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The Zombies of Postcolony: Beyond the Spectral Principal of Nationhood in ‘Betaal’

By Samrat Sengupta

This essay would draw a trajectory of how Betaal (Dir. Patrick Graham, released on 24 May, 2020), a popular Indian web drama, apparently related to speculative storytelling and genre fiction, could open up the possibility of looking at the complex question of the universality of Nation-State, after colonialism ended officially. Nation-State though claims to correct the colonial economic and political exploitations and deliver justice to its subjects, often it is argued to be haunted by the absent spirit of colonialism which still operates as a subterranean ideological underpinning. The essay would show through a reading of Betaal how the assumed universality of the reason of the Nation-state which attempts to do away with the inglorious colonial past and claims to have a united consciousness fails to maintain its logical divide in two ways. Firstly, it fails to maintain the structural divide and internal coherence of the past and the present, and secondly it becomes unsuccessful in maintaining the classical Cartesian order of mind and the body where the former controls the latter through consciousness. The potentiality of genre fiction and cinema we may claim is to unsettle the logical schema of history and politics where we have striated unmixed categories of thinking. Genre fiction of horror, thriller or science fiction wants to repeat certain imaginative archetypes, the objective of which is apparently to produce pleasure. The pleasure is often related to what is impossible in our schema of thinking the real and is always beyond it. Genre fiction is also closely related to speculative fiction, where the apparent realism and its compulsory method of looking at the world in a matter-of-fact way fails and such fiction assumes a “parallel power” (Thomas, 6) to examine reality. While Genre fiction repeats the impossible, Speculative fiction refuses to repeat the possible. Apparently considered low or middle-brow Genre Fiction and film still could challenge the real as something we are trained to see and categorize the way it appears or made to appear to us. Betaal demonstrates this alter-imagination of what is apparently thought to be popular and less serious.

The ‘popular’ is often considered to be an endless repetition of what one wants to see and pleasure with – motivated by what Freud would call ‘repetition compulsion’ that repeats the hidden fears and anxieties apparently repressed and invisibilized to make the subject come to terms with them continuously (Freud, 36). More serious literature would find an answer to these anxieties by thinking categorically and through the reality around. Nonetheless, the ‘real’ may also be a product of training that our minds received and the way we categorize and separate different objects and temporalities to make sense of them as logically connected. The history and trajectory of Nationhood teaches us the passing of the colonial rationality of exploiting and treating the people of a colonized nation like India as objects of extraction of capital, exploitation and abandonment. This is the way the nation distances itself from its own past. The Nationalist subject also sings the nation-state by assuming the reason of the state as absolute which he consciously accepts and embodies. Betaal is a drama which challenges these separable categories of colonial past and postcolonial present on one hand and the conscious mind of the nationalist subject and his practices on the other. While the army in the colonial schema was an agent of maintaining law and order – both outside and within the nation-state – protecting the colonial power, it is believed that army in a Post-colonial nation-state is supposedly a protector of the people and a continuation of the spirit of the freedom fighters who wanted an end to colonial exploitation. However, the past of exploitation of the people for capitalist progress and protecting the power structure haunts the universality and justice of the nation-state. The conscious Nationalist subject such as an army officer then also may be ventriloquized by unconscious and invisible colonialist ideology of exploitation and abandonment that operates like possession of a spirit that becomes specter by being apparently dead and belonging to the past.

The web series opens in a situation when an anti-insurgency paramilitary force – Baaz Squad – is employed in a tribal belt of India to evacuate the inhabitants to make space for the construction of a road that would supposedly lead to industrialization. The two main operators in charge of this evacuation Tyagi and Sirohi represent two kinds of army officers – the former corrupt and directly working under Ajay Madhulvan, the Surya Construction Company owner and the latter, a believer of Nationalist development and presence of Naxalites as miscreants hindering development in tribal areas. In a way both could be considered as the continuation of colonialist army that tried to make the indigenous land available to proprietors for business and extraction of wealth. The colonial history would show several counter-insurgent operations against the peasants and tribal population of the country. In modern India often Naxalite becomes the pen name for insurgency and resistance against developmental exploitation and land eviction, whether as an actual organized group or as a name for the fear of resistance against the military industrial complex of the nation-state.

The web series can be read from two connected viewpoints. Firstly, from the point of view of popular culture and its repetition compulsion that in a way is also the source of pleasure. In terms of Sigmund Freud’s 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1961), the Pleasure Principle is immanently connected with the death drive that while trying to secure pleasure and continuity of that particular pleasure invokes death by resisting change. Only the dead cannot change. Something that is repeated without difference ad infinitum is actually a call for death. Pleasure that confines us to repetition unconsciously is connected to death drive. Secondly, from the point of view of the developmental nation-state and its theology of protecting the citizen subject proper, the existence of the state and its apparatus could be imagined as the source of the pleasure of protection and identity. The identity of the Post-colonial Indian subject as protected by the nation-state is informed by a certain biopolitics that guarantees life to the citizen proper. But it becomes forgetful of the spectral presence of the colonial order and its entente with capitalism. The same order gets replicated when displacement of the indigenous and poor people of the country gets naturalized for the health of the Post-colonial nation-state. Surya Construction Company from this viewpoint could be assumed as a reincarnation of the East India Company with the army serving the interest of the business classes. In short, the life securing biopolitics appears also as thanatopolitics or death delivering politics where anyone against the developmental objectives of the nation state is considered expendable and exterminable. The state employed force in the series is shown ironically to be working for the capitalist to evacuate the village for construction and development.

At this point, the myth of Betaal is employed to continue the story since the aporia of the Postcolony engulfs the stratified and temporal narrative of nation state and its chronology and teleology of overcoming the colonial order. The series fictionalizes an important moment in colonial history where during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 East India Company Lieutentant Colonel Lynedoch and his counter-insurgent army got converted into zombies by Lynedoch’s practice of Indian black magic to resurrect the evil spirit of Betaal – the living dead. The rationale of the nation-state and its historiography could not be followed the moment the colonial apparatus of power haunts and overdetermines the Post-colonial nation state making it a Postcolony where the spirit of the Colonial returns to haunt. The narrative then has to move from realism towards speculation. It becomes an uncanny moment of recognition which realist narratives could hardly capture. The apparently flippant story telling of genre fiction employed here with the motif of a zombie story exposes the zombified history of the nation state. So, the Pleasure Principle of repeating the fabricated horror motifs, though apparently is unserious and entertaining in nature, also suggest the impossibility of having a “serious” narrative of the nation-state. The serious modes of understanding the history of nation-state and its operations lack the imagination of making sense of this return of the colonial, assumed to be dead and locked in distant past. Fantastic story telling hints at the absurdity and unreal nature of the scripted history of the nation-state and exposes the hollowness of Post-colonial historiography. It also becomes a moment of uncanny recognition where the dead would come back to horrify. The doppelganger effect traverses Betaal, where the very familiarity of the nationalist military supposedly proud of serving the nation is gradually taken over by the colonial general’s necromantic power and appears as horrifyingly unfamiliar. Freud’s 1919 essay “Uncanny” (2003) could be invoked here to understand the production of horror as an element of visualizing the unfamiliar within the familiar – in this case the reckoning of the colonial militarism and naked power in a nationalist armed force which supposedly protects the nation-state. The Indian paramilitary force Baaz Squad starts resembling the colonial zombies not only after being attacked and wounded by them but also in its intention of evacuation of its own people, internal corruption and collaboration with capitalist machinery.

The central protagonist Sirohi, a venerated officer of Baaz Squad could be understood as zombified even before he was attacked by the zombies in actual, when he shot a small girl in an anti-insurgency massacre of another village before the events of the series were set in. The voice and instructions of the senior officer Tyagi to Sirohi acted like a spell over the transmitter, and Sirohi had to perform his duty instead of listening to his conscience. It was evident from the start that he had doubts over the intention and the ways in which these counter-insurgency operations were orchestrated. The evacuation of the villagers in the main plot of the series was a conspiracy of commandant Tyagi and the proprietor of Surya Construction who orchestrated an explosion falsely from the side of the villagers to begin the attack on them by Baaz Squad as they could not start the attack unprovoked. It was followed by opening the Cave of Betaal Mountain which was claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Betaal. According to the local villagers opening the cave would led to apocalypse. The zombie army of colonel Lynedoch is set free after the cave is opened ignoring the warnings of the villagers, and they attack the force. The members of the force were gradually joining the trail of zombies after being attacked and wounded by Lynedoch and his army of the living dead.

The series posits serious questions on zombification. Zombification is a kind of parasitic attack and possession of human brain when attacked by other zombies, transforming apparently healthy humans into mindless cannibals. They would then discriminately attack and eat up others including their own people. But who is a zombie in the Postcolony? The entire Baaz Squad working for the military industrial complex of the nation-state, Tyagi conspiring with Ajay of Surya Construction to massacre the village, Ajay for economic and commercial success prepared to sacrifice her own daughter to the spirit of Col. Lynedoch (who would be set free from his confinement to Betaal mountain once the sacrifice is made) and even Sirohi, apparently an honest officer but acting by order blindly – all in some way or the other are up to the autophagic act of destroying their ‘own’ people. They seem to be already possessed by the spirit of colonial ideology and power. The classic Cartesian control of mind over the body is overridden by spectralized ideology of colonial power that naturalizes death and erosion of marginalized people from their respective spaces. Different characters seem to be already zombified in terms of their nature and action. The attack and taking over of the bodies of Baaz Squad by the commanding spirit of Lynedoch was necessary to realize the same. It is deeply ironic when Lynedoch speaks through Tyagi and does not just stop at transform her into a zombie. Like Lynedoch is his own time, Tyagi too happened to be the chief commanding officer in the postcolonial army of Baaz Squad. It is rather uncanny when the spirit shifts from Tyagi to Sirohi who was next to her in power. Sirohi listened to orders blindly disregarding his conscience and the same is demanded of him by the spirit of Lynedoch through Tyagi. Eventually the spirit leaves Tyagi to possess Sirohi and attempts to use him to sacrifice the little girl. The uncanny split strikes horror when Sirohi has to fight against his own self to save the girl. The nationalist subject of Postcolony, similarly, has to fight against the autoimmune structure of the nation-state that kills its own subjects when considered a threat or hindrance to the logic of the state.

Thus the fairy tale of the nation-state is interrupted in Betaal along with the idea of a coherent subject united in intention and act, spirit, and the body. The historicity of separable past and present moments in the Postcolony also gets jeopardized with the colonial spirit in the form of Lynedoch returning to the present. It has to be remembered that in a postcolonial state like India army is often venerated as the ultimate repository of justice and sacrifice, even though the army and the police in decolonized India is a direct inheritance of colonial power. It is often assumed that there is a break between the Colonial and the Post-colonial moment of power where the Post-colonial apparatus of power is not oppressive in its intention. The horror evoked in the film steadily corrupts such fantasies of security. The pleasure of the nation state beyond its repeatability conceals the death drivenation state The Nation state employs biopower that claims to protect the life of the citizens. However, as these events in the series demonstrates, in actual the employment of biopower is thanatopolitical. Thanatopolitics is the politics of delivering death. In order to protect and advance the order of the nation state, the state becomes autoimmune – identifies its own people as enemy to be delivered death instead of life, devouring the subjects it is supposed to protect. In the Postcolony with everyone potentially becoming zombies, where the dominant and the dominated becomes convivial (Mbembe, 104) and alike in having the potential to be violent towards others for immunity and metabolic requirements. Jacques Derrida has called the beyond of the Pleasure Principal in Freud as ‘athesis’ – something which cannot be theorized (Derrida, 257-409). The zombified nation state unleashes such horror which the linear historiography fails to capture. We need a Zombie narrative to foreground the postcolonial death drive connected to the Pleasure Principal of repetition and stability. It is to maintain the repetition and stability – to preserve the “bios” or qualified life of the nation state the armed forces are endowed with the right to kill; for the sake of construction the tribal village had to be evacuated and the Colonial Specter of the Betaal mountain was unleashed.

The past comes back to Betaal’s narrative as mythologerm, or myths from Indian past that may serve as general archetype for understanding the present better – “to draw parallels and continuities between the present and a mythical past” (Chattopadhyay et al, 6). This according to Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is a characteristic of Indian genre fiction. The myth of Betaal helps exposing the reality of the beyond of the Pleasure Principal of the nation-state as living dead or undead. The series ends with the destruction of the site of the spirits – the Betaal Mountain and spreading of the zombies all over, perhaps leading to an impending zombie apocalypse. After the colonies are over don’t we have similar patterns of violence and autophagic structures everywhere? The specter of colonialism is also that of capitalism that makes people across the globe mad with the desire to devour – make every object a part of the metabolism of capital. However we don’t realize such phantasmagoric mechanism in the world around except in states of exception such as evacuation of people from their homeland for the sake of development. Zombie apocalypse in the series is such a descent of the unfamiliar within the familiar where eventually the zombies reach the city of Mumbai to disrupt normalcy and we see it happening through a similar state of exception where the security and everyday life of the tribals in their village gets destroyed. The horror imagination horrifies us with the absolute normalcy of death just beneath the romance of the nation-state.

Works Cited

Chattopadhyay, Bodhisattva, Aakriti Madhwani and Anwesha Maity. “Introduction: Indian Genre Fiction – Languages, Literatures, Classifications,” Indian Genre Fiction: Past and Future Histories. Ed. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay et al. Routledge, 2019. pp. 1-14.

Derrida, Jacques. “To Speculate on Freud,” The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. University of Chicago Press, 1987. pp. 257-410.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principal. Translated and Edited by James Strachey. Kolkata: New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1961.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David Mclintock with an Introduction by Hugh Penguin Books, 2003. Kindle Edition.

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. University of California Press, 2001.

Thomas, P. L. “Introduction: Challenging Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction,” Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres. Ed. P. L. Thomas. Sense Publishers, 2013. pp. 1-13.

Dr. Samrat Sengupta
is Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University. His research interests include Experimental Bengali Literature, Gender studies, Post-structuralism, Memory Studies and Posthumanism. He has Guest edited a special issue of the International journal Sanglap on “Caste in Humanities”. His first Bengali monograph on Pratibader Pathokrom (Syllabi of Resistance) has been published this year. His co-edited volume on Bengali experimental writer Nabarun Bhattacharya titled Nabarun Bhattacharya: Aesthetics and Politics in a World after Ethics has been published from Bloomsbury.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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