Never mind what the title suggests. Crime Stories: India’s Detectives isn’t about private eyes but about the long arm of the law. The Netflix documentary series examines the workings of the Bengaluru City Police by following them on their investigations. From murders to kidnapping, the hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, honest and caring men and women ensure that justice is served – at least, that’s what the show badly wants us to believe.
Three of the four episodes are about murders, one of which made national headlines. The fourth revolves around the kidnapping of an infant. An array of police officers pores over the evidence from the crime scene, looks at CCTV footage, interviews suspects, and finally zeroes in on the guilty party. Except in one episode, the denouement is as neat as the uniforms on display.
The seemingly untrammelled access granted to directors N Amit and Jack Rampling and their crews reveals some smart detecting as well as soft-focus moments that seek to humanise the subjects. One officer has a child with a disability. Another plays tenderly with her daughter.
The best moment emerges at an official function, where the staffers dance wildly and somewhat awkwardly to film music. It’s a rare unguarded sequence in a series that is stodgily dutiful towards its brief and maddeningly incurious about the actual workings of the law and order machinery in one of India’s most important cities.
Half-hearted attempts are made to explain the ways in which Bengaluru’s rapidly changing social and economic landscape has contributed to crime. In an early episode, a police officer observes that misdemeanours usually takes place because of hennu (which means love in Kannada), honnu (wealth) and mannu (property).
Two of these age-old triggers are present in the first episode, which follows the investigation into the murder of a woman and an attack on her son. The victim’s daughter, a software engineer who has been unemployed for over a year and has fled home, is the prime suspect.
It’s a sad tale of repressed and unfulfilled desires. When the woman is finally caught, her self-loathing and agony appear to infect the investigators too.
The subsequent episodes, about the slayings of a career criminal and a sex worker, reveal more than is probably intended. A sub-inspector confesses to prejudice against sex workers but then changes her view when she finds out just why the woman in question died. Though the overall mandate appears to have been to show the city police in as bright a light as possible, their darker impulses seep out anyway.
The editing pattern suggests that the events are taking place in real time. This means that viewers are treated to a parade of suspects, some of whom turn out to be blameless in the end. Their faces and testimonies have been included in the series for the sake of maintaining drama and momentum. (For good measure, there’s an appropriately suspenseful background score).
No red flags are raised about the propriety of this approach, or the ethics of showing the confessions of the perpetrators on-camera. The disclaimer before each episode that everybody is innocent until proven guilty doesn’t cut it.
The police officers are on their best behaviour, but there are times when they can’t help themselves. We are being nice to you, but “the alternative will sting”, a uniformed gent tells a cowering suspect.
In the most disturbing episode, a homeless couple who have reported their daughter missing bears the brunt of khaki contempt. The impoverished father is asked when he last bathed or had a shave. When a suspect behind the abduction is brought in, he is happily belted by a policeman.
How would the officers have treated witnesses and suspects if the camera hadn’t been in the room, if Crime Stories: India’s Detectives had been independent rather than embedded? We can only guess.
The power dynamics that govern police work anywhere in India, the rampant allegations of inept investigations and custodial violence, and the various biases that colour the pursuit of criminals are left out of the picture in a series that’s more rah-rah than revelatory.