The question of why the Burari mass suicides continue to haunt us is rhetorical. The details evade a rational, satisfying explanation.
In 2018 in Delhi, 11 members of the Chundawat family died in a single night. Ten of the victims were found hanging, bound and gagged and in circular formation – a ghoulish image that is the stuff of nightmares.
The suicides were blamed on group psychosis. Following the death of the family patriarch, the Chundawats struggled financially for a few years until their fortunes turned. Lalit Chundawat, the youngest son, came to believe that his dead father was speaking through him. Lalit maintained a series of diaries in which he wrote in his father’s voice. The suicides were the final step in a ritual that, it was believed, would resurrect the senior Chundawat.
Unsurprisingly, the deaths have inspired two shows and, indirectly, a movie. What you make of the incident depends on your streaming service subscription.
If you have signed up to Netflix, you can watch House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, a documentary series that examines the circumstances leading up to the family’s demise. Disney+ Hotstar has Aakhri Sach, a fictionalised account of the police investigation into a set of hangings almost identical to the Burari incident.
And now Aha has premiered The Great Indian Suicide, in which a family prepares for ritualistic self-erasure. While Viplove Koneti’s Telugu-language film claims to be inspired by a double homicide that took place in Madanapalle in 2021, several elements of the screenplay are inspired by the events leading up to the Burari tragedy.
In Koneti’s film, chef Hemanth (Ram Karthik) falls hard for cookie maker Chaitra (Hebah Patel). Chaitra refuses to marry Hemanth – she is going to perish along with her family on an appointed date. It is believed that this sacrifice will bring back Chaitra’s uncle (Naresh VK), who has died in a car crash. The uncle’s spirit continues to talk to the family from the beyond – or so it seems.
Hemanth nevertheless marries Chaitra in order to prevent the deaths. A dance begins between rationality and superstition. The family proves to be deeply dysfunctional, with repressed secrets influencing the spooky goings-on as much as a belief in the occult.
The Great Indian Suicide is a thriller, with surprises all the way until the final scene. The overly long movie tries to but falls short in its examination of the one area that might explain a warped group dynamic: interpersonal relationships. The tendency to keep lobbing twists until the final frame undermines the psychological motivations of some of the characters.
At least the movie’s writer-director applies his mind in revisiting a widely reported incident. Aakhri Sach doesn’t even try to go beyond the Burari case file.
Robbie Grewal’s six-episode series borrows wholesale from the Burari deaths, down to the detail of the only surviving member of the carnage: the pet dog.
Anya (Tamannaah Bhatia) is the police officer in charge of making sense of the demise of 11 members of the Rajawat clan. Anya and her colleague Raghav (Rahul Bagga) chase various leads, including money owed to gangsters, a drug-addled fiance (Shivin Narang), and a financial dispute with a former business partner.
The investigation inevitably circles back to the possession that has consumed Bhuvan Rajawat (Abhishek Banerjee). Convinced that his dead father’s spirit is still around, Bhuvan begins to convert his family members to his deranged beliefs. Bhuvan maintains a series of diaries that help Anya arrive at the truth that anyone who has been following the actual Burari case already knows.
The writing, by Saurav Dey and Ritu Shri, depends too heavily on its inspiration to unearth any new information or insight. Like The Great Indian Suicide, Aakhri Sach too mentions the mass suicide of members of the American cult Heaven’s Gate in 1997.
If Aakhri Sach’s staging is lazy and its imagery is frequently insensitive, the performances are weak too. Bhuvan’s success in overcoming the doubts of the rest of his family is barely explored. Anya’s troubled back story and her fraught relationship with her boyfriend are contrivances meant to pad derivative material.
The show works for Disney+ Hotstar viewers who don’t also have a Netflix subscription. The most compelling exploration of a still-mystifying case remains Leena Yadav’s House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths. The three-episode series sticks to the gruesome facts, doesn’t try to psychoanalyse beyond what is possible, and wisely suggests that we may never know what went on in the Chundawat household.
Until relatives or acquaintances turn up with new information that might better explain the Chundawats’ slide into madness, we have to be satisfied with what appears to be the most logical explanation: a family collectively gripped by mania, desperately clutching at straws to make sense of its setbacks, and willingly participating in a terrible way to die.