When someone mentions the word “Horror”, I immediately associate it with Ramsay Brothers, who were popular for producing movies like Purana Mandir, Darwaza and Bandh Darwaza, and of course, the television series the Zee Horror Show. The Indian brand of horror has been a blend of sleazy and scary (and I use ‘scary’ very loosely here) for the longest time. Here’s looking at you, Vikram Bhatt. But Netflix India’s second original series Ghoul hopefully marks a new innings for horror here.
A three-part series, Ghoul is produced by Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films and American production house Blumhouse Productions. For Blumhouse, which has backed films like the Oscar-nominated Get Out and Paranormal Activity, showing interest in bankrolling an Indian horror series is telling. Something does beckon once you sit down to watch the series. A sense of discomfort and eerie crawl out from the confines of the screen and makes its way to your head.
The pilot introduces us to Nida Rahim, played by Radhika Apte, who wonderfully downplays the horror of it all. Radhika as Nida goes through phases of fear – the fear that her father (played by the skillful SM Zaheer) might be branded an anti-national, the fear of losing her father, the fear of not being loyal to her nation and her duty, the fear of her nightmares, and of course the almost tangible fear of the ghoul itself. As she is the protagonist, the camera captures her movements closely, and there are quite a few close-up shots of the actor, in those moments director Patrick Graham raises his hat to the fashion in which horror cinema has been shot for decades.
Set in the dystopian future, Ghoul’s primary plot revolves around army officer Nida Rahim, who is called upon to help in a special mission, to help interrogate and break terrorist Ali Saeed. Nida is an independent, unafraid woman who believes in only carrying out her duties, in fact, she is so conscientious that she barely hesitates in delivering her father to the government after discovering that he is teaching his students to ask questions and is instructing them in ‘seditious literature.’ She then makes her way to Meghdoot 31–interestingly, ‘Meghdoot,’ which literally means ‘cloud messenger’ was the code name given to the Indian army during the Siachen conflict, which hints what Nida is about to face is akin to capturing a glacier, just as monumental. She soon faces the ghoul along with her colleagues, and what happens next forms the rest of the narrative.
The atmosphere of Meghdoot 31 and the world of Ghoul is reminiscent of Orwell’s dystopian works and HBO’s recently released Fahrenheit 451, based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. Meghdoot 31 is an army base that sees no daylight, literally and metaphorically. The windows of the building are tinted so that convicts are trapped into the recesses of their own brains. Nida, at one point, is seen scratching away at one of the covers of a window. “Mujhe laga bahar dhoop hogi,” she says after managing a peep outside (I was hoping for sunshine). And of course, it was raining heavily, adding to the overall sense of gloom and dread.
Ghoul is a relevant, atmospheric drama that fuses the myth and the ‘real’ with a cast that gives credible performances. Manav Kaul as Colonel Sunil Dacunha and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee as interrogating officer Laxmi inhabit their characters like second skins. However, it is Radhika Apte who carries the series on her able shoulders with her delicately-drawn act as a woman trying her best to be at the top of a situation.