The neoMONSTERS Thesis: Dystopias, Ideologies and Monsters in Ghoul and Betaal[1]



                                                                     Sami Ahmad Khan

 Dr. Sami Ahmad Khan is a novelist, academic and documentary producer. He writes, researches, teaches and edits Science Fiction (SF).He completed his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, and is the recipient of a Fulbright grant (University of Iowa, USA) and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship (University of Oslo, Norway). His future-war debut Red Jihad won two awards and his second novel – Aliens in Delhi – garnered rave reviews and was displayed at the 5th China (Chengdu) SF Convention. Sami’s critical essays have appeared in leading academic journals and magazines across the world; his overview of Indian SF has been translated into the Czech; and his fiction has been the subject of formal academic research. Sami has taught at IIT Delhi, Jindal Global University, and JNU; he currently discusses life and literature at GGS Indraprastha University, Delhi, where he also supervises PhD research on SF. His latest book is Star Warriors of the Modern Raj: Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction (University of Wales Press, 2021).


This paper studies two Indian dystopias vis-à-vis the monsters stationed within them. It investigates how monsters become metaphors for specific ideologies that threaten public order: it utilizes two Netflix originals as templates for hybridizing dystopias, myths and material realities. Aware of JJ Cohen’s seven theses and Luciano Nuzzo’s assessment of Foucauldian monsters, it focusses on Patrick Graham’s Ghoul (2018) and Betaal (2020) to ascertain how neo-imperialism, Islamism, nationalism and Naxalism intermesh within constructions of monstrousness. It applies the neoMONSTERS (Mutagenic Ontological Narratives in Space-Time Echoing Realistic Situations) thesis to explicate the fusion of monstrousness, materiality and ideology.

Keywords: Dystopia, Monster, neoMONSTERS, Ghoul, Betaal, Ideology,  Indian Speculative Fiction


“We live in a time of monsters” (“Preface” vii).

JJ Cohen engages with a twin fixation of naming (i.e. knowing) the monster and disempowering (i.e. domesticating) it in the context of the US, a society that has “created and codified ‘ambient fear’” for Massumi, but the ontological state(s) and epistemological construction(s) of monstrousness can be approached as a “mode of cultural discourse” (“Preface” xiii) in other spatiotemporal locations as well. When read vis-à-vis localized socio-political contexts, national anxieties and popular imagination, this ambient fear constructs, projects and interrogates its own milieu and the notions of monstrousness in India – which both “reveals” and “warns”. A fascination with the monster emerges: a recalibration of the “total fear that saturates day-to-day living, prodding and silently antagonizing but never speaking its own name” (Cohen viii).

In an India lacerated by crisscrossing, antagonistic ideologies, cultural production manifests monsters not only as “symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society” (Cohen) but also as the disruptions in/by the national psyche that set limits of/to behavioural and conceptual normativity alike. Fuelled by nuclear Pakistan and China in the neighbourhood, India reels under an existential Islamist and Communist threat in/via its dystopias. This underscores Luciano Nuzzo’s assessment that the “monsters appear whenever and wherever knowledge/power assemblages emerge” and “that which eludes the latter, and which threatens to subvert them, is the monstrous” (“Foucault and the Enigma of the Monster” 55). The monsters become bearers of political, religious, social and environmental anxieties, and the spectre(s) of terrorism, whether left-wing or right-wing, emphasizes the colonization – and not mere contouring – of India’s popular imagination with a new “aesthetic hegemon” (to borrow terminology from Philip Lutgendorf’s “Mahabharata as a Dystopian Future”) that evolves its own being.

India’s Speculative Fiction (SpecFic) provides a mutating canvas on which alterity – and its extreme, the monster – is projected across narrative forms. From the Islamist zombies of Mainak Dhar’s Zombiestan to the mutants of Priya Sarukkia Chabria’s Generation 14, from the zombie-demons of Jugal Mody’s Toke to the homo-rakshasas of Arati Kadav’s Cargo, and from the aliens of Shirish Kunder’s Joker to the atript aatma in Raj and DK’s Stree, contemporary India’s fiction, film and web series exhibit a sustained engagement with the discourse of (hybridized) monstrousness and its imbrication in social and geopolitical/geoeconomical reality. Nalo Hopkinson defines postcolonial Science Fiction as “stories that take the meme of colonizing the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humour, and also with love and respect for the genre of science fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things” (9), the same holds true for dystopian SpecFic. By extension, monstrousness can be understood better when placed within the glocal/global paradigms of a changing world order.[2] These monsters not only terrorize but also question epistemology of knowledge generation: Bologna finds the Greek τέρᾰς (téras) to “indicate something that is an extraordinary sign and therefore monstrous, horrible, and marvelous at the same time”; it not only “signals the infraction of an order” but also “the opening of a hiatus in the order of knowledge” (quoted in Nuzzo 57).

Luciano Nuzzo responds to Foucault’s classification of monsters into : juridical-natural monsters marked by “transgression of an interdiction present in law” whether natural or social; moral monsters where “monstrosity does not conform to juridical or moral prescriptions” and “breaks social order”; and, political monsters who “puts the political order into discussion” (64 -69).[3] Their monstrosity is shaped by their ‘nature’, their ‘behavior’ or ‘conduct’ against the social contract, and their political positioning respectively. Since for Nuzzo the political monster is inherently linked with “the transformations of the forms of power”, and “all monstrosity is therefore deeply, and inevitably, political”, these monsters help foreground the refracted struggles, rising tensions and inherent friction between ideologies in India.

This paper views two horror/dystopia web series to investigate the interlinkages between contemporary popular imagination (in the throes of right-ward lurch), cultural production (within its OTT platforms), and the ensuing material realities which necessitate the encoding of ideological and cultural alterity in order to question the generation and reception of knowledge-power. It fuses arguments by Cohen and Nuzzo to introduce a new framework (and lexicon) of the neoMONSTERS, which explicates the monster through a location-specific imbrication of nationalism, hybridization, postcolonialism, socio-political reality and religio-cultural otherization. The neoMONSTERS – Mutating Ontological Narratives in Space-Time Echoing Realistic Situations – places such beings of alterity within their milieu and investigates the ideologies that combine within a syntax and national matrix to render their existence possible.[4] The two (horror/dystopia) Netflix series contain monsters which emerge as sites of engagement where fiction merges with reality, India meets the world, dystopia fuses with the monster, and knowledge combines with power. Edward James argues in “Utopia and anti-utopia” that utopia has not disappeared in the wake of war, genocide and totalitarianism in the 20th century but it has “merely mutated… into something very different from the classical dystopia” (219). Since the utopia/dystopia of the “revolutionary model” often meets the “alien/monster SF” of evolutionary mode (Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 110), this paper extends to argument to India’s dystopian web series of the 21st century: Ghoul and Betaal.[5]


Arab Monsters in a “New India”: Islamism, Terrorism and Hindu Nationalism in Ghoul     


The country [India] has changed.

Sectarian conflict has reached a crisis point.

Secret detention centres are established.

A military clampdown is in effect.



     If monsters are “breaker[s] of category” for JJ Cohen, dystopias, by extension, can be called as breakers of temporal, political and moral normativity (through their disruptions). Patrick Graham’s Ghoul (2018) is set in a right-leaning India of the near future: an Orwellian state clamps down heavily on suspected terrorists after a spate of attacks and crackdowns become the norm. Civil liberties are curtailed; books are burnt; people are picked up from their homes and sent to reconditioning camps. A standard, state-sponsored syllabus is taught; intellectuals are routinely rounded up; and loaded words like “anti-nationals” and “beef” are strategically inserted in the narrative.

                 This can be read as a result of India’s response to Pakistan’s state-doctrine of making India “bleed from a thousand cuts”, which, as per Pervez Hoodbhoy, now lies in ruins (“Bleed”). Jihadism as an instrument of Pakistan’s foreign policy is mirrored by Islamophobia as a domestic policy across the Radcliffe Line. A special force called the National Protection Squad (NPS) is raised in Ghoul: it is a security agency with a broad counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism mandate. With rampant Islamist terror and Islamophobia feeding into each other, bigotry and fundamentalism rule, and a massive propaganda campaign is unleashed to flush out the “traitors within”. The Indian Muslims are shown as being under threat (since they are seen as a threat to the state), and are depicted as subversives: a character even remarks their entire “race is filthy”. It is not just the blood-and-gore narrative of horror-dystopia that makes Naahar exclaim: “Ghoul is scary, yes, but for entirely different reasons than you’d anticipated. Like Fahrenheit 451, we witness Muslim literature being burned, their religious artefacts are declared contraband, and their voices clamped down with cries of ‘sedition!’” (“Ghoul”). The perception of (Muslim) minorities as terrorists, foreign invaders, and by extension, monsters – who are made to live in “scheduled religions zone” in Ghoul – dovetails not just with current geopolitics but even more importantly with the historical bitterness of the two-nation theory (which can be accessed in “The Others”). This can be read in tandem with the assertion that “when in the 19th century the state becomes identified with the nation, and political unity became ethno-political unity, the monster was able considered as he who is not recognizable as belonging to the national community” (Nuzzo 65).

                 A “future-orientation” is central to this web series as it draws on a “historical-projective suspension of disbelief as the real thing” in order to “play with it” (Csicsery-Ronay Jr.) Lt. Nida Rahim is a Muslim NPS cadet, whose “religion makes her a traitor in the eyes of her people, and a pariah in the eyes of the (mostly) Hindu soldiers at the facility” (Naahar). Her interaction with other military personnel, most importantly Major Laxmi Das, underscore her problematic identity. While religious groups appear to be persecuted in this future, the antipathy is more towards Muslims than other minorities. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. Dacunha, has a specific idea of the enemy – religious minorities – that is imprinted on his unit (despite he being one himself). Lt. Col. Dacunha is proud of his Christian heritage; he boasts that during the Portuguese inquisition, his forefathers “hunted” the heretics and those who pretended to be Christians. Moreover, the “scheduled zones” mirror the forced ghettoization of traditionally marginalized communities such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in India. A similar kind of arrangement exists in the future, except it is based on religion (and not just caste).

                 Nida, however, firmly believes in the system to such an extent that she hands over her father (Shahnawaz) – an iconoclast who “instead of teaching the official syllabus, forces his students to ask questions” – to the state, and who is, consequently, transferred to a reconditioning camp. Weeks before she is to be commissioned as an officer in the NPS, she is ordered to report to Meghdoot 31, a covert detention centre built after the “emergency”.[6] This is a claustrophobic “advanced interrogation facility” where “dangerous anti-nationals” are sent, a list that includes “student protestors, opposition party leaders, and religious fanatics”. Since the monster is “an exception that suspends the law...the response to the monster, as a consequence, could only be either outside-law, or violence, the force of law without law, or medical cures, or mercy” (Nuzzo 66; emphasis added), those who are brought to detention are perceived as being located outside the law since they are guilty the moment they are captured – at least in the eyes of the soldiers guarding this Abu Ghraib style prison – and the force of law outside law is brought to bear on them.

                 The NPS is tasked with breaking Ali Saeed, a recently captured terrorist who instils fear and inspires dread. Ali is usually reticent but often breaks out in ancient Aramaic; he can read the minds of those around him and exhibits no pain or fear despite being subject to harsh treatment. His mere presence flares tempers, leads to mutual suspicion, and results in infighting: he seems to know “secrets” about the people around him. For example, he calls Nida by a pet-name only her father knew. Nida investigates further, only to be told by a terror-suspect Maulvi (Islamic cleric) about a monster from Arabic folklore: a ghoul. The Maulvi says that anyone can sell their soul to the devil and summon this beast by making a specific symbol; the ghoul assumes the shape of the last person it bit, shows those around “a reflection of our [their] sins” and makes them go mad before killing them. Ghoul brings a new kind of knowledge – one which is ancient, and contingent not on science but on (Arab) folklore –  though “for Hindus, this entity is a rakshas or a pishach”. This fusion can be accessed vis-à-vis Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay’s mythologerm that explains “the tendency to continually rework the history of science through the use of the mythic, or to use the mythic as a source of alternative or unknown or advanced science, or to use the mythic as a hinge to elaborate a difference between one kind of sf and another” (Chattopadhyay 437). The mythologerm, by extension, can also elaborate the difference between one kind of Speculative Fiction – especially when seen as the fusion of future history, dystopia and monster – and another. Fred Botting writes on the gothic and Science Fiction that in “the crossings of two generic monsters, monstrosity returns from the past and arrives from the future” (112). Ghoul returns from Arabia’s pre-Islamic past – and the threat of Islamism it metaphorizes emanates from India’s future. With its ever-changing body at odds with that of the state, an identity in state of constant flux, and a diffused positioning, the ghoul becomes a representation of Cohen’s first and fourth thesis: the monster’s body is a cultural body  (“Seven Theses” 4) and the monster dwells at the gates of difference (7).  

                 Nida soon realizes that the Meghdoot section is not merely an interrogation facility: it is also a slaughterhouse and her father met his end there. The NPS has been executing prisoners after interrogation even if they turned out to be innocent. Ali, thus, turns out to be a supernatural entity, a ghoul that has been invoked by Nida’s father as revenge against the totalitarian state that deprived him of his life and liberty.[7] The avenging-ghoul, again, plays with the sixth thesis of Cohen: the fear of the monster becomes a kind of a desire since “the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from constraint” (“Seven Thesis” 16). The ghoul becomes a “strange attractor” for Shahnawaz (and later Nida), an avenger for the marginalized, a sigh of the oppressed. 

                 The ghoul – a guilt-activating catalyst – assumes multiple shapes as the narrative proceeds, sows the seeds of fear and suspicion within a cohesive military unit, destroys its camaraderie, and goes on a killing spree. Nida barely escapes the facility but is immediately taken into custody by a rescue team after she kills Dacunha in full public view (since the ghoul may have taken his shape, or Nida might be punishing Dacunha for his deeds). She then realizes that the (Meghdoot) unit she thought had gone rogue was in fact conforming to state policies and following standard operating procedures. Disillusioned, Nida cuts herself using a hidden blade and engages in a blood ritual to summon the ghoul yet again: the cycle begins anew a la Cohen’s second thesis, the monster always escapes, always to return (“Seven Theses” 4).

                 Ghoul manifests how speculative traditions from Arab folklore reappear within South Asian dystopias. While the critique of systemic state violence (e.g. Ahmad’s family was killed in front of him to make him talk), religious extremism, terrorism, Islamophobia, and Islamist terrorism is evident, ghoul’s premise undercuts its superstructure. The wronged Shahnawaz petitions a Ghoul – an Arab monster – rather than an Indian bhoot, pret or pisach to wreak vengeance, a choice that reaffirms Indian Muslims as outsiders. Rather than choosing a corresponding monster from the SpecFic traditions of the country/culture/civilization one resides in – especially when India has a healthy tradition of an avenging spirit – Shahnawaz’s choice of the avenger remains Arab and not South Asian. The critique of Islamophobia itself emerges as Islamophobic, since the Muslim other would always be an outsider, even in his/her popular imagination, unless the ghoul specifically represents Islamist terror (which again makes the narrative Islamophobic, though this time from a different vantage point).


Redcoat Zombies in the Red Corridor: Naxalism, Military-Industrial Complex and Neo-imperialism in Betaal


     If Ghoul engages with terrorism, Islamism, and Hindu Nationalism, Betaal takes the fight to India’s troubled Red Corridor – especially when the nation is haunted by the spectres of Marx (in the Red Corridor) and Mao (along the Sino-Indian border). To cite just two more examples of ideological subversion in contemporary web series: Leila features a quasi-fascist India of the 2040s divided along class/caste/religious lines and JL50 does not fail to foreground – though subtly – an imminent ‘naxalite’ threat in the nation’s past.

                 Cohen avers that the “manifold boundaries (temporal, geographic, bodily, technological) that constitute ‘culture’ become imbricated in the construction of the monster”; he finds the monster to be “an extreme version of marginalization” that translates as an “abjecting epistemological device basic to the mechanics of deviance construction and identity formation” (ix). The Muslim other (in the popular imagination, also a Pakistani, even, nay, especially if Indian) and the communist other (conflated as a Marxist/Maoist/Naxalite in the national psyche) haunt cultural production. To cite just one example of the latter in another narrative form: Newton contains a comical reference to the Naxalite insurgents in India’s Red Corridor as zombies, which is actualized by Graham’s next endeavour. 

                 Betaal is an apocalyptic narrative about Redcoat zombies led by an undead Lt. Col. of the East India Company (EIC). Cohen’s third thesis, that of the monster being the harbinger of category crisis (“Seven Theses” 6) finds itself activated as SpecFic traditions from the east and the west clash within the same (national/notional) body: the zombie (in this case, in this case) combines with the betaal (revenant) of Indian folklore. The series begins with a diary entry written by Lt. Col. Lynedoch dated 17th June, 1857:

We came to help these people. But they resist. The mutiny has reached us. How dare they? I will use their own guardians against them. I will harness the Betaal’s curse, and grind these savages into the dirt…It seems there are rebels in the tunnel. I must go. (emphasis added)


     The White Man’s Burden is inherently tied with orientalism, colonialism and imperialism, and manifests similar concerns in the nation’s collective psyche. The British officer laments how the ‘natives’ spurn the offers of help (and civilization) which England brings to India (specifically via the East India Company). Simultaneously, the colonizer is aware of how India’s own guardians (and traditions) must be used against the nation: perhaps a metaphor for the education system, which was overhauled by the British to create ‘babus’ who served the Empire (a la Macaulay’s minutes).  

                 If Ghoul followed the coming-of-age of Nida, Betaal follows another young officer who sways between discharging duty and obeying morals. Monsters change at an ontological level – but the epistemology of victimhood remains the same. Deputy Commandant Vikram Sirohi is attached to the elite “Baaz Squad”[8] of the Counter Insurgency Police Department (CIPD) that is tasked with sanitising a “troubled” location. Parallel to East India Company’s Lt. Col. Lynedoch, who also inspired hero-worship, this CIPD unit is headed by another charismatic (though corrupt) officer: Commandant Tyagi is secretly on the payroll of a construction company (Surya) that wants to build infrastructure within the adivasi (tribal) land to connect the village with the city. This, again, runs parallel to EIC’s “development” of a colonial India at the expense of the native: through Lt. Col. Lynedoch (and the Taunton Regiment), the East India Company suppresses the “natives” (Indians) under the guise of “development”; Surya Construction corporation of the present “hires” the CIPD to suppress the natives (tribals) under the pretence of developing a highway.

                 As the construction company rushes to meet state deadlines (the CM is supposed to inaugurate the construction of highway within a few hours), the fight between the tribals protesting their dislocation and state forces echo similar concerns ripped from newspaper headlines: the invasion of forests and tribal habitats by corporations (for mining and infrastructure development) dislocate the forest-dwellers and cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem (refer to Areeparampil and Oskarsson for details). The (tribal) villagers feel that the opening of the tunnel would liberate what lies imprisoned within.

                 During India’s first war of independence in 1857, the Taunton regiment, a particularly vicious British unit, was trapped by Indian resistance fighters in a tunnel under Betaal Mountain, where Indian folklore posited a betaal to reside. The entire unit was killed in action but the Lt. Col. (Lynedoch) appropriated the power of the betaal to become immortal: he now lies in wait for a human sacrifice to escape his tomb and conquer India. Lynedoch, thus, becomes the betaal and his zombie army waits to be break out of the prison: a goal in which it is unwittingly (and later consciously) assisted by the Surya Construction Corporation. When Nuzzo declares that the monster “is always captured within a scientific, philosophic, or juridical discourse” but also acknowledges that its body always exceeds “the discursive forms of its conceptualization” since the “hybrid that the monster incarnates consigns it to a liminal space” (57), the meeting of EIC and Surya Corporation, zombie and betaal, imperialism and capitalism, become those liminal spaces that challenge their own existence.

                 As the monster “polices” the borders of the possible for Cohen’s fifth thesis (“Seven Theses” 12), the physical boundaries of the tunnel must have remained “undefiled” – despite any attempts on part of the Surya Corporation to open the tunnel and build a road through it, or the Taunton desire to break free of their cage. The protesting villagers come out in numbers to protect the tunnel and Surya Corporation requests the CIPD to deploy the Baaz Squad. There is a second layer of ideological subversion: the tribals would be declared as armed Naxalites and neutralized. An agent provocateur of Surya detonates a bomb near a tense stand-off between the villagers and the Baaz Squad, for which the tribal ‘naxals’ are ultimately blamed, thereby evincing a brutal, knee-jerk CIPD counter-offensive.

                 The fighting intensifies and the state forces sanitise the area: the tribal village near the ‘Betaal mountain’ is razed to the ground. For Cohen, “the monster haunts; it does not simply bring past and present together, but destroys the boundary that demanded their twinned foreclosure” (ix-x). Construction begins but some workers are killed by an unknown entity that lies within the tunnel: the Baaz squad personnel who are asked to investigate are also attacked. The Baaz Squad suffers losses as zombie soldiers storm out of the tunnel and go on a killing spree. The survivors retreat to an old British barracks and fortify their positions until it dawns that Lt. Col. Lynedoch-cum-Betaal entity can “possess” anyone: it now controls Commandant Tyagi (whose hair has turned white) and manipulates her to do its bidding.

                 While the ghoul ingests its victims and takes their form, the betaal can possess humans or have them devoured by a zombie horde it controls. Developing on the flux of ghoul – or Ali Saeed – which was able to assume any shape and resists the state in a way that no one ever has (or can), betaal – or Lt. Col. Lynedoch – of this series can control humans. This is parallel to Cohen’s argument that “the monster is best understood as an embodiment of difference, a breaker of category, and a resistant Other known only through process and movement, never through dissection-table analysis” (Monster Theory x). The ghoul and the betaal keep changing their identities despite their malevolent beings, and this movement make them even more dangerous. The ghoul kills the suspected Islamist terrorists and the military personnel with equal indifference – and panache – and the betaal similarly wreaks havoc on the state forces and protesting tribals alike.

                 The tribals and the state forces decide to fight back together using weapons and tribal forms of knowledge. As those bitten start “turning” into zombies (such as Haq, another reference to the Islamist zombie, or the Muslim outsider who can “turn” at any moment against those it is supposed to guard), protagonists face the same ethical dilemmas which zombie narratives dictate. Ultimately, Lynedoch possesses Sirohi but the latter fights back, driven by his guilt at having killed a little girl under Tyagi’s orders. However, if the ghoul used guilt to turn people against each other, it is guilt that redeems Sirohi in Betaal. In an attempt to defeat the betaal (Sirohi wants the tunnel to be razed to the ground), the living end up destroying betaal’s prison instead, allowing its curse to plague the land. The first season ends with British ghost ships appearing off the coast of Mumbai – and zombie attacks being reported from all over the country.

                 Betaal pits a set of dialectical forces against each other: first, in terms of nationality, it projects a (colonizing) British versus (colonized) India conflict twice (once in 1857 and then the one in our immediate future with British warships preparing to attack India); secondly, in terms of rural versus urban divide as it locates the city and the village as two distinct spaces about to be connected through a tunnel/road which then becomes a source of woe since it is the centre which decides the epistemology of this connection. The third opposition is seen between the forest/village dwellers (humans) versus the military-industrial complex (machine) as represented by forces (CIPD) and the corporations (Surya). The fourth binary is mapped along the living (tribals and CIPD alike) versus the dead (zombies and those bitten). Between these paradigms, identities keep switching sides depending on which ideology controls them at that point. This, again, corresponds to how the shape-shifting ghoul/betaal reflects that “even before being a product of a device of knowledge/power, the monster is the materialization of a space of experience in which thought tests its own limits” (Nuzzo 56). Even the betaal, which possesses people in succession (and hence changes shapes), tests the limits of its own ontology – of the zombie and the revenant – and becomes a consolidation of Cohen seventh thesis, the monster stands at the threshold...of becoming (“Seven Thesis” 20). The teleological movement, however, could be one towards Adorno’s negative dialectics: genocide – of the monstrous and the human – can become the ultimate truth for the ghoul and the betaal.


The neoMONSTERS Thesis: Ghoul and Betaal  


     The vicious cycle of terror threats and kneejerk state responses, the constantly shifting identity of the monster, and the cyclical invocations in Ghoul manifest patterns of recurrence; the contiguous existence of a paranormal deity as a protector and ravisher alike in Betaal further disrupt any ideological stability. Despite (or primarily because of) the ontological underpinnings of the monsters contained therein, Ghoul and Betaal, with their dystopian settings and technologized and centralized polities, reveal what current praxis conceals – the dystopias in the present. The respective monsters – ghoul and betaal – are shaped by their ‘nature’, their ‘conduct’ and their political subversion alike: they become juridical-natural monsters (whose biological ‘nature’ harms those around), moral monsters (as their ‘conduct’ breaks social order), and political monsters (as they underscore dominant/emergent ideologies) in simultaneity – and not just as a mere progression over a time-scale.

                 The neoMONSTERS thesis scans Ghoul and Betaal for their inherent monstrousness: the monsters within these web series, when viewed alongside (resisting) ideologies that operate within specific spatiotemporal locations become sites and processes that warn and reveal. The mutating and mutagenic ontological beings of these monsters – and the narratives in which they are imbricated – exists in a liminal space between socio-political exigencies and popular imagination. Their particulars could be accessed below.





Location of the dystopia  (space-time)

India, 2040

India, Immediate Future

Civilizational origin of the Monster

Pre-Islamic Arabia (myth/folklore)

India (myth/folklore)

Procedural hybridization

Ghoul + Rakshas/Piscach

Betaal + Zombies  

Monster’s (and Monstrous) Ideology  

Islamism, Islamist Terrorism

Naxalism, neo-imperialism

Source of threat (to public order and the nation)

External (Islamist terrorism) + Internal (Indian Muslims)

External (neo-imperialism) + Internal (forest dwellers and Naxalites)

Opposing Force (to the Monster)

National Protection Squad (NPS)  

Counter Insurgency Police Department (CIPD)  

Classification of the Force


Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF)


Protagonist with torn loyalties

Lt. Nida Rahim is torn between her minority identity and her duty as an NPS officer.

Deputy Commandant Vikram Sirohi is caught between his respect for Commandant Tyagi (and her orders) and the ethos of uniform (and his morals).  


            One wonders why the primary ‘forces’ of resistance to the monster are represented by Indian military in Ghoul and by the Central Armed Police Forces or CAPFs (as opposed to local police) in Betaal. The Indian military operates under the Ministry of Defence and responds to external aggression; the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) work under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Affairs and handle internal disturbances (among other things such as border management); and the state police functions under the supervision of state governments and handle law and order (Annual Report 1). As per its organisational structure, Ghoul’s NPS is a wing of India’s military (most probably a special operations group); and in Betaal, the structure and mandate of CIPD parallels that of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which is a CAPF deployed within the Red Corridor to handle left-wing extremism. By utilizing dystopia and monstrousness, authoritarianism and horror, and military and CAPFs, the two Netflix originals may problematize contemporary reality but simultaneously end up reinforcing the stereotypes or regressive strains of national psyche they ostensibly seem to indict. For example, as evidenced by the ranks (Lt. Col., Major, Lt.) in the narrative, Ghoul’s Islamism is a matter of concern for the military (which is meant to deal with external threats) – the implicit assumption is that Islam(ism) is primarily an external threat. However, the zombies in Betaal, which fuse two distinct paradigms (foreign zombie and indigenous betaal) require a CAPF response (ranks such as Commandant and Deputy Commandant are used by CAPFs) – this renders the threats to national security from within (downgrading even neo-imperialism and military-industrial complex to an ‘internal’ matter).[9]

As I argue in Star Warriors, the trajectory of India’s fictional futures – dystopian visions included – is shaped by the behavioural patterns precipitated by the (global) market forces (e.g. neo-imperialism/MIC), localised right-wing powers predicated on a religio-cultural reassertion (e.g. Hindu nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism), and a radical, left-liberal resistance to the previous two (e.g. naxalism) (31). While both series deploy horror-and-occult tropes set within India’s totalitarian, dystopian tomorrows, Ghoul manifests the recurring intermeshing of mindless terrorism and brutal state responses, and Betaal indicts the military-industrial complex and neo-imperialism that lacerate India’s downtrodden populaces etc. The message in both the narratives is clear: we may live in a time of monsters, but more often than not, the monsters-are-us.





[1] This paper neither studies the evolutionary trajectory of the dystopia nor delves into the monster as a theoretical framework. It also does not “apply” Cohen’s seven theses or Foucault’s categorization of the monster (as per Nuzzo) to narratives. Instead, it distils the spirit that “possesses” monstrousness to observe how monsters/dystopias intermesh within India’s contemporary reality and builds on the neoMONSTERS thesis.

[2] This paper is not concerned whether Ghoul or Betaal are Science Fiction or not – it views them as dystopias that contain monsters. 

[3] See Nuzzo for more: “in the modern age, at the end of the 18th century, the juridical-natural monster is slowly substituted by the moral monster” (65). While Foucault traces the mutation of monster from one form to another with the passage of time (that is, from juridical-natural to moral etc.), this paper consciously sidesteps the evolution of the monster, undercuts the temporality of such an enterprise, and highlights how India’s monsters of 21st century conflate the three Foucauldian categories of monstrousness.

[4] The neoMONSTERS thesis emanates from the ‘IN situ Model’ of Indian SpecFic as proposed in Star Warriors of the Modern Raj.

[5] It is aware that the three dominant paradigms of Science Fiction’s (and thus SpecFic’s) future history – revolution, evolution and dispersion (Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 110) – often crossbreed, this paper treats the point of convergence of the monster/dystopia dispositif as a logical ingress point into contemporary materiality.

[6] This may refer to an external threat (such as a nuclear war) or domestic strife. It also connects the past with the future by containing shades of the emergency declared by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi under article 352, a state of authoritarian terror which lasted from 1975-77.

[7] This also explains why Nida was called to Meghdoot 31 in the first place. A captured terrorist (Ali Saeed) had whispered her name to an arresting officer.

[8] Baaz, literally hawk in Hindi, can refer to CRPF’s ‘CoBRA’ (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) units, which are special forces deployed in jungles for asymmetric warfare.

[9] This manifests a tendency to see the Muslim other as the ultimate enemy sans frontiers.









Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics, Seabury Press, 1973.

Annual Report 2016-17. Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India. URL: accessed 30/10/2019

Areeparampil, Mathew. “Displacement Due to Mining in Jharkhand”, Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 31, No. 24 (Jun. 15, 1996), 1524–1528.

Betaal. Dir. Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan, 2020.

Botting, Fred. “Monsters of the Imagination: Gothic, Science, Fiction” in David Seed (ed.).  A Companion to Science Fiction, Blackwell, 2005. pp 111126.

Cargo. Dir. Arati Kadav, 2020.

Chabria, Priya Sarukkai. Generation 14. Zubaan, 2008.

Chatterjee, Rimi. Signal Red. Creative Commons, 2011. E-Book.

Chattopadhyay, Bodhisattva. “On the Mythologerm: Kalpavigyan and the Question of Imperial Science”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3, Indian SF (November 2016), 435458.

Cohen, JJ (ed). “Preface” Monster Theory. Minnesota UP, 1996.

Cohen, JJ (ed). “Monster Culture (Seven Thesis)”, Monster Theory. Minnesota UP, 1996.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Dhar, Mainak. Zombiestan, Duckbill, 2012.

Ghoul. Dir. Patrick Graham, 2018. Netflix.

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. “‘Bleed India with a Thousand Cuts’ Policy Is in a Shambles”. Open Magazine, 13 Oct, 2016.

Hopkinson, Nalo. “Introduction.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy. Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004.

Edward, James. “Utopias and anti-utopias” in James and Mendlesohn (ed.).  The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp 219229.

Joker. Dir. Shirish Kunder, 2013.

JL50. Dir. Shailender Vyas, 2020.

Khan, Sami Ahmad.  Star Warriors of the Modern Raj: Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction. University of Wales Press, 2021.

Khan, Sami Ahmad. “The Others in India’s Other Futures”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3, Indian SF (November 2016), 479495.

Leila. Dir. Deepa Mehta, Raman and Kumar. 2019.

Lutgendorf, Philip. “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away: The Mahābhārata as Dystopian Future” in Nell Hawley, Sohini Pillai (eds.) Many Mahābhāratas, SUNY Press, 2021.

Mody, Jugal. Toke, Harper Collins, 2013 .

“Monsters”. SF Enclyopedia.

Naahar, Rohan. “Ghoul review: Netflix’s Sacred Games follow-up is even braver, scary in unexpected ways”. Hindustan Times, Aug 31, 2018

Newton. Dir. Amit Masurkar, 2017.

Nuzzo, Luciano. “Foucault and the Enigma of the Monster”. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law (2013) 26:55–72. DOI 10.1007/s11196-012-9275-8

Oskarsson, Patrik. “Mining Conflicts in Liberalising India”, Landlock: Paralyzing Dispute over Minerals on Adivasi Land in India, ANU Press, 2018. URL:

Stree. Dir. Raj and DK, 2018.