By Poulomi Das
Like Get Out and Pari, the Radhika Apte-starrer Ghoul underlines horror with context and uses it as a device to drive home a point about prejudice and gross injustice. In all three, humans are the hunters – not the hunted.
At first pass, the all-out inventiveness of Patrick Graham’s Ghoul, Netflix’s first Indian horror mini-series, seems almost expected. It’s co-produced by Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, Split, Oculus, Paranormal Activity), a studio that has reinvigorated the horror genre in the last decade. The other production house is Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Productions, fresh off the afterglow of Sacred Games, Netflix’s explosive first original Indian series. The two Indian directors have also gone on record to lament how underserved the horror genre is in India. Last but not the least, it’s headlined by Radhika Apte, who has previously dabbled in horror with Ahalya and Phobia.
But just believing that would be undermining one of the most ambitious Indian horror premises in a long time. Ghoul’s biggest strength remains that it manages to pleasantly surprise – especially during its subversive climax.
Like Handmaid’s Tale, Ghoul is set in an Indianised dystopian future, where sectarian violence is an everyday occurence, where innocence is instantly gauged by one’s religion, and where minorities are routinely tortured and eliminated. It’s a world where military clampdown has been established, leading to the mushrooming of secret detention camps across the city. A regime where books are burnt, academic curriculum is state-approved, and dissent is mercilessly curbed. Anyone who dares to question the government or its policies is promptly branded a terrorist and forced to undergo an ideological reconditioning in Meghdoot 31, a brutal advanced interrogation centre. In a way, the premise becomes all the more unnerving considering Ghoul never explicitly mentions the year it is set in, implying that this is the foreseeable future.
Save for the first episode, much of the atmospheric Ghoul unfolds indoors, in varying levels of darkness — the interrogation centre clearly being a stand-in for the state. Like last year’s Get Out, the three-episode mini-series mines horror as a metaphor for social commentary of a world where flawed humans are brainwashed into believing that they are soldiers, proving their patriotism by acts of violence.
Ghoul’s biggest strength remains that it manages to pleasantly surprise – especially during its subversive climax.
Image credit: Netflix
But sticking true to its Indian roots, Ghoul also switches to a supernatural thriller midway when Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a new recruit in the interrogation team realises that their high-profile prisoner, Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), may not be human. Unfortunately, it results in the series’ most juvenile parts, replete with amateur over-explaining, such as a “Who among us is a Ghoul?” contest, a sudden change of heart that seems almost manufactured, and cheap deaths. (Although there’s a gimmicky twist involving Nida’s double identity that is quite satisfying.)
The interrogation team officers in Meghdoot 31 are headed by Colonel Sunil Da Cunha (Manav Kaul), a self-proclaimed “war-decorated hero” who is really an alcoholic and a wife-beater and includes Major Das (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) who is suspicious of Nida because of her religion. Even though Nida had in the past turned in her father for inciting students against the state by teaching outside the syllabus. There’s a clear divide between them and the five Muslim prisoners, who are brutally abused even when they are innocent.
Guilt is an emotion that seems almost extinct in this regime and it’s precisely what the ghoul is tasked with evoking out of these men. Interestingly, the ghoul employs the same intimidation tactics that the states comfortably use: preying on human insecurities and then finishing off his victims and assuming their identity. Most fascinating of all however, is how Ghoul chooses to paint its supernatural spirit less demon and more saviour – one who is summoned to not only free the prisoners, but also the conscience of the officers.
There’s enough in there to recommend the series, but the admirable part is how it turns the horror genre on its head by implying – in no uncertain terms – that the real demons are humans. That it’s the power-drunk officers, who should be feared for wrecking havoc more than the ghoul, for the monsters lie within. Like Get Out and Pari, even Ghoul underlines horror with context and uses it as a reactionary device to drive home a point about prejudice and gross injustice. But more importantly, in all three, humans are the hunters – not the hunted.
Toward the end of the penultimate episode, an officer poses a hypothetical question in front of the anti-national Nida, “Will you fight the state?” What makes Ghoul stand out is that it also offers an intriguing answer: Maybe, it’ll need the powers of a supernatural intervention to set us on the right path. It’s far from gripping, but it does experiment with a completely new grammar of horror filmmaking, putting its weight behind “societal horror”. It lets us know that the only monsters we need to be afraid of, walk among us.
Poulomi Das is an author at Arre.