Ghoul: Challenging the Category of the ‘Nationalist Muslim’

The Netflix web series Ghoul provides an alternative to the stereotypical representation of the Muslim figure in Hindi cinema through its central protagonist and her dilemmas. 

Ghoul is an Indian web series which was directed by Patrick Graham and set in a dystopian future. The series begins with an ominous sign that says, “Terrorists are among us. Be vigilant.” Then we are introduced to the main protagonist, Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) along with her father Shahnawaz Rahim (S.M. Zaheer) who are travelling in a car. Nida’s hijab tells us that she is Muslim. Following the symbology of popular Hindi cinema, this warns the audience about their loyalty. 
But contrary to what the initial scenes suggest, the miniseries is a refreshing intervention in the current discourse around ‘anti-nationalism’. The series  confronts this discourse in the first few minutes itself, as the characters mention loaded terms like desh-droh and wapasi in their conversation. Shahnawaz is angry about the way ‘his’ people are being treated: innocents are being picked up in the name of wapasi. Nida, however, is suspicious of what her father is saying. She does not believe that people who are picked up are innocent, and tells her father that their community has always been taught wrong things. “The government wants our well-being,” she says. Their conversation suggests that the two characters fit into the good Muslim–bad Muslim binary we have seen before in Hindi cinema. Nida is the ideal ‘nationalist Muslim’ while the father Shahnawaz is the traitor. Nida, in fact, is enrolled in the advanced interrogation department at the police academy, which is where they are headed to in this sequence, even as her father is carrying “seditious” books and notes in the backseat.

As the series proceeds, it upturns many of the stereotypes that represent the Muslim figure in popular Hindi cinema, including the good and bad Muslim binary. In doing so, Ghoul, like the recently released films Raazi and Mulk, is a timely intervention in the current discourse on “anti-nationalism”, as it examines the dangers of such a discourse. 

The Muslim Stereotype in Hindi Cinema

The relevance of this intervention is evident when we place it in the context of popular Hindi cinema. Scholars have written about the representation of the Muslim figure in a stereotypical manner as the terrorist figure. In an essay on the 1992 film Roja, Tejaswini Niranjana (1994) writes that even though the hegemonic definition of the nation does not overtly manifest itself as Hindu, the “claiming of the nation by the new middle class and the series of exclusions (of Dalits, of Muslims) it produces as natural, feeds into the agenda of the forces of Hindutva.” Sanjeev Kumar (2003) also argues that since the 1990s, popular Hindi cinema has worked to "validate the hegemonic designs embedded in Hindutva majoritarianism". One of the ways it does this is by portraying the Muslim figure in a pejorative and stereotypical manner as alien and distinct from the “secular, modern and progressive Hindus.” 

Niranjana and Kumar are focusing on the Muslim figure as a terrorist. Niranjana writes that the Kashmiri militants in Roja “always appear in clothes marked as ethnically Muslim; their ethnicity reveals them as 'anti-modern,' intolerant and fundamentalist. On the other hand, Hindus, as displayed by the chief protagonists is merely a part of the complexity of being Indian.”

In this article, however, I am interested in the other side of this formulation: the figure of the Muslim as a patriotic and loyal citizen, which, while not a pejorative representation, contributes to the construction of the good Muslim–bad Muslim binary. It is a representation of what Gyanendra Pandey (1998) has called the ‘Nationalist Muslim’ category, which he traces as a legacy of partition. This category has no equivalent among the Hindus or even other religious groups in India. It rests on the premise that the Muslim figure’s nationalism is suspect, which is why it needs to be spelt out and articulated in so many words. It is in the context of the "Nationalist Muslim" that Ghoul is relevant, because it traces Nida Raheem’s transformation from a “Nationalist Muslim” to a character who realises the dangers inherent in that kind of blind loyalty. In this way, Nida’s character is a critique, and an alternative to Hindi cinema’s “Nationalist Muslim” figure, for, as the show tells us, it is a burden she need not carry. The recently released Hindi film Raazi showed a similar journey for its main character Sehmat. 

In Ghoul, Nida is caught between what her father wants to teach her, and the rules that the government and the nation state train in her. Significantly, the series makes it a point to tell us that her father’s only crime is that he wants people to question and think on their own. However, brainwashed by the state, Nida suspects him of being disloyal. This is how the state has trained her for at the academy: they are told that terrorists are not outside but within. 

In the car sequence at the beginning, Nida realises that in her case, the enemy could possibly be her father. She decides to report him to the academy so that they can begin the process of making him an ‘adarsh nagrik’ (ideal citizen). The series charts her eventual rejection of this logic as she realises the violence at the heart of the state’s ideology. 

The Hyphenated Citizen

After having reported her father, Nida is summoned to the Meghdoot 31 detention centre where she is told that a dreaded terrorist, Ali Saeed, is going to be interrogated. Nida is to be a part of his interrogation team. At the centre, however, it is gradually revealed that the real reason she has been called there is something else. Saeed, on being caught, had taken Nida’s name. Because of this, Nida was suspected of collaborating with terrorists, since the loyalty of a Muslim citizen is always fragile. This is why the suspicious Major Das at the detention centre asks Nida if her religion will be a problem when she interrogates the inmates who are also Muslim. Nida’s nationalism—never mind her unwavering loyalty—is always suspect, for she belongs to what Pandey has called the category of the “hyphenated citizen”: the Indian Muslim (1998). 

The hyphenated citizen, Pandey writes, “might be allowed to be part of the nation but “never quite” (1998). Nations are constructed by establishing boundaries; and by constructing a core or mainstream in relation to which minorities are defined. This is an ongoing process where the boundaries are nebulous, which is why those who do not inhabit the core, and who constantly live “under the sign of a question mark,” have to bear the burden of proof of genuine belonging. (1998). The ‘nationalist Muslim’ category is one way of providing proof and variants of the category can be found reflected in many of the films of Hindi cinema. Even in a film like Chak De India (2007), where the protagonist Kabir Khan is a victim of this process, Khan is shown labouring to prove himself loyal. The entire premise of the plot, despite questioning the need for constant proof, constructs Khan as an example of the nationalist Muslim who takes pains to prove his loyalty. Set in a different context, Ghoul questions the dangers of that kind of labour, and that category itself. The series seems to ask: when nationalism is so dangerously defined, where can following it uncritically lead us?  Nida is a topper in her course, and even passes the ultimate test of loyalty by turning against her own father. Despite this, in the detention centre, she has to constantly prove her heartlessness to the inmates to demonstrate her trustworthiness. 

The Supernatural as Device of Narrative Transformation

While the show has such realist concerns, it uses the horror genre to make its point, by invoking the Arab folklore of the ghoul (djinn). The figure of the ghoul moves the plot by thriving on people’s guilt, working on the principle of ‘reveal their guilt, eat their flesh’. Shahnawaz had invoked the ghoul to deal with the injustice meted out to him, and to make his daughter understand her mistake. This ghoul takes the form of the terrorist Ali Saeed who has been brought to the detention centre. As the ghoul unleashes its wrath, the excesses of the state’s foot soldiers are revealed. The 11 officers of the centre live in a dark building with no natural light, originally built as a bunker in case of a nuclear attack. Each of them displays twisted characteristics and live by the rule that empathy is a sign of weakness. In fact, the head of the centre, Colonel Sunil Dacunha (Manav Kaul) tells Nida this when she arrives. Despite being on the same side, none of them trust each other, and when struck by crisis, they turn on each other. Their no-empathy worldview has made them monsters of their own kind.

Dacunha, a decorated war hero otherwise, is an alcoholic struggling with a strained relationship with his wife and children. Two of the officers, Choudhury and Gupta have murdered an innocent prisoner’s wife and child right in front of him to get him to confess. As a consequence, they are both wrestling with guilt. At one point, as the ghoul gets to work, they get into a scuffle, and one officer ends up murdering the other. As Dacunha tries to boost the morale of the dying officer by reminding him that he is a brave soldier, the latter makes the chilling statement that they all have blood on their hands. 

Through these actions, the ghoul reveals the brutality of the state and those that blindly follow its ideology. This helps Nida realise the error of her faith in the state, thereby inverting the “nationalist Muslim” narrative that the show began with. 

Finding Justice

As the series concludes, Nida realises her father had been killed at the same detention centre because of her mistake. She thought reporting her father was her responsibility, as a nationalist citizen, but it led to his death, though he was innocent. She realises that her father was right to be questioning her blind loyalty in the name of patriotism. Acting on this realisation, Nida frees herself of the burden of being the “nationalist Muslim.”  The privilege that has been historically reserved for male Hindu protagonists on-screen, of their individual struggles being projected as those of all who occupy the nation, is subverted here because it is a Muslim woman’s with struggle which we are asked to empathise with.

In this context, the use of the horror genre helps emphasise the point that legal systems are inherently unjust. As we move to the conclusion, Nida is unable to provide any proof of her innocence, or of the corruption of the state’s unit which will be considered legitimate by the state. In a telling conversation with the government officials who interrogate her, she is told that the unit was in fact only following state policy and she is the one who is at fault. This moment is a chilling comment on the present political system— when reality itself is unjust, how can you expect to find justice? Ghoul’s answer is to take recourse to the supernatural.

In this regard, a sequence towards the end is important. On escaping from the Meghdoot centre, Nida faces a dilemma regarding Dacunha. Is he the real Colonel Dacunha, or is he yet another victim of the ghoul, which takes the form of the last person it feeds on? If he is the ghoul, he is dangerous and needs to be stopped. Her dilemma is inter cut with a flashback of the last interaction she had with her father in the interrogation room before he was taken away. He had reached out to her but she had turned away from him. Nida remembers that interaction and shoots Dacunha dead. Before doing so, she tells him, “You are a monster”. This could be an act of revenge because she knows now that Dacunha had been responsible for her father’s death at the detention centre. However, the interaction between them right before this, points towards a different reading. Before being shot, Dacunha tells her proudly that he is a loyal soldier. Nida’s act could then show that she finally realised her father's warning—“deshbhakti ke naam pe pagalpan”—madness in the name of patriotism. This latter reading is subversive because it means that she kills him not because he may be the ghoul, but because he is "a loyal soldier ready to do anything for his country." 

In Ghoul’s dark dystopian universe, there is nothing that can be more dangerous than that. In recognising this in strict, unambiguous terms, it offers us a timely comment on the everyday reality of present-day India. And by acting on this realisation, Nida frees herself from the burdens of the nationalist Muslim category.

Back to Top