We’re currently consuming more true crime than ever before now that investigative journalism has expanded its remit and Netflix is taking on more productions. Some of these shows aren’t dramatisations, but instead a reporting of the events (albeit argued sometimes biased), so we can now determine the outcome for ourselves.
But dramatisations have created a particular viewer base - those who are interested in the reporting of true crime events and those with an appetite for exciting entertainment. When this happens (‘Dirty John’, ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ and now ‘Delhi Crime’) we should question whether these shows devalue the crime in order to entertain or if they are influencing a genuine change.
In 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and beaten by six men on a bus in Delhi. Although this isn’t a stand alone case - sexual abuse is an issue, like in many other countries - it quickly turned into a nationwide protest against those who committed the crime. The details of what she endured from these men during the attack, is too difficult for me to write down but 13 days later, Jyoti died in hospital from her injuries.
Delhi was in shock. I spoke to actor Priyanka Bose, who starred in the play Nirbhaya - named after the alias given to Jyoti, when the press were unable to publish her name during the investigation. The play Nirbhaya was a vital performance, born from the news of the gang rape, which showcased personal testimonies from women who have endured sexual abuse. “When the gang rape happened, everything got shifted”, Bose remembers, “the carpet was pulled from under everyone’s foot. It was the catalyst for many things spoken and unspoken”. She was in Kerala at the time, with her family but watched the news unfold. “I had a breakthrough with my post traumatic stress right after her death. I remember very clearly, I broke my silence of my sexual violence as a child, to my partner. I was raped. Nirbhaya gave me that voice and now I’m free”.
It is important to note that storytelling can allow survivors to feel validation for their experiences, just like Bose did. It gave her the courage to speak up and she has since been able to deal with the trauma. But will Delhi Crime have the same effect on those who watch it?
The show itself concentrates heavily on the task force catching the six suspects who committed the rape - we touch on the lives of those involved but we’re mostly guided through stages of the investigation. Outside of this story however, the crime instigated a change in legislation, opened discussions, it birthed activist groups and the Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust - an institution created to help women who have experienced violence with shelter and advice. Some of this is missing from the story, which suggests it is essentially a detective show.
“I want it to be a different point of view that no one’s considered.”, director of Delhi Crime Richie Mehta tells me, “I researched for about four years from a combination of conversations and anything in the public domain. I want the story to show the emotional process in catching them, so I asked officers ‘when you were stuck in traffic, coming back for 5 hours, what did you talk about in the car ride?’ These conversations were really important to help unpack the whole situation.”
Mehta made a decision to approach the subject with sensitivity, but there’s a risk of applying a fabricated narrative during screenwriting for the sake of storytelling.
But if Mehta wanted that, he would have inputed controversy with the inclusion of a rape scene, which he didn’t. We start the story from the first call made to the police, after the attack and there’s no reconstructions of it throughout. “I never wanted to depict the crime in any way and even small details were never seen - that was a negotiation I had every day on the project. The act is so evil that nothing could be gained from showing it.”
The crime was real - families were affected, and it brought in voices from all around the world. Nirbhaya’s case began to spark the conversation around sexual abuse that India so desperately needed. So we discussed what happens when you fictionalise a true crime event and add elements of suspense and shock, in order to engage an audience. “The essence needs to remain. If you’re going to do a dramatisation and you’re going to fictionalise, you need to keep the essence of what the whole story represents.”
It feels like the message is still there - scenes with the Jyoti, her parents, the investigating officer played by Shefali Shah, her daughter and the junior officer add reminders of the imbalance of women’s voices that we usually see in these stories. We can’t forget that men, including the four remaining rapists’ lawyers, would routinely shame women on national TV, while protecting the acts committed by their clients. This show allows us to give the voice back to women, but the overwhelming voice is from the police force. Sure, it’s the story that Mehta wanted to tell, but some of us are questioning whether it’s the angle we needed. Are we humanising a particularly corrupt police force for any reason other than storytelling?
In the last scene, Shefali Shah is standing with her junior officer outside of India Gate, who turns to her and says she doesn’t understand why people are celebrating - the victim is going to die, there’s no hope for her. Shefali responds with, “Earlier this year in Bihar there was a girl, gang raped with a broken beer bottle. She died. The accused were immediately caught and sentenced to death. It happened very quietly, so it missed the media radar.” We watched a whole show about the Delhi gang rape in 2012, went on a rollercoaster, running around the streets of Bihar with officers chasing their suspects, to a student demonstration outside of India Gate. But this line reminds us that this isn’t it and India still has a lot of work to do in addressing sexual abuse. It’s one of the last words you hear, so you take away a completion to the show’s story but no resolution to reality.
Each episode is created to entertain, in the bleak reality of the circumstances - which can be argued is what filmmaking should do. Being challenged and questioned by a story is provocative art in its truest form. Delhi Crime is a detective show but holds the moral responsibility of maintaining Nirbhaya’s dignity and continuing a conversation about sexual abuse in India.