At first, “Ghoul” is intriguing, especially since it took the entire first episode to set up a dynamic world in which the horror will take place. In a near dystopian future, society is under the iron grip of military control and nationalistic spirit (the latter, unfortunately, hits a little too close to home). Soldiers come into people’s homes to burn their books and arrest those who are “anti-national” in order to “recondition” them.
Not only was the setting interesting, the characterization of the protagonist also held a lot of potential. Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) is an interrogation officer in training. She is fiercely nationalistic and loyal to the government, which causes her to clash with her father, a professor who illegally harbors books and teaches students material that deviates from the government syllabus.
After some internal struggle, Rahim turns her father in for “terrorist” behavior, and as a result of her affiliation with a “terrorist,” she is pulled out of school and sent to assist at a remote detention center which imprisons and tortures (or, as governments both real and fictional call it: “interrogates”) rebel terrorists. There in the grimy detention center, an important inmate arrives — terrorist leader Ali Saeed — and he brings all the flesh-tearing, blood-spattering, supernatural “Ghoul” action with him.
Nonetheless, what is exciting about the character of Rahim is that she gives the most positive and nuanced representation of a Muslim woman that I’ve ever seen. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Muslim female protagonist, and I am all for it.
The association made between Muslims and terrorists is explicitly brought up at several points during the film. In this story world, “terrorist” refers to anyone who does not oblige by nationalistic ideals and, although Rahim is loyal to the point of turning her own father in, she still faces suspicions of “terrorism” herself.
In one powerful scene, Rahim is questioned by a colleague as she undresses in the locker room. The colleague asks, “Your religion won’t be a problem, will it? There happens to be a lot of Muslims in the group we are fighting against at the moment.” Rahim answers, “These people think they are Muslims ma’am, but Islam forbids the murder of men, women and children.” Rahim’s nakedness in the scene acts as a visual metaphor for the vulnerability every Muslim feels when they are put under scrutiny in such a way.
Indeed, the mini-series from India does seem to be doing a good job with Muslim representation. Although misguided, Rahim is strong and intelligent. She kicks ass, but is not without fault. This is the kind of representation that American media should see more of.
The politically charged backdrop of “Ghoul” distinguishes it from your run-of-the-mill horror that only wishes to trade screams for cash. In fact, from the first episode, I could tell that “Ghoul” wasn’t going to deliver a whole lot of screams. I didn’t mind the lack of explicit horror because I was banking on the series exposing some social horrors that urgently need addressing: the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, the control of information, and more.
The basic plot of the show is that everyone in the detention center has done something wrong, though this is not the same crime that they were put in the prison for. The ghoul character’s role, then, is to make them realize their true guilt before eating them.
You see, all of the character’s sins come as a result of their blind loyalty to the government. Their unquestioning allegiance to the idea of the nation made them do horrible things to their family, to the inmates and to themselves. The ghoul made sure they understood their sins and paid for them. The “paying for your sins with your life” trope is an old one in the horror genre, but “Ghoul” has added a twist to this theme, since the characters are not simply paying for their own dirty little secrets, but for a sin that poisons society as a whole. In this way, “Ghoul” could’ve easily become classic like “Get Out.” However, the clumsy plot line makes the series confusing and boring at times.
Throughout the series, I kept finding myself asking, “Why is this happening?” For example, the inmates who are loyal followers of Saeed became abruptly willing to spill everything they know about Saeed to Rahim, even though they were previously tortured without giving up that information. Additionally, the detention center guards have a habitof suddenly turning on each other at the slightest provocation. The series seems to be rife with such inconsistencies, things happen without being properly set up. The plot holes are an uncomfortable interruption that breaks the audience’s suspension.
Furthermore, there is a severe lack of actual horror. Moments of suspense are few and far between, and even if they happen, they just aren’t scary. The botched delivery actually has the effect of dampening the poignancy of social commentary, which is supposed to make up for the lack of explicit horror. My heart rate barely escalated over the course of the entire series.
Overall, “Ghoul” is a mini-series with an interesting setup, but if you are looking for exciting entertainment, watching this isn’t going to make your Friday night.