Ghoul: The seen and unseen

As a student, I get the opportunity to write on fascinating topics which push me out of my comfort zone. I am excited to share my first ever review of a visual media.

Ghoul is a mini-series created by Patrick Graham for Netflix. The storytelling is based on the spectacular premise that a hero must conquer a life-threatening and powerful monster (Booker, 2004). Before the quintessential, distorted face is revealed, the layered narrative exposes the societal, political, and cultural monsters that have crippled the society. This series is set in India in a distant dystopian future governed by a theocratic and authoritarian government. The nation is in turmoil as the sectarian violence has reached its peak and the government has established secret detention centers to cleanse (brainwash) people who do not follow the law. Meghdoot 31 is one such centre run by the National Protection Squad (NPS), a military organization responsible to detain and interrogate anti-nationals. I will analyse the first 20 minutes of episode one which introduces the main characters and the socio-political situation in the country.

Ghoul, a devilish-genie is a part of the Arabic folklore. It is a flesh-eating, shape-shifting, highly intelligent monster that takes the form of the person it devoured (Al-Raw, 2009). The ghoul is summoned when a human draws blood and creates a pagan symbol while reciting a pledge in an ancient Aramaic language. The human trades his soul with the ghoul in return for a favor. Dilman (1999) explains how humans’ direct guilt to their agency, in turn, angering themselves about harming their victim. The ghoul knows the sins of every human and uses that guilt to drive the human insane, makes him hostile, and ultimately kills him.

Episode 1: Out of the Smokeless Fire

(Netflix, 2018)

The episode follows the In Medias Res narrative and plunges the viewer amidst an action sequence. The context of the episode is explained with a text on the screen “Strike the Deal with your blood… and out of the smokeless fire… the Ghul will Come…” (Ghoul, 2018). A sweaty and seemingly distressed man draws a mysterious symbol with his blood and recites a pledge in Aramaic to summon the Ghoul. His identity is kept a mystery by focusing the accent light only on his body. The scene is intermittently distorted with various pagan imagery (such as the pentacle) symbolizing an unholy ceremony. Graham uses flickering light, eerie background score and distortion to induce excitement and horror. Mood music in horror genre induces suspense rather than emotions, thereby setting the premise for something evil (Juslin and Västfjäll, 2008). In the next sequence, a group of commandoes enter an abandoned hotel building searching for someone. They approach the hallway strategically. The torches on the soldier’s guns and dim lamps on the ceiling are the only source of light in the corridor making the search challenging and dramatic. The thunder in the background amplifies the uncertainty of the scene. The camera focuses on Sanctuary written in Urdu with an arrow sign pointing in the direction of the possible hideout. A silhouette covered in a blanket slowly approaches the commando mumbling, sab mar gaye (everyone is dead) further intensifies the panic. As he removes the blanket, the Ghoul symbol etched on his body is revealed. This second imagery of the symbol helps the viewer establish a connection with the opening scene, implying that the ghoul is summoned! The commando barge into the room and find a pile of dead bodies along with their target, Ali Saeed Al Yaqub sitting on the chair with his head lowered. The absence of enough light in the room not only makes it harder to view his face but also appears to magnify the background score. As the commandos get closer, a ray of light, through a hole in the window illuminates Saeed’s face. Graham uses the decreasing space and slow movement of the camera to increase the stress of the scene. Thereby toying with the viewers want of urgency. Saeed shocks the commando by suddenly raising his head and whispering something in the commando’s ears which is inaudible to the viewer. This is a very long shot which creates the premise of anticipation, a style of storytelling popularized by The Shinning.

Political insinuation

Bruner (1991) elaborates that a strong narrative is constructed in a manner that it preempts the possibility of more than one interpretation. Even though Ghoul is an occult horror, the narrative is an exaggeration of the emerging socio-political situation in India, United States of America (U.S.A) and countries where fundamental right-wing influence is taking over and driving nationalistic ideologies. Societies can be found in stories that encompass progress, destiny, and even religion (Wright, 2010). The consensus in India is that the pro-Hindu political leaders overlook the needs of minorities especially Muslims. Wright (2010) emphasizes that stories tell the people about the changes taking place in the era and what could they mean in terms of an effective action. This series a subtle warning to people about what may happen in the future if the current government in India continues its pro-Hindu nationalistic agenda. A similar technique of overlaying horror with political issues was adopted in Silence of Lambs which pushed movies in a novice direction. The ominous tone of danger and corruption is well conveyed by the way the Ghoul is shot in a dark, gloomy, and abandoned building (Haas, Christensen and Haas, 2015).

Time is another aesthetic that creates fear. Ghoul follows a nonlinear technique where the story oscillates between the past and the present. The next sequence which happens a month ago shows the dialogue between Nida and her father, Shahnawaz Rahim is used to set the context of the grave socio-political crisis in the country. They are driving out of “scheduled religion zone 12” implying that Muslim communities have been confined to an area away from most of the population, signifying a prominent religious divide. A similar societal divide in a dystopian society has been the premise of movies such as The Hunger Games and Elysium. Shahnawaz discusses the atrocities against Muslims by the government through burning children’s’ books, antiques and other personal items. Thereby suppressing their right to education and having a personal identity. Graham draws his inspiration from the situation in India where the current ruling party has been accused of bringing educational reforms as a mode of persuasion of its Hindu nationalistic ideologies (Flåten, 2017). The discussion intensifies when Nida finds Shahnawaz’s lecture notes (considered seditious literature by law) and accuses him of being a traitor. The contrast in their point of view demonstrates the divide in the society where pro-nationalist considers discussing liberal ideas, treason.

Shahnawaz is stopped at a checkpoint by commandos. The officer reads his name (Shahnawaz Rahim) loudly and asks him to step out of the car without a reason. This scene draws parallels to the police brutality and harassment faced by the African-American community in U.S.A. In an accusatory tone, he asks if Rahim is carrying beef. Graham shows the real-life consequence of beef-ban by the current ruling party in India. The discussion around the ban has created a mockery of secularism in the promotion and normalization of a single-high caste Hindus (Khanna, 2017). The sequence ends with Nida attending a session at NPS addressed by the Colonel Dachuna, a pivotal character who shapes Nida’s character. Dachuna stands on the stage and Nida is seated among her peers. He delivers the speech from a place of authority and domination and Nida’s gaze indicates that she accepts his authority and puts him on a pedestal. His speech aligns with the definition of a hero as he mandates a call for action and promises to bring a change by delivering a well-crafted speech (Wright, 2010). He instructs the candidates to report any suspicious activity even if it is conducted by a family member. The narrative provides an opportunity to Nida’s character to choose the identity of either a loving daughter or a patriot. Her character is dedicated to a single motivation- her country. The scene also marks the beginning of a long and arduous journey Dachuna and Nida will be on together for the remaining series. Graham takes a jab at the political intolerance about how nationalism is decided based on one’s ability to say Matrabhumi ki Jai (Long live motherland), the same dialogue used by Dachuna to end his address (India is Not just Hindi, Hindu And Hindustan: Shashi Tharoor, 2018).

Technology as a Prop

A dystopian society set in the future either boasts of technical advancements such as robots, flying cars, as shown in the series, Black Mirror or a completely disassociates with technology. Ghoul operates on the latter premise exhibited through the usage basic model of Nokia phone, landlines, and walkie-talkies. The government has monopolized technology to oppress and conduct surveillance. The essence is the fear of what the society might become if the current technical trends continue to progress. (The Handmaid’s Tale and the ‘Dystopian Film’ Space, 2014). Thus, insinuating that technology is synonymous with progress and liberalization, and the lack of it represents otherwise. A similar narrative is publicized in the television show, The Handmaid’s Tale, where most residents are not allowed to use mobile phones, books, or computers. The premise used in both the series is the fear that culture can be massified through media and has the potential to replace religion (Holmes 2011, p. 36).

The sequence ends when Nida clutches the phone contemplating whether to make a call. This is a real cliffhanger as her decision shapes the arc of her character and is a reminder that just like the series, the life is dramatic and never assured (Frank, 2012).

I write about productivity, technology, and content strategy. Creator of 1moretale on Instagram.