Ghoul Review: A hollow scream

Netflix’s latest original series, Ghoul, starring Radhika Apte, is one of those rare horror films/shows that push you to a place of emotional discomfort. The horror series, directed by Patrick Graham, is an atmospheric piece that creates a sense of unease with its ambience more than its story.

Even before the narrative moves into Meghdoot 31, a secret detention centre where ‘anti-nationals’ are ‘reconditioned’, we are presented with bleak visuals that are dominated by sombre tints. It is a disturbing world after all — sectarian violence has reached a ‘crisis’ point says an intro card. Weapons and beef get the same kind of treatment. The ‘revised ethical actions’ require people to surrender dangerous articles — books, including a nursery rhyme compilation — which are then burnt. “They take in people who only need wapsi. The government always wants the best for us. Our community has always been misguided and some people won’t understand this fact,” argues Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a trainee with the National Protection Squad. Ghoul is essentially Nida’s journey in understanding ‘communal profiling’, that functions as an all-encompassing blanket in a dystopian world that sounds close to present-day India, with a paranormal twist.

In a way, Ghoul marries elements from two films from the recent past — Mulk and Pari. If Pari’s horror element stems from crimes against women, Ghoul taps into the guilt and identity of the person it preys upon. On the other hand, the series talks about Islamophobia in depth, similar to Mulk. But where Ghoul fails is to give us a layered argument that covers the intricacies of the issue. The convoluted narrative doesn’t lend itself much to clarity or nuance.

The Meghdoot detention centre, Ghoul’s prime story location, acts as the perfect stage. An enclosed space with blackened windows, a military routine, and hierarchy in place — there’s no room for alternative perspectives. The claustrophobia hits you, both visually and philosophically. But I wish Patrick had further focussed on the numerous subtexts, giving some weight to the promising prelude he sets. The communal conflict takes a back seat as the film shifts into paranormal territory.

Netflix’s favourite child Radhika Apte as Nida Rahim anchors the show with a conflicted performance. Despite being prepared for the gore, Nida involuntarily reacts and then takes a second to compose herself. Radhika sells the smaller moments well, but the role itself isn’t vastly different from her role in Sacred Games, another Netflix original. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee gives a more nuanced performance — all she needs is one stern side-glance to make her presence felt.

As the discomfort eases, it is easy to see that the series could have done much more with the political stance it takes and the genre. But this is still a step forward for Netflix, and also a clear indication of the niche they want to focus on.

This was originally written for The New Indian Express. You can find it here.

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