Ghoul: Netflix series, starring Radhika Apte, satisfies a growing demand for native horror stories in India

Archita Kashyap

Sep,02 2018 09:40:34 IST

Ghoul on Netflix has sparked debate on its utilisation of Radhika Apte and its scare factor. A film turned into a three part series, Ghoul is set in an ambiguous future or present, where ‘the country’ has moved on to a permanent state of controlled militarisation. People from a minority community, specifically Muslims, are ‘returned’ to a native state after systemic, policy verified torture and interrogation. Invoking a disturbing, dystopian context, the fact that Ghoul has led to debates and discussions online (and around water coolers) can be correlated to prevailing return of ultra-nationalism and a univocal, majoritarian opinion globally. It hits home somewhere, despite its flaws as a horror series, or at least, it makes one wonder.

Radhika Apte in Ghoul. Netflix

Radhika Apte in Ghoul. Netflix

The author noticed a second not so evident aspect of Ghoul. An international collaboration between Phantom Films, Ivanhoe Productions and Blumhouse Productions, director Patrick Graham has built his somewhat subversive story of taking on state sponsored repression on Arab folklore. Ghul or Jinn, a spirit one invokes by paying a terrible price and controls to get revenge or wreak havoc, is a part of common legends in India too. In fact, Jinn manifestations have been part of the subcontinent’s scary stories since time immemorial. The fact that Graham, a British filmmaker, has used the legend of the Ghul indicates the sheer poverty of original ideas in the horror space in Hindi cinema.

India’s obsession with ghosts, ghouls, wandering spirits and the evil undead is like that of any other culture or nation. In our folklore, there’s plenty of material and context to build native, homegrown horror stories that will connect with audiences here and abroad.

For horror remains the definitive guaranteed genre to fetch audiences and revenues. Any film distributor or exhibitor will tell you that irrespective of reviews and reception, horror films tend to open well and make money. Bereft of quality, therefore, horror in Hindi cinema has remained firmly in the B-grade or near B-grade space; on TV, it actually veers towards the comic. Yet it finds audiences. Perhaps that explains why the horror narrative has not evolved in Indian entertainment beyond a simplistic level.

This stands in stark contrast with horror’s evolution globally. Netflix, the streaming giant, provides a good example. Its original horror titles have grown fast and well. It has acquired and streamed horror content from different languages, regions and cultures to widespread consumption. From the Spanish film Veronica, which has been dubbed the scariest horror film ever to The Ritual, Open House and a horror-drama like Gerald’s Game, this genre has become staple. British television has also featured layered, sophisticated horror stories drawn from local legends and lores prevalent in the Isles. Be it Sam Mendes’ indulgent and popular Penny Dreadful, where a collective of demons and devils haunt a pious woman; or the frightening Requiem, horror has grown upon audiences and in budgets. With recent films like A Quiet Place and Hereditary becoming box office hits, plots and stories in horror films have improved in quality. Beyond classics, horror films and television shows, along with streaming, have made it mainstream in a more engaging way.

Another still from Ghoul. Netflx

Another still from Ghoul. Netflx

In India, horror has a huge void to fill. A look at the past and present will help explain this. In the realm of classics, the element of haunting has been used effectively in Madhumati, Mahal and Kohra. A gem of an Assamese film, Chameli Memsaab uses the lens of a lonely outsider in a remote location beautifully. Possession is the theme of better horror films like Gehrayee and Ram Gopal Verma’s cult hit, Raat. RGV also gave the best in urban horror with Bhoot — a simple but effective effort at scaring audiences. But beyond the tantric, the lemon and the voodoo doll, very few Hindi films have ventured into our homegrown legends.

Ek Thi Daayan explored the witch trope but its confused narrative diluted most of it. In 2017, Tamil film Aval delivered a credible horror story. Pari, Prosit Roy’s debut film, opened up this realm by referring to the legend of Ifrit from Islamic folklore. The bad fairy or winged creature (ifrit) is often a culprit in committing unspeakable acts against a community, where witch-hunts were conducted in Assam. The reference to Ifrit therefore finds its roots in shared history and culture with the undivided Bengal of pre-independence India. Like Ghoul, this reference to a scary story that is culturally rooted adds depth and credibility to the film.

Ghoul is not sophisticated horror. It’s part rip-slash-bite from a slasher flick, part psychological thriller and part typical jump-scare horror. Sleekly produced and with decent sound editing, Ghoul appeals because it merges slices of present-day reality with the horror of folklore. It treads new ground by venturing into this space of authentic legends from South Asia. It also sets up room for similar scary ideas and tales, central to quality horror films and series, which hope to tell a convincing story. For if horror is tapped well, it holds potential of becoming the biggest draw for audiences in the streaming space.

Updated Date: Sep 02, 2018 11:46 AM