Demon goes desi

With Netflix’s Ghoul, India gets its first horror-thriller web series

Spinning a suspense story: Ghoul director Patrick Graham | Janak Bhat

WE MEET ACTOR Radhika Apte and Patrick Graham, director of Netflix’s mini-series, Ghoul, in a vanity van parked outside a studio in Mahim, Mumbai. A few days before the meeting, most billboards in the city that had posters of Sacred Games, the first Indian Netflix original, had undergone a minor transformation—the crimson Ghoul symbol had been superimposed on all the posters. Apte was blown away by the marketing trick, which not only re-targets viewers of Sacred Games, but also generates curiosity about Netflix India’s first horror-thriller genre series.

Ghoul is a collaborative effort between Blumhouse, Ivanhoe, Phantom Films and Netflix. More than a spook-fest, it is a suspense thriller. The three-episode series, a little above 40 minutes each, is about the crackdown on the minority community. Ali Saeed, a terror convict, arrives at a remote military interrogation centre and turns the tables on his interrogators, exposing their secrets. Eventually, the show also introduces ghoul, a demon summoned by one of the prisoners to save them and the community from the suppression.

Apte plays Nida Rahim, a new recruit at the centre headed by Colonel Sunil DaCunha (Manav Kaul). A lot of extremist ideas are explored in the show, especially the rigidity associated with religious communities. “Take anything. We are rigid about so many things, in tradition and our belief systems,” says Apte. “We don’t question a lot of things in life because they are so inherent to our nature. But when we start questioning it, we are surprised. Perhaps, we don’t question because we are too comfortable, and that is why we are asking those questions in the show.”

The research, says Graham, was fairly standard. He read a few books on military operations and supernatural aspects around the time the idea was conceived in 2015. According to folklore, a ghoul is a demon that consumes human flesh. It appears in Islamic mythology, and is believed to be sired by Iblis (satan). Besides online content and Arabic literature, Kitab Al Azif, which has many stories about the ghoul, became a source material for the makers to create the monster. “But a lot of stuff is completely made up, too,” says Graham.

Graham came to India soon after completing his degree in filmmaking in London. In creating a dystopian setup like the one in Ghoul, he says it becomes imperative to take into consideration the localised communities. “But it would be the same even if you set it up in the US or the UK. It is about the crackdown on the minorities whoever they happen to be,” he says, adding that there is no agenda behind the story, except for creating an entertaining piece.

Other than the horror films made by the Ramsay Brothers and later by Vikram Bhatt, India has often lagged behind in exploring the genre. There have been a few efforts in recent times, like Vishal Furia’s Marathi film Lapachappi, which explores the genre even while questioning many social norms. In the one decade that Graham has spent in India, working as an assistant director and even as an actor, he says he has seen some really good pieces of work, the most recent being Anushka Sharma’s Pari, which he thinks is a very good, localised Indian horror-thriller. But he agrees that we haven’t quite seen the unique Indian style of horror. “We are taking a lot from the horror of other nationalities,” he says, although with a disclaimer that he hasn’t seen all of Indian horror. “But with Ghoul, a military-based horror, I would be introducing something new in the Indian landscape as far as horror goes. Military-based horror is a sub-genre of horror anyway. It seemed a fun thing to do.”