As someone whose previous exposure to Hindi programming consisted mainly of cheesy ZeeTV soaps, I have been bowled over twice now in recent months by productions of a considerably higher calibre.
First, it was the grim, fascinating cop/gangster/terrorist drama Sacred Games; and now, this seven-episode police procedural.
Delhi Crime is certainly binge-worthy, but it is also bitter and unsettling to consume, being based on the horrific 2012 gang rape in Delhi.
The incident came to be known as the Nirbhaya (Hindi for “fearless”) case, to honour its victim’s fearlessness in fighting back against her attackers and providing vital information to the authorities despite her grievous injuries.
The names of all parties involved have been altered for this dramatisation, though not the vile nature of the crime and the broad strokes of the ensuing manhunt.
Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta, the writer-director of Delhi Crime, sharply avoids the paths of sensationalism and exploitation to deliver a grounded, gritty and challenging look at the search for the rape suspects.
No pancake make-up, glamour or glitzy lighting here; the characters, even those from the so-called upper echelons of society, look as authentic as subjects in a documentary.
Delhi Crime starts with the discovery of the victim, Dipika, and her presumed boyfriend Akash after the brutal attack; veteran policewoman Deputy Commissioner Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) is soon put in charge of the case.
The police commissioner wants results from her; and when word of the crime gets out, the people demand justice.
Consequently, the politicians want blood, especially when it emerges that several missteps by junior police officers allowed the perpetrators to operate without fear of discovery.
This scenario, fraught with hazards that could demolish the case against the suspects with just one wrong step, doses every scene with a palpable tension, even the seemingly quiet and tranquil moments.
One area in which Delhi Crime appears a little less than centred, however, is in its obvious partiality towards the police, at the expense of politicians (well, no complaints from me there) and sometimes, even the public.
This apparent bias does cost the show the opportunity to explore the dangers faced by women in many parts of urban India, especially in one scene where assembled NGO representatives present a long list of such risks to the police commissioner.
Their voices are unfortunately drowned out by the also-in-attendance chief minister’s insistence that the commish falls on his sword because of the crime – either that, or serve up a senior officer (preferably Vartika) to appease the baying mob.
Still, Delhi Crime does appear earnest in highlighting the difficulties faced by the police in tracking down the suspects while trying to keep public unrest from boiling over.
Scenes where Vartika’s team of select but weary and beleaguered officers compare themselves unfavourably to their US counterparts; struggle to find suspects based solely on their nicknames and occupation; and tread cautiously in outlying regions where dealing with both the citizens and the local law is like walking through a minefield; are nothing short of fascinating.
It is also quite an eye-opener to see how India’s police escort prisoners – in stark contrast to the handcuffed perps we are so used to seeing in crime procedurals from, oh, almost any other country.
Yet it’s all in accordance with a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, and such moments in Delhi Crime encourage a fair bit of post-watch Googling.
The hardest parts of the series to take are, by their content, the inevitable accounts of the crime – which is thankfully kept off-camera. Just watching the principal perpetrator recount his actions without a shred of emotion or remorse is difficult and unsettling.
Hearing a doctor describe what was done to the victim is even harder to sit through, and both scenes could evoke strong emotional/physiological responses from the viewer.
They are just two among many highly affecting moments in this low-key but absorbing drama.
Everyone knows that the six perpetrators in the case were brought to justice; with its heart quite plainly on its sleeve, Delhi Crime chronicles just how challenging it was to get that done.
And then, it saves some shrewd observations for last, along with a strong final image that is simultaneously redemptive and dismaying.
It would be highly inappropriate to use words like “rewarding” and “satisfying” to describe a show that deals with such a heinous crime. And the experience is not exactly cathartic, either.
But Delhi Crime is not out to offer any sort of release. If anything, it is a stark reminder of how pure evil can lurk in the most ordinary setting, and how unreasoning demands for justice can come dangerously close to subverting it.
All seven episodes of Delhi Crime are available on Netflix.
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