season. With nothing much going on during the lockdown anyway, you might want to pick up the series if there is nothing else in your watch-list.
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