The Ghouls of Political Dissent: A Review of Netflix’s ‘Ghoul’

‘Ghoul’ is the second Netflix original series from India after ‘Sacred Games’. One striking similarity between the two is their trenchant critique of the current political regime that is perhaps possible because the production and patronage is not entirely tied to the Bombay film industry.

By Moumita Sen, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo

The cast of Ghoul is Indian, while the production team of comes from India, USA, and the UK. The sound and cinematography is excellent in this horror mini-series; but aficionados of the horror genre might not find the “horror element” new or groundbreaking. What is groundbreaking, however, is the political setting of the series. 

Ghoul is set in a “near future” dystopian India where minority religious communities are segregated and a regime, comparable to HBO’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, has taken over. Schools are being closed down, intellectuals witch-hunted, and books burned. Compare this to the questions the police asked one of the activists who was arrested in August: “They asked me, why are there so many books in your house? Do you read all of them? Why purchase so many books? Why do you read so many books? Why are you reading books on Mao and Marx? Why do you have books published in China?”.In addition, ‘Ghoul’ repeatedly brings up two camps- the patriots and the anti-nationals, a binary which has been place in the Indian public sphere for at least two years now, following the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The all-powerful military has the authority to detain “anti-nationals” on suspicions of terrorism in this three-part mini-series. Compare this to the suspicion of activists and intellectuals first as ‘anti-national’ and now as ‘urban naxals’ (anti-state revolutionaries operative in non-urban spaces), and one begins to see that this “near future” dystopian space of ‘Ghoul’ is uncomfortably nearby.

Watch the trailer for Ghoul:

‘Ghoul’, the English word derives from ‘ghūl’, a demonic creature with roots in pre-Islamic Persian and Arabic mythology. In the series, the ghūl is a shape-shifter, who uses one’s own guilt to make them admit to their sins, and then eats their flesh. According to some, ghūl is a dark djinn, the son of Iblis as Shaytan: mortals can trade their soul in return of a wish fulfilled by the ghūl. While the series never quite spells out the religion of the dominant group in terms of any religious symbolism or paraphernalia, markers of the minority religion that they are hunting down are constantly visible. The hijab, the books of Urdu, the presence of a Muslim priest—these become the loci of suspicion in a majoritarian nation, while the majority religion is normative and invisible because it is everywhere.

The series begins with a “good” patriotic Muslim woman, a young recruit of the military, who turns in her own father, a Muslim man and a teacher, to her bosses, on account of possession of contraband i.e. his books and lecture notes. Soon after she is transferred to Meghdut 31, a secret detention centre with a Sanskrit name, full of Muslim prisoners. When a notorious terrorist arrives in Meghdut 31, it becomes more and more apparent that he is not entirely human. As the story progresses, we see Muslim prisoners in positions of extreme precarity, who trade their souls and invoke the ghūl to take revenge on the military persons who are murdering their wives and children in front them to get them to reveal conspiracies they don’t know of, before killing them in “interrogation”. As the ghūl is unleashed, so is a nightmarish killing game where neither Hindus, nor Muslims, or Christians are spared. The ghūl kills indiscriminately.

The series effectively brings out the precarity of a marginalized community where the only agency that is left of the prisoners is their capacity to invoke a monster in lieu of their only possession, their souls. The nightmarish political reality of this “near future” India is then matched by the nightmarish horror of the monster’s insidious ways. And the precarious Muslims, at the cost of their own souls and the lives of their own, unleash the ghūl to fight the ghouls of the political order.