'Betaal has horror along with emotional depth and action, like Jordan Peele films,' says director Patrick Graham
Betaal stars Viineet Kumar, Aahan Kumra, Suchitra Pillai, and Jeetendra Joshi.
Netflix's next series Betaal, produced by Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies (their second collaboration after Bard Of Blood) is arguably the first zombie horror show out of India. Two years ago British writer and director Patrick Graham churned out horror series Ghoul set in a dystopian future front-lined by Radhika Apte, and on 24 May, he returns with his second venture.
Betaal, a four-episode series, that centres around Indian folklore, draws inspiration from the Vikram-Betaal legend and focuses on an undead army comprising zombie redcoats. Graham has written and co-directed the show with Nikhil Mahajan. Suhani Kanwar is also the co-writer. Viineet Kumar Singh stars alongside Aahana Kumra, Suchitra Pillai and Jitendra Joshi. Blumhouse Television has come together with SK Global Entertainment and Red Chillies Entertainment to present this horror-thriller series.
“This time I wanted to make a horror series which was more action-packed, accessible and pacy. I didn’t want to repeat myself. Actually in the first go I had the idea of a haunted house show but Typewriter (directed by Sujoy Ghosh) was about to come out, so next I thought was about zombie, a fun idea and something that we had not seen before in films or television,” said Graham in a chat with Firstpost.
Further, talking about the genesis of Betaal, he said, “I was inspired by the Indian mythology. I started researching and found out different myths and folklore that would fit in. I needed a head vampire who is essentially in charge of these zombies. I hit upon the Vikram-Betaal story and what Betaal represented even before the story became about Vikram and Betaal. So, as a vampire demigod, I thought he would be the perfect monster to have as the master of this army of hungry spirits. I felt that kind of an Indian-Asian monster would work well.”
"Betaal may follow the ongoing trend of social horror but the show isn't “conventional horror”, says Mahajan, “Rather it is in a drama- action-thriller space and more importantly, it doesn't have jump scares every minute. Every time you won’t be scared with a sound. In India the definition of horror is very narrow. Betaal is going to have very high tension sequences that we have build up. It will be a very different kind of experience. It is not limited to horror. It is a step ahead,” he adds.
“In India, the parameters of horror are narrow,” explains Graham. “Besides the underlying horror of Betaal, it has emotional depth, drama, action, and suspense, quite like the films of Jordan Peele, which are horror, but do not have a jump scare every five minutes. It will be nice to not be so dogmatic about what we consider to be horror in India."
Graham wants the horror genre to be treated with more respect in India: "There is a tendency to think that it is more for younger audience. It lacks in drama department, has loud noises making it look like Halloween special aimed at young teenagers. Horror can be made for more mature audience and like any other good story horror should have solid drama.”
Besides enjoying telling and listening to spooky stories, he believes that there is lot to explore in the horror genre in the Indian market. “Not much has been done in India with horror making it a great canvas. We don’t see much content coming out though I liked Tumbbad which is not necessarily a horror film. But I remember liking Bhoot, Vastu Shastra and the most recent one Pari. Yet, I feel horror is a very fertile ground for telling new stories in India,” says the British writer-director.
While the two directors share a common love for horror, they were exposed to starkly different cinema growing up. Mahajan, who has previously directed superhero vigilante Marathi film Baji and thriller drama Pune-52, watched a lot of commercial Indian films. Graham, on the other hand, has a more Western sensibility.
“Both, Patrick and I are big fans of zombie drama genre and we both used our own strengths in a way to make sure that the Indian audience finds this new world of zombies relatable. So I got in my local influences of storytelling and Graham got his, and we kind of married the both to come up with a nice blend. We worked with each other very well. We just divided scenes based on what we felt passionate about doing," says Mahajan.
“A lot of time there were two different units to speed up production which meant we were shooting on two different sets and in the same location during outdoors in Igatpuri and Lonavala. It was quite exciting because there was a lot of buzz and actors would come from one set to the other set,” says Graham. Talking about the challenges while shooting the show, he say, “Challenge doing a horror is that everything takes longer. Lighting and camera work has to be super stylised, so if you are shooting a scare scene it is essentially you are shooting an action scene which requires choreography and a very specific approach.”
The series guarantees a gripping battle between the CIPD (Counter Insurgency Police Department), and a battalion of zombie redcoats led by a two-century old Betaal, and Viineet Kumar Singh (as Vikram Sirohi, the second-in-command of the Baaz squad of the CIPD) is thrilled playing the part. “I wanted to experiment with horror and there was also an excitement to prep up for carrying a uniform as it can’t be worn casually. We had to undergo physical training and learn to fight with guns, knives, train in how to give and receive commands, how to protect civilians...Since this is a horror-thriller, fights would begin unexpectedly so we were trained in how to take our positions."
“My character is also very layered. It has a back story, a dark past which haunts him. When the battle between dead and the living starts, between red coat army and the living force, then in the midst of taking decisions there’s also an internal battle going on in my head which was quite challenging. And as the story progresses we show how my character tries to leave his past behind. I have done Bard Of Blood with Netflix and Red Chillies and I had a great experience with that, so I didn’t have a second thought when the offer for Betaal was made," he reveals.
“To make it believable on seeing an undead person in front of you and to react to that was quite interesting. Also, my director was somebody who would not say cut or okay a shot so easily.” says Kumra, who will be seen in heavy prosthetics make-up as Deputy Commandant Ahluwalia. "I was terrified as well as excited by the idea of wearing a prosthetic piece since I've never done it before. The right side of my face is shown completely scarred and the first time when I wore that prosthetic and looked into the mirror it felt so weird. To be able to own it and not feel any different from the others was a challenge. There were lot of things running in my mind when I wore it for the first time. The scar is so central to my character. It speaks volumes about her, it makes you realise that there is a lot more to her story than meets the eye. She has had a difficult past and has not yet lost hope. There's a lot of human element also added to my character. I really got toughened after doing the show."
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