‘Betaal’ Is a Four-Part Tutorial on How Forced Wokeness Falls Flat

Spoiler alert.

Shah Rukh Khan’s Betaal, the four episode (too long) series on Netflix, tries to be woke but fails miserably. It adheres to the classic formula for TRP, peppering the three-hour long story with provocative subjects.

There is an Arnab Goswami parody, where he screams at a professor dressed in a Nehru jacket. Because, let’s face it, like all self-important Boomer uncles, most show creators peg student politics on Jawaharlal Nehru University alone. A little more research wouldn’t do anybody harm, but why care when demonising education is so easy, right?

The Baaz Squad (of the Counter Insurgency Police Department), central to the show, is unveiled as they clap for Commander Tyagi, who is seen yelling, “Go back to Pakistan,” on TV. They appear to be celebrating. Later in the show, Vikram Sirohi (Vineet Kumar) tells Tyagi (Suchitra Pillai), “Squad aapko TV pe dekh kar bohot khush ho gaye the.”

In fact, the Baaz Squad basically clears villages for urban development. They kill villagers who resist giving up their homes. And how could a TRP-fetching, cliche-throwing plot possibly make this interesting? By mislabeling them as ‘Naxals’.

To calculate, so far we have Arnab, JNU, anti-Muslim sentiments, a corrupt army trope, and Naxals. All of this approximately in the first hour of the show. So, of course it’s trending at No. 1 on Netflix India.

Betaal, at the heart of it a zombie drama, attempts to critique India’s colonisation by tackling our own government’s love of hanging onto archaic rules.

It would be good if the previous sentence was true. However, this is Red Chillies Entertainment. So, we critique the British by portraying their regiment as red-eyed, drum-beating zombies (uniform, flag and all). They are vanquished by bullets (of course) but also fire, turmeric, salt and ashes. Who knew it was that easy to beat the British? 

Of the two female officers in a force of about ten people, only one is not corrupt. Detective Ahluwalia’s (Aahana Kumra) face is scarred on one side (hinting at her being an acid attack survivor). That detail literally serves no purpose in the show. None of the other characters have similar defining features, nor is there any hint of a backstory. Later in the series, she motivates young Saanvi to hide from the zombies by pointing at her scar. She remarks that some people have to grow up before their time. Her deformity proves that she is tough, which others in the force, by virtue of being men, nobody else needed proving.

The show develops around Sirohi being the epitome of morality and goodness. Yes, the same man who cheered at the ‘go back to Pakistan’ sloganeering. Yes, the same man who was eagerly second-in-command to an obviously corrupt Tyagi. He once executed a young village girl who was looking for her mother, and that seems to weigh on his conscience throughout the series. However, it doesn’t stop him from wiping out what he calls the ‘Adivasi’ to gain access to the tunnel in Betaal mountain. His conscience only works when he is protecting the child of the elite class, Saanvi.

The representation of tribal and tantric cultures is in dangerously bad taste here. Betaal opens with a sort of exotic ritual scene, where they offer liquid in a plate made out of a skull to a woman covered in a red dupatta. It is an atmosphere of black magic, fear and impending doom.

Why does the critique of colonialism come at the gross misportrayal of the Adivasi? Why does a zombie-pandemic have to originate from the lower class, from exotic rituals labelling them as savages?

Also read: Gendered Racism: ‘Pataal Lok’ Brings Home the Realities of Nepali Women

There are glaring inconsistencies in the show’s sentiments. While firing at the zombies, the commandos yell, “That one is for Jallianwallah Bagh”, “That one is for Bhagat Singh”. However, they don’t blink before wiping out village after village when asked.

So, the British torturing Indians is not okay, but police encounters are? Writer-director Patrick Graham could have replaced the whole plot with a meet cute – the British zombies hugging it out with the Baaz Squad, exchanging tips, updating their Oppressor ledgers.

At some points, Betaal is so bad that it’s good. In the very least, this isn’t the worst thing Shah Rukh has put his name on (think Student of the Year, Zero, Bard of Blood, I could go on). I keep going back to the scene where Sirohi fires a cannon at the zombies saying, “This is what you call a hard Brexit!”

I can’t tell if he is making fun of Europe’s economic crisis, or just relating to it, as an Indian.

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.

Featured image credit: Netflix