BOTTOM LINE: Partly Tedious, Largely Nail-Biting Zombie Thriller
|Platform: Netflix||Genre: Thriller|
Skin and swear: Contains instances of strong language and gory violence
What Is the Story About?
An army squad is deputed in a remote village to evacuate its residents and make way for a high-profile construction project, luring them with the idea of development. Increased political pressure and manipulation force the soldiers to take drastic measures against the villagers, a few of whom begin to retaliate. Not heeding to their repeated warnings about the idea of opening a supposedly cursed tunnel, the soldiers are taken for a ride. Little do they know that it would activate a centuries-old curse where they would have to battle it out with an undead East India Company officer and his battalion of zombie redcoats.
Vineet Kumar Singh continues to prove his adaptability across a wide variety of roles. It’s apparent that he works hard on his characters and reflects their deep-rooted concerns and vulnerabilities through subtle gestures and efficient histrionics. Aahana Kumra is a perfect fit to play an upright, aggressive soldier who doesn’t mind questioning the system in the need of the hour. However, it feels like she’s tried too hard to wear the aggression in her character – a better sense of spontaneity is what she could have aimed at. Suchitra Pillai after a series of unworthy roles where she barely got her due, is in excellent form as a commandant who succumbs to the establishment. She explores the wild beast in her with such gusto that opens viewers to a rarely explored side to her acting repertoire.
Jitendra Joshi is excellent in the deceptive role of a middleman who would leave no stone unturned to get his work done. Jatin Goswami, Siddharth Menon, Ankur Vikal, child actor Syna Anand are well-cast for their parts. However, keep your eyes on Manjiri Pupala as Puniya, she’s fiery as the villager who stands up to the army and the zombie battalion with immense courage.
It’s always an exciting prospect to watch a show set in a genre (zombie-thriller space) that’s relatively untapped (in the Indian digital space). Rarely do storytellers get that coveted opportunity to set the grammar for a genre in a region. Betaal, though tedious to start, makes efficient use of a historical backdrop, marrying it with elements of folklore, superstition and modern-day political realities to deliver a nail-biting thriller. The atmosphere in the show is masterfully built and the situations are set up excruciatingly well that it doesn’t have to rely on any done-to-death quintessential jumpscares to provide the chills.
The emotional hook is surprisingly strong and it doesn’t give much chance for the viewer to question the basis behind the on-screen happenings. The writing is sharp enough to make the scenario feel relatable on a certain level. The ‘us versus they’ battle in the story is layered well – it’s smartly tied up to offer a sense of the polarised climate in the country, later with the clash between the army officers and the villagers and subsequently with the group fighting the zombies belonging to a long-gone era. The personal stories of the characters tell us a thing or two about how one tends to become puppets of those in power without rationality and possibly carry that guilt all through their lives. This is why the setup strikes a chord.
The tension within the group fighting the zombies adds to the bite of the thriller. Several situations depict the confrontation between ‘blood’ and ‘larger good’, ‘inner demons’ and ‘external demons’ that it’s impossible to not invest in the proceedings. The legend that transforms the ‘wounded into a zombie’ is rivetingly weaved into the show. The action sequences are explosive, intentionally gory (it’s hard to not be gory in this genre) though they create the desired impact. The sound design is, however, the lethal weapon that the directors Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan use superbly in sync with the purposeful writing.
Betaal stays with you long after you finish it because of its raw visual mood, its atmospheric quality. Merely spooking/frightening the viewer isn’t what the filmmaker aims to do and he makes you reflect upon the larger reality as you watch it – a quality that not many digital shows can boast of. It does this while comprising all the must-haves in this zombie thriller genre. It occasionally yields to the temptation of telling more than showing, but the three-hour ride to hell is an adrenaline rush that’s worthy of your time.
Music and Other Departments?
Ishaan Divecha, Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, the team behind the music score, prove extremely competent in understanding the nuances and the specifics of the genre with care – the orchestration with the right mix of Indian and western instruments adds great value to the result. The sound design, as said before, makes the terrifying atmosphere and moist tension in the episode feel creepier (in a good way). The writing is smart and has an interpretative quality to it, a facet that makes this intense thriller also feel profound.
The atmospheric setup
Good writing and execution
Gradual to build an impact
Spells things out more than necessity occasionally (when it could have left it for the imagination of the viewer)
Did I Enjoy It?
Will You Recommend It?
Review by Srivathsan Nadadhur
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