There is so much furor when an underdog wins. Be it Murad’s rise as a rapper in Gully Boy or Chennai Super Kings’ win in their comeback season in the IPL. But when underdogs fail, people don’t seem to bat an eye. Betaal is an underdog that failed because it delivered in the first few episodes but seemed to lose steam in the other 3 episodes.
Like all horror stories, the first act is very simple. A special task force is commissioned to clear a tunnel to make way for a highway in the village of Nilja. While the villagers put on a firm defense and don’t want to open up the tunnel as it’s haunted, their defense is broken by the Baaz squad who are armed with superior weapons compared to the villagers’ country-made weapons. When they clear the tunnel, all hell breaks loose and we see the onslaught of the zombies who seemed to have survived for more than 160 years (A few things in horror movies have to be taken with a pinch of salt; This is one of those).
The cast with Vineet Kumar Singh (Mukkabaaz), Aahana Kumra (Lipstick Under My Burkha) and Jitendra Joshi (Sacred Games) is talented but there is very little scope for character development or arcs as the story unfolds over the course of a single night. The director tries his best to weave in elements that can contribute to character development but even that comes across as a party-pooper.
Like Tumbbad, this series has a solid backstory in place and throughout the course of the short series (Just 4 episodes), you’re always wondering the motive behind the zombies’ attacks. While the reason and motive behind the attacks come off as a bummer as they’re slowly being explained in all the episodes, it does a good job of holding our attention throughout.
All horror films need to have good backstories and I’ve been a strong advocate of this ‘theory’. Betaal has a fine backstory but it becomes too self-indulgent at times (Like that friend who never stops talking). This flashback has got something to do with India’s independence and the revolt of 1857 and this just makes it all the more interesting.
Jitendra Joshi delivers yet again as the ruthless and cunning contractor Ajay Mudhalvan, and his performance in the last two episodes is a fun-riot. It provides a much-needed relaxation from the dark and gloomy storyline. Manjiri Pupala who plays a villager also impresses with her sharp expressions and authentic Marathi accent.
In the last episode, the underlying commercialism in the series suddenly wakes up and we get a few hoot-worthy dialogues (Man, I miss hooting and whistling in theatres!) and a few cuss words are slathered here and there. While I loved these small elements of commercialism, I wish they should’ve been there from the first episode. Who doesn’t enjoy a few commercial elements here and there? I mean, look at Sacred Games. Commercialism and art-house was so beautifully woven together like the serpents in the logo of the WHO. Betaal definitely loses a few points on this.
There’s this brief discussion of ‘daddy issues’ in the series. As if bashing capitalism, reminiscing about the freedom struggle, an ill-fitting dialogue on Brexit and Ajay Mudhalvan’s misogynistic side being exposed weren’t enough. At one point in time, you’re confused as to what this series intends to convey. Like all good horror stories or like all good stories, the storyline should stay true to its message and convey what’s needed. The additional elements feel like speed breakers in an already-elongated series. When you think of a Tumbbad, it has a great story and the entire focus is always on the flashback and the current events. I strongly feel this series tried to become a lot more than a horror story and that’s precisely its biggest downside.
Betaal is definitely something you can watch with your family (If your family can swallow a few cuss words) but its memories fade into the air a few minutes after you finish watching. The jump scares can spike up your adrenaline but that’s it, don’t expect a lot from this series.