Ghoul review: Netflix’s Sacred Games follow-up is even braver, scary in unexpected ways
Cast - Radhika Apte, Manav Kaul
Rating - 3.5/5
One controversy is barely over and we must prepare for another. The opening few minutes of Ghoul, Netflix’s latest Indian original, unleash some of the bravest filmmaking you’ll see this year - in fact, the entire first episode is brimming with confrontational carelessness - and I mean this as the highest compliment. To put it in perspective, if you thought the Rajiv Gandhi line in Sacred Games was delightfully irresponsible - especially now, especially here - wait till you watch Ghoul.
Even the opening title card is all sorts of provocative. It informs the viewer that the show is set in the near future, in a country that has been divided and destroyed by sectarianism. Those who oppose the government are sent to specially created military detention centres. So far so dystopian.
But notice how vague all of this seems - and deliberately so. Not once is the country identified - although the show is in Hindi (and Urdu?), and features a cast of Indian actors - and not once is it overtly acknowledged that the persecuted are exclusively Muslims.
But that’s exactly what happens.
Watch the Ghoul trailer here
Through images and symbols, and through the violent rhetoric we’ve become all too familiar with - words like ‘anti national’ and ‘terrorist’ - Ghoul reveals itself to be a surprisingly potent show. It isn’t merely a critique of modern India - nor is it just a cautionary tale of where we might be headed - but it is a takedown, it’s a slap in the face, it is humiliation before 130 million paying subscribers.
Believe me, I was just as surprised as you are. For the longest time - perhaps wisely, considering how easily triggered some of us are - no one had said anything about Ghoul’s pointed politics; the trailers had positioned it as a supernatural horror programme, produced through an exciting collaboration between Ivanhoe, Blumhouse and Phantom, three companies with remarkably similar philosophies. But it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe Ghoul as a lesser cousin to one of Blumhouse’s biggest recent success stories: Get Out.
Like Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning film, Ghoul uses genre tropes to comment on muddy matters that mainstream cinema mostly avoids - for different reasons, ranging from commercial potential to political retaliation.
But to watch an old Muslim intellectual being pulled over, profiled, and harassed, brings back familiar memories - just the colour of the skin has changed. And that’s the beauty of science-fiction and horror - these genres tap into our deepest fears, they expose our potential for evil, and in doing so, transcend borders. Ghoul is scary, yes, but for entirely different reasons than you’d anticipated.
Like Fahrenheit 451, we see Muslim literature being burned, their religious artefacts are declared contraband, and their voices clamped down with cries of ‘sedition!’ Everyone from student leaders to college professors to intellectuals - because remember, just like in the Armenian genocide, it’s always the intellectuals that are silenced first - is taken into custody, ‘reconditioned’ till they declare their undying allegiance to the government, failing which they’re sent to what are basically concentration camps.
One of these camps is run by Colonel Sunil Dacunha (played by Manav Kaul). His uniform has shades of Hugo Boss’ SS outfits - perhaps one of the few subtleties of this largely ham-fisted allegory. They certainly have their own version of Inglourious Basterds’ Bear Jew, replicated in Ghoul by a large Punjabi man called Foulad Singh, who clangs his way through the facility’s halls, his terrifying reputation preceding him.
Foulad Singh is the last resort. He is brought out when all else has failed - all the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, all the violence, and all the humiliation. Nida Rahim (our protagonist, played by Radhika Apte), a new recruit in this militant, government-aided force, is brought to the facility around the same time as Ali Saeed. Saeed is a particularly legendary man - deemed a terrorist like the rest of his Muslim brothers and sisters, but with a dark secret that is slowly revealed in subsequent episodes.
Nida’s religion makes her a traitor in the eyes of her people, and a pariah in the eyes of the (mostly) Hindu soldiers at the facility. This is interesting dramatic territory, ripe for exploration and bursting with possibilities.
It is unfortunate then that Ghoul mostly abandons this fantastic set-up in favour of a more by-the-numbers horror story in episodes two and three, inspired by the insipid Conjuring films probably. Watched in one go - which shouldn’t be difficult - the episodes feel arbitrarily separated and not entirely episodic. This could be because Ghoul was originally intended to be a feature film, but was later recut into a miniseries for Netflix. That’s my guess.
In any case, once the supernatural events you actually signed up for crawl out of the shadows, the story’s subtext is buried alive. As Nida makes new discoveries about Ali Saeed’s true identity, I was overcome by the disappointing realisation that had director Patrick Graham picked a lane and stuck to it, the story would’ve played better. But as it stands, there isn’t nearly enough mystical lore to engage the audience in the horror elements, the psychological thrills are oddly limited to a 20-minute patch in episode two, and the politics are largely forgotten until an admittedly well-conceived and emotional conclusion.
Even casual viewers would be able to identify the entire scenes that’ve been tacked on to pad up the run-time, and while they’re at it, they’d be able to tell you with superb confidence that the story would have worked infinitely better as a 90-minute film. And they’d be right - especially because the best bits appear to be the ones added on.
The elements are all there - a blazingly original idea, Jay Oza’s claustrophobic and atmospheric visuals, and a strong, simmering performance by Netflix’s favourite Indian child, Radhika Apte - but Ghoul, the show, much like its namesake demon, suffers from an identity crisis.
It does, however, end with the suggestion that there is more to come. Tackled well, perhaps this could turn into our own version of Handmaid’s Tale or the Purge?