Directed by: Patrick Graham & Nikhil Mahajan
Starring: Vineet Kumar Singh & Aahana Kumra
Betaal, the latest offering from Netflix, offers an ambitious spin to the Indian legend of Vikram and Betaal. While the former is supposed to be a brave and wise king, the latter is a clever and witty ghost. In the Netflix’s rendition of the classic tale co-written by British writer-director Patrick Graham (who is also the show creator), Vikram is an Indian soldier in the elite Baaz Squad of the fictional CIPD force. Betaal, on the other hand, is the ghost of the dead British Indian Army officer Lt. Col John Lynedoch. The four episode horror miniseries stars Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra, and Suchitra Pillai in the pivotal roles. American filmmaker John Carpenter, who is often regarded as the undisputed master of horror in cinema, once said of a good horror movie, “There’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.” Now, the legendary English filmmaker David Lean isn’t particularly known for making horror films but often a great drama script requires a director to grapple with the macabre and the ghastly side of things. And, Lean, like the best of the artists, never backed down from challenges: be it the creation of Miss Haveshim’s decrepit mansion in Great Expectations or London’s corrupt underbelly in Oliver Twist. His swansong A Passage to India, which is based on E.M.Forster’s epic novel of the same name, has a couple of scenes set in the fictional Marabar Caves (based on the actual Barabar Caves located in Bihar). Lean masterfully crafts both these scenes—a sense of unknown terror punctuates them. One doesn’t see the horror but one can easily sense the ominous undertones cleverly orchestrated by Lean.
The Netflix miniseries, on the other hand, keeps on showing us the horror (through the Colonel and his army of the dead) but it fails to deliver any genuinely scary moments. Just as the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.” Betaal is full of such loud bangs but there aren’t any payoffs during its three hour running time. And that’s really the biggest disappointment of Betaal. To make matters worse, the tone is inconsistent and the intentions muddled.
Another major let-down is Viineet Kumar who seems to be playing an extension of his character in Bard of Blood. After impressing everyone with his portrayal of an aspiring boxer in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, Kumar seems to have got stuck somewhere. What he needs right now is a serious rethought about his choice of roles as well as his acting process. Overall, the acting performances range from average to good. Aahana Kumra and Suchitra Pillai are really the standout performers. The legendary Wes Craven once said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” If only Patrick Graham understood this better he wouldn’t have ended up creating Betaal.