During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a battalion of redcoats from the East India Company Army are outnumbered and trapped in a cave in a remote Indian village. Their commanding officer Lt. Col John Lynedoch (Richard Dillane), a fanatic believer in black magic, summons the power of Betaal, and tragedy strikes. He turns into a zombie, attacking and infecting his own soldiers till the villagers find a way to contain the army inside the cave itself.
Fast-forward to present day: a team of Indian soldiers called the ‘Baaz Squad’—an elite unit of the fictional Counter Insurgency Police Department (CIPD)—under the command of their leader Commandant Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai) and Commandant Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar Singh) arrive at the same village, apparently to fight Naxalite rebels. Only Commandant Tyagi knows the true reason for their presence there. Bloodshed follows and the trapped soul of Col John Lynedoch that is under Betaal’s spell is accidentally released, unleashing havoc in the village.
Despite a strong production team, an opportunity to create a precedent, and a setting that could send shivers down the audience’s spine, the hype of “Betaal”, India’s first zombie horror web television series, died as soon as it was released. We couldn’t figure out why, so we watched it. We were so disappointed that zombie movies/series will never be the same for us anymore.
With Bollywood’s “king” Shahrukh Khan’s company Red Chillies Entertainment as one of the producers, expectations from the series, the first of its kind to be made in India, were definitely high. But writer/director Patrick Graham’s effort to give life to the undead, Indian-style, has turned into a cheap spoof of actual zombie movies.
We’ll not comment on the acting on this one because there seems to be no difference between the dead and the undead. Everyone appears in a sort of daze throughout the series, with no idea of what they are doing. Experienced actors fail to make impress and new faces don’t even solicit any attention.
Most appalling is sheer lack of seriousness evident in the production unit. Despite the backing of a major production house, the flaws in the series are uncountable. For instance, the soldiers of the supposed elite unit communicate through wireless headsets. That’s normal. But the wireless sets used in Betaal look like they were outsourced from one of the outsourcing companies (read: call centers) in India—so not pleasing on the eyes. There are so many of these eye-hurting details and jerks that a book on “Everything wrong with Betaal” could be written.
The efforts to Indianize the undead scores yet another own goal: The zombies in Betaal can be warded off by a mixture of salt, turmeric and ashes! The only thing remaining was to add a bit of “gau mutra” to the mix and the credit for the script could have been given to the infamous “Go Corona Go” singing state minister of India.
Without a single scene that could be called scary or at least exciting, the series never escapes its lethargic mode. The zombies here are a product of bad prosthetic work and pale in comparison even to the demons featured in ‘Ramayana’, the 1987 Indian TV series. Actually, the ’87 ghosts and demons were a lot more convincing than the zombies in Betaal. There’s also a crafty allusion to the mythical “Vikram-Betaal” characters from Indian literature, but all creative efforts are lost in the chaotic dissonance of the series.
Luckily, it’s only a four-part series, with 44-49 minute episodes. The final episode hints at Season 2 but, surely, that ain’t happening.
Who should watch it?
If you’ve seen zombie movies like “Night of the Living Dead,” “Train to Busan” or even “World War Z”, you’ll regret Betaal. We recommend you give it miss, or just fast-forward through the first episode if you’re very curious.