Delhi Crime is inspired by police reports of the brutal gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, popularly known as Nirbhaya (fearless). The seven-episode-long first season of Netflix India’s latest crime series makes for an intense, difficult but ultimately worthwhile watch. Even though the rape is never depicted – instead, the camera shows an aerial view of Delhi as its people go about their daily routines, making the city look peaceful from a comfortable distance – the gruesome incident is described in such painstaking detail that it forces viewers into making uneasy connections between what they are seeing and what is not being shown to them.
The details of the case are well-known: Jyoti was repeatedly assaulted by six men inside a moving bus on a well-lit road in 2012, leading to mass protests and resulting in the promulgation of stricter rape laws. Some people, therefore, may ask: why relive the tragedy now that it has already attained closure? What could be gained from retelling the victim’s suffering when she is not around?
But Delhi Crime is less about Jyoti – though she remains at the heart of it all – and more about the efforts made to catch her rapists. It specifically focuses on an investigation team, led by Deputy Commissioner of Police Vartika Chaturvedi (Shah). After the case comes to her notice, she vows to capture the culprits, come what may. For the next few days, it seems as if the entire balance of the world is resting on her shoulders.
The story begins on the cold winter night of December 16, 2012 when police officials find Deepika and Akash – modelled on Jyoti and her friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, and played by Singh and Sanjay Bishnoi – lying in a ditch on the side of a main road. Head Constable Ram Pratap (Khan) covers them with white bed sheets taken from a nearby hotel and enquires as to what took place. As the two are loaded in the back of a police van, amid the rumbling of highway traffic, we hear faint whimpers from Deepika: “They did terrible things to me,” she says in a low hoarse voice, curled on the floor with her face turned away from the camera. “Please don’t tell my father.”
The next scene is a flashback from 12 hours earlier: Ram Pratap wakes up like he does every morning and goes through the mundane rituals of brushing his teeth and making lukewarm attempts at conversation with his wife at the breakfast table. He has been in the service for 34 years – longer than anyone else in the series – but seems to be struggling. A minor character in the big picture, he gives us an insight into the lives of low-level policemen: overworked, underpaid, undervalued. Their rundown police stations suffer from electricity shortages and budget constraints; they get stuck in traffic like everyone else; they travel to work by bus; and they get bullied by their bosses.
It is through Ram Pratap that the director seamlessly introduces us to the other major – and also memorable – characters in the first episode. We, for instance, see Station House Officer Vinod Tiwari (played by Vinod Sharawat) interviewing a wide-eyed newcomer from Chandigarh who is eager to experience the excitement and independence of working in a big city. Another scene shows Ram Pratap accidentally walking into a police encounter of a terrorist, overseen by Chaturvedi from her dinner table and conducted by her most trusted colleague, Inspector Bhupendra Singh (Tailang).
The series unfolds like an engrossing crime thriller. New information is brought to light at every turn of the plot as the audience gets an inside look into how various pillars of the state and the society – law enforcers, politicians, judiciary, media and ultimately the public – act and interact in times of tragedy. We, indeed, get a glimpse into how ‘the system’ works – or doesn’t work – in a South Asian context. Rules are bent, favours are sought and given, and not everything goes by the book.
The story is told from the perspective of the police so it is sympathetic towards them. It rationalises their incompetence and negligence as honest mistakes resulting from structural issues. But where the cops are shown as well-meaning though misunderstood, the news media is portrayed in an entirely negative light — like vultures and parasites feeding off human misery. There is a question mark on the conduct of the society at large as well, as people, when whipped into frenzy, are shown to be exhibiting the signs of the same bloodlust, rage, and mob mentality that the perpetrators of the gang rape possessed.
At one point, a bemused Bhupendra Singh asks: “They’re angry, but what do they actually want?” The star of the show is, of course, Shah. With her emotive eyes and controlled body language, she slips into all the different roles her character demands with an ease that is captivating to watch: the no-nonsense cop; the workaholic boss with a different relationship with each of her subordinates; and the overprotective mother shielding her daughter from the big bad world she deals with each day.
Some viewers might have expected Delhi Crime to be another Sacred Games which covers historical events that take place in the backdrop of a world of gods and demons in Mumbai. But where Sacred Games is glamorous, larger than life and philosophical – Mumbai being the centre of money and entertainment, a place that sells dreams – Delhi Crime is more of a mundane walk through the corridors of power in India’s capital. The suspense in the series is largely built in small moments and much of it takes place inside the confines of the police station. Exhausted police officers with dark circles under their eyes survive on a mixture of bad coffee, adrenalin, hope and the fear of losing their jobs. There is no time for glamour or philosophy in this world.
Perhaps Delhi Crime has resonated with audiences largely because it does something few Indian television productions do: it depicts reality as it is, with all its nuances and ugliness. The smog-coated winter afternoons. The cacophony of traffic. The stray dogs. The class inequalities. The subtle forms of misogyny women face in their daily lives along with the more obvious, violent ones. For most of us in South Asia, this is a highly familiar world.
The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald's May 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.