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Saturday, May 08, 2021

Betaal review: A sloppy mess

There are a few flourishes we note, and a few scenes which are adequately scary. But Betaal keeps sliding as it goes about assembling its pieces.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5
Written by Shubhra Gupta
Updated: May 26, 2020 8:31:43 am
Betaal Betaal is streaming on Netflix.

Betaal cast: Vineet Kumar Singh, Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, Jitendra Joshi, Syna Anand, Jatin Goswami,Manjiri Pupala, Ankur Vikal, Richard Dillane
Betaal directors: Patrick Graham, Nikhil Mahajan
Betaal rating: 1.5 stars

Within minutes of the opening of Betaal, we are given a village nestled deep in the jungles where reside folk who harbour an ancient secret, which has something to do with a hidden ‘gufaa’ (cave) in the mountains, and an evil power stuck in limbo—that sticky space between the living and the dead inhabited by schlocky horror movies.

And within those minutes, we know that we are in for a re-tread of stuff that’s stuffed into these kinds of tales, picked up from well-loved ‘vikram-vetaal’ tales, gothic stories about supernatural beings, and zombie flicks churned out by B-grade Hollywood and C-grade Bollywood. Thing is, will the cobbled together combo stand up? Will it have the pizzazz to be lurid? The crunch-munch of cracking bones is a staple: will Betaal crank it up? Will it, in short, have the courage to be as pulpy and as silly as its material? A ‘lakshman-rekha of haldi-namak-bhabhooti’ (yes, this happens) which keeps blood-sucking critters at bay requires a sly nudge-wink of a tale: do we see any of this at play?

Nope, not really. There are a few flourishes we note, and a few scenes which are adequately scary. But Betaal keeps sliding as it goes about assembling its pieces – an armed contingent which goes by the name of CIPD, led by an-on-take commandant Tyagi (Pillai), her second-in-command Sirohi (Singh), his close comrades Ahluwalia (Kumra) and Akbar (Goswami), a greedy corporator Mudhalvan (Joshi), who is accompanied by his wife and young daughter Saanvi (Anand), a dusky attractive tribal woman Punia (Pupala), an ambitious ‘angrez’ who was alive 160 years back Col Lynedoch (Dillane), and his posse of killer redcoats.

The names of the characters are not generic. Attention has been paid, and we get a whole bunch of actors working really hard to rise above the plot, which leaks and creaks as much as the undead swarming over the landscape, sometimes carrying old pistols, sometimes not (where do the arms go?). But they snarl quite well, and some of the jump scares are quite effective, so we bump along, enjoying the skills of Vineet Kumar Singh (such a good actor) the most. Stands to reason, because he’s the hero (a character helpfully tells him he is one : weren’t the scriptwriters warned that if you have tell us a hero is a hero, there’s your game lost, right there?).

Only a couple of others are also fleshed out. Joshi is realistically sleazy. The little girl who remains mildly annoying right through, does her job. The rest remain uneven, both details-and-arc wise. Aahana Kumra is short-changed: her scarred cheek demands a backstory we are denied. She and Saanvi are given a sequence about female power, but what should have been a solid angle, is allowed to peter off. The tribal woman wears an industrial-sized necklace around her neck, and makes eyes at a soldier: the actor is effective, but who writes this stuff? And Ankur Vikal, last seen in a brief part in Pataal Lok, wanders about till he comes to squelchy stop.

You can see the buzzing of a whole beehive of ideas: corporates who want to gobble natural resources, the state which dubs resistant tribals as naxals, the armed forces which are complicit and compromised but are the only ones with some honour intact. The most enjoyable thread is a revisionist one: a soldier fires away at the advancing Brit zombies, screaming: that is for Jallianwala Bagh, and that’s for Bhagat Singh. Atta guy. And, my favourite line of the show, ‘this is what you call a hard Brexit’. Making up for the historical wrongs wrought upon innocent masses by rejoicing at the state of a sinking Britain? Good idea, such sloppy execution.

If only Betaal had gone down harder on this path, where the invaders are shown what’s what with a clear-eyed who’s who. And a chuckle or two. But it doesn’t quite know which tone to settle for—an old-fashioned morality tale, or a contemporary slug-fest (a shouty TV anchor invites a panelist to go to Pakistan)– and drowns itself in sentiment (the hero has a dark past).

In a recent film (the brilliant Newton) also set in the jungles, swarming with alleged Naxals and cynical armed forces, a character casually terms the undead, ‘jombies’, with an utterly straight face. Betaal’s ‘jombies’ jingle and jangle in the jungle, and give us a scare or two as they go about biting into flesh and squirting blood, but, net net, don’t really cut it. Pun fully intended.

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