If Netflix can, why can’t Prime Video? Dancing on the Grave is a true crime documentary series that revisits a sensational case to see if any new truths can be discovered.
Over four episodes, director Patrick Graham (Ghoul, Betaal) attempts to dig up fresh dirt on the murder of 47-year-old Shakereh Khaleeli three decades ago. Khaleeli’s second husband, Shradhananda, was convicted of burying her alive in the grounds of the vast property she owned in Bengaluru’s Richmond Town.
The neighbourhood is also known as Sir Mirza Ismail Nagara – a tribute to Khaleeli’s illustrious grandfather. Reactions to Khaleeli’s disappearance in 1991 (which Shradhananda concealed) and the discovery of her body only three years later were amplified by her links to Bengaluru aristocracy.
Through photographs, interviews and archival footage, the show details Khaleeli’s background, her troubled first marriage (to the diplomat Akbar Khaleeli) and her remarriage. Renowned for her beauty and poise, Shakereh Khaleeli surprised many and upset her clan by marrying the unprepossessing Shradhananda, her family members reveal.
Was Shradhananda, as the police argued, a gold-digger who manipulated Khaleeli, waited for an opportunity and then took it when he could? The life sentence handed out to Shradhananda, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, is based on his own confession to the police. He later declared that he was innocent and had made the confession after being tortured.
In the convention of true crime shows, Dancing on the Grave jumbles up the sequence of events through gimmicky editing, holds back facts for dramatic effects, and pursues the both-sides-of-the-story angle for much of its runtime. We also meet Shradhananda in a prison in Madhya Pradesh.
By the fourth episode, we are meant to reach some kind of a decision. Is Shradhananda guilty or not? Or is he a victim of a media trial?
For either scenario to play out, the makers needed to have relied on more than just a bunch of people sitting around and going over the police chargesheet and the court petitions. Shradhananda makes a few wild claims about his dead wife and the circumstances in which she died. If these claims were independently verified, there is no evidence of it.
The show’s title derives from news reports that Shradhananda, after burying his wife, had the area plastered over and then held parties there. There are photographs to this effect, showing revellers standing unknowingly over Khaleeli’s remains.
Did the makers confront Shradhananda about this ghoulishness? Doesn’t look like it. Instead, Graham plays the convict a clip of Khaleeli’s voice, after which he tears up.
None of Khaleeli’s daughters participated in the rigour-free documentary (understandably). A psychologist brought in to analyse Shradhananda’s interview is as confused as the creators, saying that he is fixated on his innocence one minute and that he could indeed be innocent the next.
We are left to draw our own conclusions from the interview with Shradhananda, who is filmed in unnerving close-ups, and make what we will of a drone camera shot of the crime scene seen through the clouds, as though Shakereh Khaleeli is watching this danse macabre performed in her name.