When Indo-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta decided to revisit the December 2012 gangrape and murder for his series Delhi Crime Story, he had two goals: to dig deep into the efforts of the Delhi Police in the case and to not be exploitative in his approach to the sensitive subject.
“I realised that there are people at the front lines who deal with these crimes all the time and are really trying their best,” Mehta told Scroll.in over the phone from Canada. “We do not give them any credit. That is the story I wanted to tell.”
On December 16, 2012, five men and one juvenile raped and assaulted a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a private bus. She succumbed to her injuries on December 29 that year. All six men were arrested within a week. Of these, the juvenile was sent to a correctional facility for three years, one allegedly committed suicide in custody, and the remaining four were sentenced to death (though they are yet to be executed).
Mehta’s series, produced by Golden Karavan and Ivanhoe Pictures, recreates the immediate aftermath of the crime and the police’s swift arrests. The series, featuring Shefali Shah as a police officer leading the investigation into the case, alongside Adil Hussain, Rasika Dugal and Rajesh Tailang, will have its world premiere at the Sundance International Film Festival (January 24-February 3). The show will be screened in the Indie Episodic category, a section for television and web series introduced last year.
Mehta was in Delhi during the crime and the resultant nationwide protests demanding better institutional mechanisms for women’s safety. “It was a strange environment because everyone was talking about this crime everyday,” he recalled. “People were trying to figure it out because it was conjecture in the first few days. As it all unfolded we got a clearer picture and saw the city descend into a certain kind of anger. People were protesting every day. To see all that is incomprehensible.”
A friend who worked for the Delhi police suggested that Mehta make a film on the subject. Though hesitant at first, he changed his mind when he met the officers on the team that arrested the perpetrators. Among them was Chhaya Sharma, who was then the Deputy Commissioner of Police (South Delhi).
“We spent months speaking to understand her point of view of the crime,” Mehta recalled. “Once I spoke to all of them, every feeling I had about the incident was turned upside down. This was a blind case as they did not know who these people were.”
Mehta’s seven-part series spans six days, covering the period between December 16 and December 21, when the final arrest was made. Mehta was particularly fascinated by how the police got cracking at a time when public anger against them was at its peak. “Chhaya was the first senior officer called to hospital [where the woman was admitted],” Mehta said. “She saw the situation the victim was in, and her conscience was awakened before anything else. This was happening when everyone in the city was thinking how dare you, Delhi Police.”
The series went on floors in January last year, before which clearances had to be taken from the police force and permission sought from the woman’s family. “Research and writing took about four years.” the filmmaker said. “The preparation was also speaking to these cops and getting to know them. They were trusting me with pieces of information that they did not trust anybody with. They were excited that someone was trying to not exploit them for a change.”
One of the promises Mehta made to the student’s parents was to not show the rape on screen. “It [the incident] would unfold as the police learnt about it,” Mehta explained. “I made many promises like that to maintain the integrity of the project. Now to make sure that I kept my promises, I had to oversee everything and everyone in the team understood it and made sure that they were on the right side of sensitivity. We were careful not to cross that line into exploitation. That was like walking a tightrope.”
Mehta, whose credits include Gillian Anderson-starrer I’ll Follow You Down (2014) and the crowd-funded Google documentary India In A Day, has also explored Delhi in his films Amal (2007) and Siddharth (2013).
The city has expanded beyond its capacity, he said. “With this series I was trying to figure out how these officers of the law hold a place together which is teeming and on the verge of overflowing with people,” Mehta said. “It is a tough city and people are hard. But when you find good people in it, it is really something worth celebrating.”
Among his upcoming films are a China-set romance and a web series. Plans are also afoot to find a platform to release Delhi Crime Story. “We will be showing the first two episodes at Sundance and the hope is to find a home for it as well,” he said.