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Opinion | The dimwitted dissent of ‘Ghoul’

Dark spaces, loud noises, and Radhika Apte. 'Ghoul', a Netflix original series, is a horror show that has all the ingredients except the scares and the substance

A still from ‘Ghoul’, a Netflix original series starring Radhika Apte and Mahesh Balraj (in photo).
A still from ‘Ghoul’, a Netflix original series starring Radhika Apte and Mahesh Balraj (in photo).

Where is subversion born?

Two years ago, I spoke with film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj about anti-establishment cinema in India. His last film was the politically charged Haider, and, at the time we spoke Indian cinema was combatting the smugly totalitarian Central Board of Film Certification chief Pahlaj Nihalani. Bhardwaj was, surprisingly, optimistic. He felt a stern government forces artists to take sides and express themselves via subversion, and that constraints on creativity may perhaps compel our storytellers to be more cunning and rely on allegory and satire. To express truth with slyness in the manner of the fantastic film-makers of Iran who are forced to couch their meanings in metaphor.

These days it is easier to see what Bhardwaj meant. At a time when “secular" is being used as a dirty word, even our most mainstream cinema has become at least a bit more political. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a 2015 film starring Salman Khan, had a song called Chicken Song, about the dangers of judging people for eating meat. Similar concerns are addressed much more beefily in Anurag Kashyap’s scathing caste-drama Mukkabaaz (2018), a film that also features small-town oafs who form lynch mobs. The protagonist in Qaushiq Mukherjee’s disconcerting new film, Garbage, which should be on Netflix shortly, is a devout fundamentalist and an active online troll.

I point to these vastly different movies to highlight a variety of approaches. Film-makers might mean well, as Bhardwaj had hoped, and want to speak up in their own way, but that doesn’t automatically make their work better, or even actually effective. Mileage will vary.

Ghoul is a new Netflix original created by Patrick Graham, a three-part miniseries marketed as “horror" even though it is almost defiantly unwilling to be scary. Despite compelling cinematography and very slick sound design, this is a derivative (and predictable) B-movie that has been stretched—for no reason I can think other than risking the wrath of ticket-bearing theatregoers—into a dull three-parter. It is well produced, cleverly confined to a military encampment shrouded in darkness, and looks better than the average Indian horror film, but that is a truly low bar.

The principal problem is that Ghoul is not scary. It focuses so determinedly on the build-up that it gives you ample warning before any potential moment of fright. A jump scare is signalled to the viewer when the scare has merely crouched in readiness.

The peskier issue is one of posturing. Ghoul pretends to be more than it is by wearing the costume of an allegory. It is set in a dystopian future (or present) where the army is in charge because of “sectarian violence". In a ham-handed take on Ray Bradbury and George Orwell, this is a world where Muslims are not just segregated, but brutalized, their books burnt, their dissidents taken away for a horrific “reconditioning"—a process of torture and brainwashing that is (in one of the show’s more clever touches) referred to as waapsi.

In this world stands Nida Rahim, a fierce interrogator who is so pro-government that she has turned her own father over to the state, fed up with his non-syllabus teaching. Now, as a feared terrorist is transferred into a black-shrouded barracks, barking dogs begin to whimper and a truth-telling monster—a ghoul, of Arabic folk provenance—starts turning on the soldiers, tapping into their guilt, eating them and taking their form. It could all have been enjoyably breezy (and scary) as a quick film, but this pompous attempt at State-vs-Muslim grandstanding weighs down the show considerably.

Radhika Apte plays Nida Rahim and Mahesh Balraj plays the notorious terrorist Ali Saeed, and it feels problematic to be telling stories about wronged and suppressed, even erased, Muslims without casting Muslim actors in principal roles. Why this confused Hindu Saviour slant? As for Apte, she appears to have turned into Netflix’s mascot for India while losing out on characters with depth and backstory. She has been shoehorned into roles so exasperatingly one-note that she comes off more complicated and believable in the Akshay Kumar-starrer PadMan than in her three Netflix appearances—Lust Stories, Sacred Games and Ghoul—put together.

This isn’t a badly acted show, though the dialogues are clunky with exposition. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee stands out as the flinty and ferocious Major Laxmi Das, and her scenes belong to a better show. Through a side-eyed glance or the way she holds a hand, Bhattacharjee promises intrigue; the show does not deliver.

The only fear I felt in Ghoul, as it wound to an obvious conclusion, was how much more I had to plod through. The heavy, overdone attempts to add a dystopian Hindu-Muslim current felt forced and gimmicky, much in the way we have seen a spate of feminist-foot-forward advertisements sell us laundry detergent and jewellery. I’m not surprised some viewers have eagerly hailed Ghoul as groundbreaking and progressive, even though it is only play-acting.

In the show, a soldier supervising the torture of an academic says, “It takes a while to explain things to intellectuals." Simply putting animals in a farm and pointing to them does not turn a book into an allegorical novella about Stalinism. Sometimes a pig is just a pig.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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