Co-directors Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan talk about the upcoming paranormal show that hopes to reinvent the zombie genre
In a reverse of art imitating life, the cast and crew of Netflix’s new paranormal show, Betaal witnessed a real horror story on set. For most of the shoot, Lipstick Under My Burkha star, Aahana Kumra was host to an unwelcome ‘passenger’ wriggling inside her eye. “It was really disgusting,” guffaws writer and co-director, Patrick Graham talking about the worm they christened Louie. “Aahana is incredible and everybody including me was completely freaked out, but she just didn’t care.”
Creepy-crawly parasites notwithstanding, the British writer and director is speaking to The Hindu about his second venture into the supernatural for streaming giant Netflix. After the Radhika Apte-starrer Ghoul, Graham has always wanted to continue exploring the supernatural. Because, as he puts it, “I was bit of a coward when I was a kid and I have a bit of an overactive imagination. Making scary shows is a way of addressing that.” If ever a ghost were to actually present itself, Graham is certain he’ll be thrilled but he’ll also have a heart attack.
For Betaal – a Red Chillies Entertainment, Blum House and SK Global production –the British export found the perfect co-director in Nikhil Mahajan. After all, both horror buffs’ favourite pick seems to be George A. Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead. “Two things are very difficult,” says Mahajan. “One is to make people laugh and the other is to make them scared.” Obviously, the duo is inclined towards the latter and hope to prey on the universal emotion of fear with Betaal. The show reinvents the zombie genre, with the creation of a unique creature that draws cues from Vikram Aur Betaal based on Somdev Bhatt’s 11th-century Betaal Pachisi. In a twist, the monsters here are British Redcoats who rise after decades of being buried to feast on unsuspecting victims.
“I really wanted to make a zombie show or film. I wanted to get that out of my system,” reveals Graham who has seen several horror films featuring Nazi undead beasts. “I had this idea for a long time at the back of my head, but in a kind of a jokey way like a horror comedy.” The honing of the concept took a substantial amount of time, in researching the right legends and myths that could be adapted to suit present times. “Originally, the show was supposed to be a period piece in 1857 with British Redcoat zombies against a mutiny of sepoys but the general consensus was that we should make it in a contemporary setting,” says Graham who has been working in the Indian film industry for close to a decade.
With its inherently local milieu – involving unscrupulous industrialists and politicians against a village of adivasis – Betaal proved to a challenge for Graham who was apprehensive about cultural appropriation. But with an enemy like the British, whose post-Colonial effects still linger worldwide, the show is likely to resonate with most cultures. Betaal also deals with universal themes – the exploitation of the natural world and the plight of the disenfranchised. But both directors insist that the series is entirely the figment of Graham’s overzealous imagination. “When you see the show, the situations and the context seems very real but it’s completely fictionalised,” states Mahajan. “When I read the script, this is what stuck to me that the show didn’t feel outlandish at all. These incidents really felt like they could possibly happen.”
Fear and moaning
Socio-political cues mould Betaal’s backdrop, but the series’ fundamental focus is entirely reliant on scaring an audience senseless. It’s the kind of fear that takes time to build eventually snagging the viewer into a tightly wound snare that’s impossible to break away from. “Jump scares are easy to do but the kind of horror in Betaal is extremely challenging,” says Mahajan. “We all have our insecurities and it comes down to how we fight our own demons. What the characters in the show are experiencing is very universal.”
Unfortunately, horror’s contribution to Indian cinema has mostly always been underwhelming. Try as they might, very few filmmakers have successfully crafted a spectre that is more creepy than cringeworthy.
Betaal premieres on Netflix on May 24
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