Monday, May 25, 2020

From Paatal to Betaal

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Some genres already have certain benchmarks set so high that it takes an incredible amount of creativity to break the mould or offer something fresh within the template. The templates are so perfect that there’s only so much variation you can wiggle around with. Serial Killers? It’s Silence of the lambs/Red Dragon. Supernatural horror? The Exorcist, Omen, The Evil Dead. Vampires? Dracula and only Dracula. Assassination plots? The Day of the Jackal. Slasher horror? Wolf Creek, The Hills have Eyes. Sci-fi horror? Alien/Predator/Aliens.

I think horror gives one the most space to explore, experiment, and expand the territory – The Blair Witch Project was so superb with its found-footage theme, adapted successfully again in Paranormal Activity.

On the Indian front, the scene is so fertile for horror exploration with our rich folklore and mythology, that the lack of good cinema in this genre is surprising and disappointing. Yes, I enjoyed Bhoot, and to a certain extent Raat, but both these had the usual clich├ęs of horror films. So I was really ecstatic when I watched Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad. It is steeped in the folklore flavour and is quintessentially Indian in mood and story-telling, carefully avoiding Hollywood/Bollywood horror tropes. This was not just the one-dimensional visual horror, but also the metaphorical horror of greed. Every frame in the movie was atmospheric in an eerie, dismal way.  

In the anthology Ghost Stories on Netflix, the zombie story (Story 3) by Dibakar Banerjee was breath-taking in its ingenuity, again infused with that distinct Indian essence. So, I really looked forward to Betaal. For me zombie horror has been defined by World War Z and The Walking Dead (at least the first few seasons). Betaal is backed by big production houses SRK and Gauri Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and Blumhouse Production (Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Get Out etc)—so of course my expectations were really high. Three episodes down and I’m a tad deflated (I blame myself, perhaps I’ll change my mind by the end of the season). Of course, technically the production is very slick. Even the premise is interesting, although I am bored of the ‘colonial past’ back stories—nonetheless, being hunted by a zombie army whilst your team is trapped in the middle of nowhere is a fantastic starting point. It’s even got its moments for the traditional horror buffs – but it did not work its magic. I tried to figure out why this could be (this is what insomniacs do).

I think, particularly for the horror genre, the most important task for the creator is to ensure that the reader/viewer establishes a strong emotional connect with the protagonist in the first instance (this is true for any storytelling, more so for horror). Then, when bad things start happening to this person, the audience live through the horror vicariously because we really care about her/him. The stronger the emotional bond, the more intense is the horror. If you are unable to manipulate the viewer this way then the plot becomes insipid, no matter how technically brilliant the frame is. Take for example the first episode of The Walking Dead. The protagonist Rick Grimes, a cop, wakes up from coma (on account of a bullet wound), only to find himself alone in a ransacked hospital. As the episode proceeds, you too are processing the shock of this post-apocalyptic scenario – all friends, family, neighbours – gone, some have become zombies. In a weak script this can become incredibly silly and funny. But The Walking Dead was too real and you are fully, unequivocally invested in Rick’s well-being and survival. What is he going to do next? The first few seasons were wonderful in the slow burn – first it was man versus zombies – and then, once that novelty wore off, the writers turned their attention to more sociological questions - what next for a (non-existent) society? Humans must start everything from scratch – there is no government, no law, nothing. Some of the seasons were really an examination of this – and it’s a horror of a different kind, man’s enduring lust for power and cruelty. These first few seasons were such an intense and immersive experience for me that whenever I passed chain link fences, it was too easy to imagine the 'walkers' rattling them on the other side.  

Whilst The Walking Dead was post-apocalyptic, World War Z puts us in the thick of things as the zombie epidemic spreads around the world. The premise is that the zombie plague was caused by a virus, so the resolution of the plot was to figure out a vaccine (sounds way too familiar?) Again, we are fully invested in Gerry Lane’s mission, and the film has some heart-stopping, iconic scenes. The most chilling part of this movie is its scientific take on the zombie illness – it makes it all the more believable.

I think that is what is missing in Betaal (so far). (SPOILER ALERT). First, there is a group under distress – but unlike with Ripley’s team in Alien/Aliens, I’ve been unable to build any kind of rapport with any individual in Betaal. I partly blame myself—some of the scenes are too reminiscent of The Walking Dead – malfunctioning tube lights on grimy walls – so I sort of knew what to expect next. Even the scene where the contingent enters the forbidden tunnel – that reminded me of the scene from Alien where the team enters this abandoned alien ship to investigate a distress signal.   But more than such frames that have been inspired by previous films, I think Betaal’s disappointment is in its story-telling. For me, horror works well when you drip feed information – the addictive part of any series is its hook; it’s ability to keep you guessing – what happens next? In Betaal, it’s a diarrhoea of information. Within the first couple of episodes everything is known – what is this zombie army, who is the leader, what does he want, how does the whole thing work? A supernatural explanation is given, but then, sorry, with that kala jadoo mumbo-jumbo, and inane details like zombies’ inexplicable allergic reaction to turmeric (many eye rolls), the story curdles like spoilt milk.  But I’ll give this season a shot.

I’ve got to say this though—even Betaal is believable compared to the shit some presidents and prime ministers are (not) doing right now—there’s the real horror of Paatal Lok.

© Sumana Khan 2020

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