In the first episode of Betaal , a corrupt civil contractor tries to reopen an old blocked tunnel in a fictional mountain, dug initially by the British during the 1857 uprising under a brutal colonel named Lynedoch. But a small Adivasi village and its inhabitants stand in the way of the operation. “How do we get rid of these Adivasi people,” an aide of the contractor asks in Hindi. “ Yeh Adivasi nahi hai , naxal hai naxal (They are not Advasis, but Naxalites),” the boss replies, and hints that the villagers’ rebellion will be violently quelled.

This very episode begins with an extract from Lynedoch’s diary. It refers to the locals as “savages”, “rebels” and their protest as a “mutiny”. A little more than 150 years later, history seems to be repeating itself. Only the hands of the oppressor have changed.

The Netflix series of four episodes follows Sirohi, played by Vineet Kumar Singh, who is part of a counter-insurgency unit called the Baaz Squad. The team, however, is unprepared for the battle against a resurrected regiment of undead British sepoys. Directed by Patrick Graham, the man who also made Ghoul in 2018, the show falters due to a weak script and unremarkable acting. What makes Betaal stand out is its suggestive politics. The portrayal of the conflict between the State and its indigenous people comes impressively close to pushing certain boundaries. The idea that India thinks of the indigenous population no more than the British thought of natives is both intriguing and supported by history. We may openly bemoan the many territorial and environmental injustices the colonisers committed before they finally left the country, but the residual Indian State has, substantially, exacted the same on its tribal population. Betaal the series may struggle to find its footing in the horror genre, but Betaal the political document lands a blow on the proverbial chin.

According to the 2011 census, tribespeople constitute at least 8.6 per cent of India’s population. Their portrayal in mainstream cinema, often broadly and incorrectly generalised in urban discourse as Naxals, has been anything but sincere. The most popular recent cinematic incursion into the domain of India’s indigenous population was Newton (2017). The film showed conflict in the jungles of India — the inhabitants of these vast swathes of forests that neither the country nor its founding principles of democracy have come any close to claiming. To us they exist only in documents, of which they understand little. Rampant deforestation coupled with industrialisation and an uneven, half-hearted implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006) means that the ecosystems crucial to the survival and welfare of the tribes are either crumbling or under threat. From the hills of Himachal to those in Arunachal, India’s tribal population is either in diplomatic, or, in scattered cases, violent conflict with the State.

Cinema is largely an illusory medium. It makes of people what it wants. The tribal roots of real-life heroes such as boxer Mary Kom (the subject of a biopic), and Sonam Wangchuk (the inspiration for the character of Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots ) were rarely acknowledged in the films that centred on them. Furthermore, the tribespeople are often only seen through the eye of violence, be it an exercise in superficiality or one born of empathy.

In the popular patriotic film Uri: The Surgical Strike , a Naxalite attack sets up the protagonist’s heroism. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (1988) and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) are all empathetic, concerned portrayals of the Naxal conflict, but these films can hardly be regarded as mainstream. There are also national award-winning films such as Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa (1976) and Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980) that look at the structural erasure of rights and justice that, at least on paper, tribals may be entitled to. Both culminate in tragic violence and loss. Both are categorised as ‘indie’, a euphemism, perhaps, for “hasn’t been seen enough, and never will”.

The idea of violence between the State and its subjects who inhabit the wilderness isn’t recent. In fact, it goes back centuries. In her book Political Violence in Ancient India (2017),historian Upinder Singh explains that the State, read historically as various kingdoms, saw the forest in four different ways. It is considered rich in economic and military resources, a place of exile, as the site of the royal hunt, and, most problematic of all, as the home of people who pose a threat. This outlook extends as far back as mythology and is as current as yesterday. “The precarious existence of the great mammals of the forest shows that although there were changes in the technology and culture of the elite hunt, the onslaught against these animals continued with even greater intensity, in medieval, colonial and independent India,” Singh writes.

In Betaal , a State-sponsored mercenary operation that intends to violently suppress protesting voices unleashes on itself, rather poetically, the wrath of its own colonisers. This manifestation of irony comprises a thin slice of an otherwise mediocre series that has to obviously cater to the appetite of genre and entertainment. But while it fails on most creative fronts, Betaal does, maybe even unintentionally, ask a crucial question. Have we only emulated what we once fought?

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture