“Strike the deal with your blood … And out of the smokeless fire … The ghoul will come.” This chilling quote opens Ghoul, a Netflix series produced in India.
The scene then shifts to a prisoner – later revealed to be the father of the protagonist – cutting his hand and using the blood to draw an unusual sign on the floor. He mutters an Arabic verse to summon a ghoul mentioned in Arabic folklore as the offspring of Iblees, the devil. Myth has it that a ghoul feeds on the dead and possesses the power to alter its own form.
These few moments of horror is all the action the audience gets to watch in the first episode. The rest of its 40-minute runtime focuses on explaining the circumstances that have pushed the prisoner to sell his soul to the devil and unleash the ghoul upon the world. This explanatory part slows down the pace of the miniseries to a certain extent but here is a tip: if you survive the first episode, you are likely to binge watch its remaining three parts and completely fall in love with it.
Directed by Patrick Graham and produced by big names like Jason Blum (producer of Whiplash and Get Out), Anurag Kashyap (director and producer of Gangs of Wasseypur) and Vikramaditya Motwane (director of Udaan), the miniseries is set in an imaginary India ruled by a dictator and constantly threatened by terrorists. These threats have led the state to resort to some seriously suppressive measures against its own citizens.
“The near future. The country has changed. Sectarian violence has reached crisis point. Secret detention centres are established. A military clampdown is in effect.” These dark messages flicker on the screen before Nida, the protagonist, played by Radhika Apte, is introduced.
When we see her for the first time she is arguing with her father Shahnawaz (played by S M Zaheer) over why the restrictions imposed by the state are necessary. Her father, on the other hand, continues to oppose the patriotic views of his daughter and insists that Muslims in India are being treated unfairly. He then takes the viewers on a journey into the past to show them how it all started. Initially, the state took away Muslims’ right to study or discuss their religion. It then closed down their schools and seized all their religious books — terming them sacrilegious.
“What would they get out of burning children’s books?” Shahnawaz asks. The answer is simple: the authorities want to cripple Muslims intellectually by taking away all knowledge from them. This will make it easy for the state to infuse their minds with its own ideology.
Whoever refuses to abide by these rules is immediately sent to a detention centre. Houses are raided at night and men are sent behind bars without any charge or a trial.
Ghoul has clear parallels with present-day India — from anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat to encounter killings targeting Muslims and a continued state-led repression in the Muslim-majority Kashmir. The day does not seem to be far away when Muslims in India will be hunted down just for being Muslims.
We have already seen signs of this happening — though not in India but in post-9/11 United States where virtually every Muslim is viewed suspiciously. Pakistan, too, often treats its religious minorities, especially Ahmadis, as enemy agents. Political activists getting picked up from their houses and going missing is also a reality in Balochistan and some other parts of the country.
Back in the miniseries, Nida justifies the actions of the state by stating that the security forces pick up only those who need to be turned into ‘ideal citizens’. She soon begins to question her father’s loyalty towards his country and decides to have him arrested for possessing heretical literature — that is, books on philosophy.
Shahnawaz is taken away in the middle of the night and is thrown into a military detention centre for his alleged involvement in terrorist activities. “They will release you if you listen to them,” Nida says to him as he is whisked out of his home.
There are striking similarities between Ghoul and George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 up to this point but the former’s storyline then takes a supernatural turn.
Heartbroken at his daughter’s betrayal, Shahnawaz starts despising the state for turning his own blood against him. In order to teach Nida a lesson and show her the real face of the state that she has pledged her loyalty to, he calls upon the ghoul.
Nida, on the other hand, is lauded for getting her own father arrested. She moves to a military academy to receive training where life seems to be going well for her until she is suddenly transferred to a detention centre for terrorists. Little does she know that she too is now being seen as a terrorism suspect and her transfer is a way to test if she can prove her loyalty to the state.
Inhuman treatment and torture are employed routinely at the centre to force false confessions out of detainees. Ignoring these activities, Nida takes up the task of interrogating a recently captured terrorist, Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj). The twist here is that the ghoul has killed the real Saeed and taken over his body. He knows the deepest, darkest secrets of the prison guards – secrets that they have planned on taking to the grave with them – and uses those secrets to turn them against each other.
Will Nida survive the ghoul? Why did her beloved state suspect her to be a terrorist? Will she ever know that the real purpose of the security forces is not to bring peace to the land but to manipulate and control the citizens?
These questions are answered in the last episode that has a cliffhanger of an ending and is expected to mark the beginning of a second season.
Ghoul is thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. It not only brings folklore to the mini-screen but also examines how an unquestioned nationalist fervour can lead to the creation of a dystopian society where no one is above suspicion.
What marks the miniseries to a certain extent is how, just like a lot of other India-produced media content, it promotes Muslim stereotypes. The protagonist is shown as covering her head with a scarf so that she appears a ‘certain’ way, as a Muslim character should. In a society where all symbols of a Muslim identity are being obliterated, it seems strange how the headscarf is still surviving.
Or perhaps it is a deliberate omission meant to stress that those Muslims who have submitted themselves to the will of the dictatorial state can maintain at least their sartorial identity if not a religious one. Total submission, it seems, is the only means for ensuring even a nominal survival in the land of the ghoul.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.