“I have never seen anything like this before.” The phrase without which no true crime documentary is complete duly makes it to a fiction series inspired by one of the most disturbing cases in recent memory.

A police officer has walked into a house in Delhi where members of a family are hanging from the ceiling in a circular formation. Their hands are tied behind their backs. Their mouths are gagged. There are remnants of a ritual that has been performed.

All the investigators are shocked – except Gadar Singh (Manav Vij). Gadar is unperturbed by the arrangement of the bodies. Perhaps it’s the liquor in him? Not even a man hanging upside down from a tree startles Gadar. Perhaps he hasn’t reached the point in the script yet where he has to act out.

There will be other occasions for Gadar to lose his nerve. Gaanth Chapter 1: Jamnaa Paar borrows heavily from the Burari mass suicides in Delhi in 2018, which claimed 11 members of the Chundawat clan.

However, the JioCinema series directed by Kanishk Varma seeks to put a this-wordly spin on the otherworldly deaths. The screenplay, by Anagh Mukherjee, Fahim Irshad and series creator Soham Bhattacharya, wants to be more than a re-tread of an incident so unnerving that it has been revisited over and over again.

We already have the documentary House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths (2021), the web series Aakhri Sach (2023) and the Telugu movie The Great Indian Suicide (2023). In Gaanth, the mysterious deaths of the Chandel family is the starting point for speculations about other types of sorcery, some of them equally, if not more, perverse. Pulpy, grisly and engrossing after a shaky start, the handsomely produced show imagines Delhi as a place where violence is so brutal that it necessitates an irrational explanation.

Manav Vij and Monika Panwar in Gaanth Chapter 1: Jamnaa Paar (2024). Courtesy Tipping Point/Click on RM Production/Jio Cinema.

The events are steered by two shambolic souls. Gadar is handed the investigation despite drinking on the job and lashing out physically as well as verbally. Psychiatry intern Sakshi Murmu (Monika Panwar) has gained admission through a reserved seat and is never allowed to forget it by her bigoted colleagues.

Sakshi compensates for doubts about her skills by displaying “savant syndrome” – the ability to discern patterns in random acts. A surviving member of the Chandel family, the boy Kushagra (Arist Jain), expresses himself through drawings whose meanings only Sakshi can see.

Elsewhere, Gadar and his team members Satyawati (Saloni Batra), Yashwant (Shravan Borana) and Jeevan (Sidharth Bhardwaj) race against pressure that is being piled on by muckraking journalist Sunny (Ajit Singh Pehlawat). Gadar’s rush to reach a conclusion runs on a parallel track with Sakshi’s tinkering until they intersect.

The eight-episode show is ambitious in its imagination – a bit too much at times. Overplotting results in overkill, but deft staging and increasingly creepy plotting steady the twist-heavy story.

The presence of rooms within rooms in the Chandel household and long corridors act as visual metaphors for the narrative layers. Just like initially broad performances sharpen into compelling turns, the show gains strength as it reveals its true line of inquiry.

Saloni Batra in Gaanth Chapter 1: Jamnaa Paar (2024). Courtesy Tipping Point/Click on RM Production/Jio Cinema.

Manav Vij’s Gadar Singh initially indelicately thrashes about like Tara Singh from the Gadar movies. Sorely lacking levity or even basic compassion, Gadar blossoms into a compelling anti-hero, just as Sakshi evolves from perennially fraught genius into a doughty survivor of deep-seated prejudice.

Saloni Batra as Gadar’s quietly efficient deputy, Shravan Borana as Gadar’s conflicted teammate, and Ajit Singh Pehlawat as the needling reporter leave a mark too. The cast includes Rajesh Tailang as a smug Central Bureau of Investigation officer and Gopal Datt as a rapacious television anchor.

The cliffhanger finale moves away from hocus-pocus towards a more recognisable form of historical trauma. Gaanth reaches this point neither elegantly nor smoothly but always with boldness and curiosity.

Gaanth Chapter 1: Jamnaa Paar (2024).