Film

The Irresponsible Failure of a Netflix Series on the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape Investigation

Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime uses taut cinematography to distract from its propagandistic storyline.

Shefali Shah playing Vartika Chaturvedi in Delhi Crime on Netflix (all images courtesy of Netflix)

Midway through Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime, a riot control officer with the Delhi Police makes an amusing statement in front of the junior officers assembled at India Gate. “They have a democratic right to protest,” he tells his unit, referring to the angry crowd demanding justice for the nightmarish gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern who was beaten, mutilated, and thrown off a moving bus in Delhi. The purpose of the scene is to ascertain the integrity of the force; to underline the empathy that they hold sacred. Yet, even after considering the fictional realm of the series, which revisits the Special Investigation Team’s frantic five-day manhunt for the rapists back in 2012, this particular dialogues sticks out like a sore thumb. For it reveals Delhi Crime’s central deceit: its propagandistic, one-sided wishfulness.

Seven years ago, when a sea of unsparing citizens did take to the streets to bemoan the lack of stringent anti-rape laws following the attack of the young woman, the Delhi Police employed water cannons, lobbed teargas shells, and charged crowds with lathis (heavy bamboo sticks used as weapons) to curb this very “democratic right.” In fact, it’s become almost impossible to revisit the memory of the gruesome gang rape without being accosted by the searing images of the Delhi Police beating up and manhandling peaceful protestors, including women and students, like they were stroppy cattle.

Yet Delhi Crime, which uses its taut cinematography to distract from its uneven pacing, quietly overlooks these lapses. It’s selective with its imagery: Mehta crafts these scenes to indicate that the officers were merely — and gently — retaliating in response to unwarranted attacks by the protestors. A quick online search for videos that immortalized these protests can easily corroborate the blatant inaccuracies of that scenario. Moreover, these protests — a pivotal catalyst in hurrying the investigation — are consistently trivialized in Delhi Crime; depicted as a thorn in the path of a diligent force being unjustly crucified for trying to do their job.

Still from Delhi Crime

Can Mehta’s decision to stray away from the real-life version of events then, just be chalked down to dispensing a different perspective when it errs on the side of a lie? The seven-episode Delhi Crime doesn’t make it very difficult to answer that. One of the show’s evident threads of discrepancies stands out in how its clunkily-written storyline comes across as being “adapted” even though it derives its origin from a gruesome act of gendered violence rooted in its milieu. It’s best evidenced in Delhi Crime continuously conjuring up inexact phrasing (In one scene, a teenager tells a story about a man “intercepting” her breasts”) and questionable optics (The first time the gang rape victim converses with the DCP, she is shown thanking her and expressing her pleasure at the fact that she is handling her case) that almost reduces the victim to a plot device. These scenes don’t exist merely by chance; their presence is instead revelatory of Mehta’s intent.

Delhi Crime isn’t concerned with shedding a light on the behind-the-scenes of one of India’s hotly debated manhunts in a way that strives to inform the audience’s perspective of either the incident, the perpetrators, or even the cops. Instead, the Indo-Canadian director’s gaze — that by his own admission was influenced by and based on the personal inputs by the investigating officers — thrives to invariably exalt the Delhi Police as misunderstood heroes. It implicitly suggests that their methods don’t deserve to be questioned because of the eventual success of the investigation. It is in these moments that Delhi Crime blurs the lines between hailing the force for a job well done in spite of their abysmal working conditions and becoming a perplexing love-letter to the Delhi Police.

In the initial days after the incident, one of the biggest questions that dominated public discourse was whether the gang rape could have been prevented by the Delhi Police; a concern that refused to die down even after the six perpetrators were eventually convicted. So it’s not unsurprising that Mehta designs Delhi Crime solely to put that question to rest, though it is concerning.

Mehta is selective with the facets of the case here as well: Delhi Crime neglects to address the fact that the tourist bus in which the gang rape occurred avoided immediate detection while passing through police checkpoints because it had tinted windows, even though they had been banned in Delhi. Even laughable is its contradictory version of another incident that led up to the gang rape: A few days into the investigation, it was reported that the six men had assaulted, robbed and threw a male passenger off the bus before the victim had boarded it. It was then revealed that the man had immediately confided in a couple of patrolling officers who declined to pay heed to his pleas and file an official complaint. Delhi Crime blatantly feigns ignorance about this lapse: In the show, this man is shown to have reported the assault two days after the gang rape, effectively excusing the Delhi Police from the burden of inaction.

Still from Delhi Crime

It’s this skewed point of view that Delhi Crime routinely employs while defending the police from allegations of misconduct that hampers the possibility of taking Mehta’s version as accurate. It’s also what robs the series of its novelty: Delhi Crime, like Ivan Ayr’s Soni, is one of the rare Indian police procedurals that is invested in understanding their limitations and articulating the frustrating intersection of an Indian police officer’s professional and personal demands. In fact, Delhi Crime is compelling when it highlights the irony of Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Vartika Chaturvedi (played by Shefali Shah) and her trusted aides being forced to operate under civilized rules while hunting for culprits whose crime represents the epitome of uncivilized mentality.

Yet Mehta sidelines and undermines these flourishes by primarily adopting a defensive tone. The show makes villains out of everyone but the Delhi Police. The victim’s male friend who survived the assault isn’t spared in a move that reeks of victim-shaming, and in another lazy scene, a TV reporter announces to the DCP that her editor has tasked all of them to run negative stories of the force even though she knows that the Delhi Police is “doing a good job.” Delhi Crime’s evidently biased recreation of the investigation is so scared of not diverting from the “official” narrative that it offers no new information or insights. It doesn’t even equip itself to delve any deeper into the socio-cultural context of the crime like Leslee Udwin achieved in her 2015 documentary, India’s Daughter, that comprised interviews with the defense lawyers and one of the accused in its bid to peel the layers of gender discrimination in the country.

Even then, what remains Delhi Crime’s biggest weakness is its creator squandering the chance to build on the two of the biggest pieces of the case: The mysterious circumstances of the custodial suicide of the main accused, Ram Singh who inserted a metal rod inside the victim’s private parts and pulled out her intestines after raping her. And not investigating the societal inequalities that explain the involvement of a juvenile (the accused was 17 at the time) in this barbaric gang rape. In Delhi Crime, these puzzles are done away within a single line, even though Mehta who was in possession of the official case files was in a position to dissect both these abnormalities to render a portrait of an investigation up against the impenetrable forces of systemic class oppression and institutionalized misogyny.

Delhi Crime fails foremost as a long-form reportage that demands context for keen observations. It’s also why it isn’t a worthy addition to the Netflix true crime explosion: The series isn’t imaginative enough to elevate its procedural into a cinematic and forensic artifact that introduces the audience to the psyche of the criminals and the heartbeat of a crime. Instead, it ends up as a stylish but vapid exercise in superficial recreation that strips an indelible investigation of any purpose.

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