The Netflix original series Delhi Crime cuts to the chase. Created and directed by Richie Mehta, the seven-episode series opens with the discovery of an injured couple huddled by the road in Delhi on a cold December night. They are rushed to hospital, and gruesome details are revealed. The woman tells the doctor that she was raped and a metal rod was plunged deep inside her. I think my innards are hanging out of my body, she manages to say.
The Delhi Police constable on duty is deeply moved by what he has seen and heard. His voice trembling, he puts out on a call on the wireless, setting into motion a manhunt for the rapists before they erase their traces.
Delhi Crime is a fictionalised version of the police investigation into the gang-rape of a physiotherapy intern in Delhi on December 16, 2012. The horrific nature of the crime shook Delhi and the country, renewed the debate on capital punishment for rapists and resulted in new laws being framed to deal with sexual assault.
The series is available in English and Hindi on Netflix (Laurence Bowen and Toby Bruce have been credited alongside Richie Mehta, and the Hindi dialogue is by Samyukta Chawla Shaikh). The names of all the characters have been changed.
The woman who was brutalised on a bus died of her injuries 13 days later. Her boyfriend who was with her that night survived the attack. He is named Akash in the series, and is described disparagingly by the first arrested rapist. One of the investigating officers too airs his suspicions about Akash’s character.
Akash becomes a sideshow villain, bearing some of the blame for the incident itself and its repercussions. Why didn’t Akash defend himself even though he was physically capable, the police officer wonders. This question has been asked of rape survivors too.
Delhi Crime has no shortage of villains, so the decision to make one out of Akash (Sanjay Bishnoi) is a troubling aspect of an otherwise tautly staged, superbly performed and emotionally involving narrative. Other antagonists pop up in a series devoted to the conceit that the passion of the Delhi Police drove the investigation and resulted in the arrests of five adult men and one juvenile. The public protests against the brutalisation of the rape victim and the media coverage are both regarded as needlessly provocative (how do they manage to get their placards ready this quickly, a character wonders) and sensation-mongering. The public pressure that was instrumental in getting quick results is discounted by the series as a bothersome thing, the kind that hampers police work.
One of the six rapists died in prison in mysterious circumstances. The juvenile was let off after serving a three-year sentence. The remaining four convicts remain on death row after the review petitions of three of them were rejected by the Supreme Court in 2018. The debate over the demand for capital punishment for rape, which has been rejected by several feminist organisations and civil society groups, frequently crops up in Delhi Crime.
Hang them, the victim’s mother says. Hang them, cries the lynch mob waiting outside the police station. Hang them, says the doctor with the perfect enunciation who has been attending to the victim. Hang them, demand the effigies of the rapists strung up on a tree from a protest site. The show doesn’t endorse this bloodlust, but it doesn’t do enough to quell it either.
Delhi Crime works best as a forensic recreation of the investigation. It’s a case like no other, and we have to get these bastards, says Deputy Commissioner of Police (South District) Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah). Strong-willed and not above using strong-arm tactics to get what she wants, Vartika Chaturvedi leads from the front. She puts together a crack team of police personnel to hunt down the rapists, all the while swatting away political pressure and pesky protestors. Sleepless nights and action-packed days follow, all vividly captured by Richie Mehta and cinematographer Johan Huerlin Aidt.
A sub-plot involving Chaturvedi’s daughter, Chandni, who is fleeing Delhi for a foreign university and gets involved in the protests, occupies far too much screen time, but it showcases actor Yashaswini Dayama’s talent and goes some way towards humanising the police officer.
The most compelling portions reveal the logistical challenges faced by the police and the legal and off-the-book methods they use to track down the culprits. The police station that is the hub of investigation is under-funded and frequently suffers power outages. Favours are pulled and impossible demands made on an already over-worked force. Junior officers are ordered to find needles in haystacks and drop everything to chase the culprits beyond the borders of Delhi. They do so because the victim’s plight has gutted them, the show suggests.
The reopening of the case file yields fascinating details and beautiful performances. Shefali Shah is a winning combination of velvet and steel as the woman who leads from the front, tussling with her daughter in the process. Rajesh Tailang, Anurag Arora, Adil Hussain, Jaya Bhattacharya, Gopal Datt and Vinod Sharawat are among the numerous actors who display the same dedication to their craft as did their fictionalised selves to the investigation.
Rasika Dugal has a sub-plot of her own that works better than Chandni’s anxiety about public safety and the reputation of the Delhi Police. An Indian Police Service trainee, Dugal’s Neeti provides an empathetic core as she struggles with her feelings about the rapists and tries to put on a professional front despite the connection she forges with the rape victim.
However, the forensics format doesn’t allow for an understanding of why the rapists did what they did. Gopal Dutt’s character does try, but his musings prove to be facile. The Delhi rape has already inspired Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter (2015), which featured an interview with one of the rapists, and Deepa Mehta’s dramatisation Anatomy of Violence (2016). Mehta dared, through the prism of fiction, to explore the background of the rapists and suggest that they had been so brutalised by the time they got onto that bus that whatever followed was as sadly predictable as it was horrific.
Delhi Crime cannot reach this level of wisdom, and works best when it sticks to trying to redress the horror of what happened that December night. “She was crying, but her voice reached nobody,” Akash says. The series suggests that somebody was listening, and that somebody, for once, was the Delhi Police.