Sunday, June 07, 2020

Betaal – season 1 – review

Directors: Patrick Graham & Nikhil Mahajan

First Aired: 2020

Contains spoilers

The Betaal is probably best known among genre fans, renamed as the vetala, in the Indian folkloric story named as Vikram and the Vampire when brought to the West by Sir Richard Burton. That Betaal was a story teller. Spelt baital, when discussed in Bane, it is described as half man/half bat and capable of possessing the dead and a consumer of human flesh and blood. Some of these traits survive through to this series, though we don’t necessarily get the creature(s) described in Bane - certainly there is no manbat aspect and endless hunger is mentioned but not explicitly played with.

out of the vampire playbook
I had seen this Indian series described as a zombie series. It is blatantly not, the tropes used are clearly from the vampire playbook as we’ll explore, with an aspect that maybe strays into zompire. However, it was a friend, Prodosh, who asked me to look at the series. From what I can gather it has not had great reviews in India, but Prodosh was enjoying the series and suggested that it may well have a vampire aspect.

the mystic lady
So, it begins with a group of Adivasi people conducting a ritual at a shrine to the Betaal, their village sitting at the foot of the Betaal mountain. One elderly woman is able to commune with the spirit and is given visions from the spirit. The warning is clear, the tunnel that the British engineers built into the mountain, and which contains the betaal’s shrine, should never be opened. However, a group of industrialists, led by Mudhalvan (Jitendra Joshi), are looking to remove the Adivasi and use the tunnel as part of a highway that is part of India development.

CIPD arrive
The villagers are sabotaging equipment and the project is falling behind, with the monsoons not far off, and so Mudhalvan contacts Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai) of the Counter Insurgency Police Department (CIPD) to clear the area. Tyagi is clearly on the take but the rest of the Baaz Squad (the CIPD’s elite squad) seem idealistic and unaware of the corruption. She tells second in command Vikram Sirohi (Viineet Kumar) that the area is a hotbed of Naxal activity. Sirohi is haunted by the events of a previous mission involving a village child, he has also been told that he will take command from Tyagi after this mission ends.

stand off
Now I didn’t know what a Naxal was and so, to Wikipedia. Apparently, these are members of political organisations claiming the legacy of the Communist Party of India and are clearly seen as revolutionary forces. Apparently part of the ethos of these groups suggests that the Indian Constitution represents a colonial policy that legitimises land and resource theft from tribal areas – this is clearly the direction of this plot where the capitalist/colonial Mudhalvan is forcibly taking the homes and lands of the natives and looking at resettlement (likely into poverty) and the villagers are the guardians of tradition (though there are actually no Naxal in the area).

Manjiri Pupala as Puniya
So, the village is cleared and villagers are put onto coaches – the clearing is not gentle. This proves distressing to Mudhalvan’s young daughter Saanvi (Syna Anand), who is there with her mother (Meenal Kapoor). A group of villagers take position in front of the tunnel with antique weapons and there is a stand-off and so Mudhalvan orders his man Bhunnu (Ankur Vikal) to secretly detonate a bomb, making the squad believe that they are under attack and so they open fire killing most of the villagers, including the woman who can commune with the Betaal, though two eventually get into the forest and retreat to the disused British barracks.

first sighting
Construction workers are first in, and die; one comes out of the tunnel holding his guts in his hand before falling. Half the squad go in and there is gunfire and then nothing. Sirohi goes in with new recruit Haq (Siddharth Menon). They see shapes on the roof and one of them moves, revealing a face. Let us stop there and say big, tusk-like fangs and glowing eyes. They manage to retrieve Tyagi, whose hair has turned grey, though Haq is bitten on the leg, and beat a hasty retreat with the civilians. But the creatures are coming out of the tunnel, firing muskets – so intelligent tool use.

the restless dead
The village provides no cover so they break for the barracks. The door is locked and village survivors Puniya (Manjiri Pupala) and Sarpanch (Yashwant Wasnik) won’t let them in without them leaving their injured outside. Outside (they later discover) Puniya placed an effigy, which is burning, and a circle of turmeric, both of which are apotropaic. Whilst the undead can’t approach, they can shoot and kill Mrs Mudhalvan – however the CIPD force their way into the barracks at that point. The villagers retreat to the armoury, stealing Mrs Mudhalvan’s corpse.

undead soldiers
So the creatures are all British soldiers from the 90th Taunton Volunteers regiment, assigned to the British East India Company. They were a notorious regiment as was their commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Lynedoch (Richard Dillane). He wanted to become emperor of India and learned of the shrine of the Betaal. He sacrificed his son to the Betaal for its power (the Betaal possessing him and, not clearly explained, but it seems merging with him). He and his men were trapped in the tunnel, however. He bit his men, turning them and they are said to be consumed with hunger. He now wants the pre-pubescent Saanvi as a sacrifice to allow him to leave the area of the shrine.

fangs on show
As the lore continues we see that they can crawl on ceilings as comfortably as walking the floor and are capable of speech and deception. The drummer boy of the company still drums for the regiment. They can be destroyed but it takes a lot of damage. For the newly turned we see beheading and then fire as the way to make sure. So how do they turn? Most obviously with a bite or scratch, though being killed by a musket shot, fired by one, will turn also (and I guess that is the curse aspect that is often mentioned). If the person hasn’t died then the wound becomes infected – and the infection impacts their soul as well as their flesh. They very quickly develop fangs. Turmeric will burn them.

So they are vampires – fangs, hunger, intelligence and use of weapons says that much. As head vampire, Lynedoch can see through their eyes and is capable of possessing humans and “riding on their shoulders” having bent their will to his. What is interesting (from a place of ignorance), is that considering the Naxal belief around the Indian constitution representing a continuation of colonialism then, in this, the members of the (fictional) CIPD can easily be made to join Lynedoch in his colonial ambitions both by turning and possessing – perhaps there is a paper there. The sfx varied in quality and I thought the long dead creatures didn’t always look that good (whereas the newly turned looked quite impressive), and some of their en-masse activity – such a pounding on doors – did seem quite unthinking dead, potentially leading to the zombie classification (though more zompire).

Pa rum pum pum pum
Given this was the activity of one night, the four episodes could have been condensed but there was enough there to keep the viewer entertained. I did feel that the epilogue was overly contrived. However, I was entertained for the 4 episodes. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

No comments: