Within seconds of clicking on the link to Netflix’s Delhi Crime—a seven-episode series based on the gangrape of a young woman in Delhi in the winter of 2012—I hastily closed the window. I wasn’t sure if I could bear to watch a dramatic recreation of the events that unfolded on 16 December 2012—something that I struggle to keep an objective distance from. My response to ‘recreations’ of real life incidents of sexual violence usually begins as an uncomfortable ball of dread in my chest and quickly cascades into anger, fear and more anger.
Part of my reservations about cinematic reconstructions or references to actual incidents of sexual violence stems from the utter callousness with which many filmmakers deal with the subject. A case in point is Rohit Shetty’s gazillion crore something Simmba, where rape was used as a prop in the all-important plan of worshipping the man’s ‘heroism’. The film even made a dreadfully melodramatic and unsubtle reference to the injuries the 16 December victim suffered that made me want to throw up.
It took me two days to go back to watching the series, and I proceeded with trepidation. While the makers claim in the opening credits that the series was ‘inspired’ by ‘case files’, it is clear that a number of fictional liberties have been taken, presumably to add more ‘thrill’ to the story. At the heart of Delhi Crime is a familiar police-nabs-criminals story, told in a tightly-edited ‘crime thriller’ fashion. Even if I put aside my somewhat instinctive aversion for such dramatisations, Delhi Crime comes across as such an elaborate exercise to valorise the Delhi Police that it actually seems deeply insensitive.
“The only people the show humanises are the police”
The only people the show humanises are the police. All other characters—protesters, families of the culprits, victim’s kin, media, politicians and civil society—spout synthetic dialogues that help them fit perfectly into the narrative of how the Delhi Police fought a brave battle to nab the culprits and earned very little praise for it.
And here’s what the Delhi Police actually did: a job they are paid to do.
That said, everyone loves a good cop story. It’s just that, in the case of Delhi Crime, the amount of empathy showered on the police is glaringly disproportionate compared with what any non-police character gets. In places, Delhi Crime gets so desperate to give the police a clean chit that the protagonist of the show, DCP Vartika Srivastav, played by Shefali Shah, is shown brusquely telling the male survivor that since a PCR van has no amenities, the delay in the police spotting them and hence, their getting medical help, is somewhat understandable (the survivor has alleged that the police arrived late on the scene and wasted precious time arguing over jurisdiction). The fact that the police force is understaffed and not paid enough, how ill-equipped they are in comparison to countries like America comes up over and over again.
These are all valid concerns and have often been written about. However, juxtaposing these issues and a gangrape makes the former seem more like excuses.
At one point in the series, the Delhi Police Commissioner, played by Adil Hussain, accuses the Delhi HC of indulging in ‘judicial activism’. In reality, the court had taken suo motu cognisance of the case and had directed the police to file a detailed status report and explanation on how vehicles with tinted glass were still plying in the city despite a ban on them. The rape had taken place inside a bus with tinted glasses, as it made rounds of the city.
Us vs them
All the characters in the show are neatly stacked as adversaries for the police, who are shown dealing with them with dignity and minimal fuss while investigating the crime. In the process, the show ends up trivialising the massive protests that broke out in Delhi as an unnecessary hurdle in the way of the investigation. The only ‘protester’ the script engages with is Srivastav’s daughter, a character so pointlessly rude, violent and illogical that a viewer could be forgiven for mistaking the protests as the product of privileged teenagers acting out against their parents. There’s nothing that could be less true about the protests or its participants. In actuality, those spontaneous protests and the conversation they spurred changed the way gender is discussed in many spheres of Indian society. The show’s narrative, however, merely positions the protests as an annoying inconvenience that the poor policemen have to deal with.
“Those spontaneous protests and the conversation they spurred changed the way gender is discussed in many spheres of Indian society.”
The characterisation is also unfair as the protests were as much against the Delhi government as they were against the police. Some would even say it cost Sheila Dikshit another chance to occupy the Delhi CM’s chair.
The judiciary is not spared either from the villain’s role. Recreating a real-life sequence where the Delhi HC had summoned the police, the series shows a woman judge personally attacking Srivastav.
“You look like you only go to five-star hotels, have you ever gone to a crime scene?” the judge asks, strengthening Delhi Crime’s narrative about the sheer number of hurdles in front of the police.
Then, of course, it’s the turn of the media. While the excesses of a section of the country’s media are indeed inexcusable, the show suggests that all questions asked by journalists were motivated by the urge to show the police up. In one scene, a journalist confesses to the police: “I know you have been doing a fantastic job but we have been asked by the desk editor to blow up the police.”
Police: 3, everyone else: 0
In contrast, the police is shown to be empathetic, kind, hardworking and deeply perseverant. There is a constable who forgoes buying medicines for his ailing wife until the culprits are nabbed, a woman DCP who has not had the time to change out of her sweatpants or meet her daughter in days, a special task force officer suffering from a backache but still spending nights at the station, a SHO who scours all over Delhi with an infected foot and an IPS trainee who shuttles between protest duty and hospital duty without a break.
In fact, the show suggests that the strengthening of the rape laws was something suggested by the police themselves to calm the protesters down.
“The stereotyping of the other characters contrasted with the humanising of the police, creates an uncomfortable ‘us vs them’ narrative which, in the context of the gangrape, is both unnecessary and insensitive.”
The stereotyping of the other characters contrasted with the humanising of the police, creates an uncomfortable ‘us vs them’ narrative which, in the context of the gangrape, is both unnecessary and insensitive. The public outrage against the rape was not a competition sport event where we wanted to score one over the police. While parts of it may have been organised by political bodies, thousands of men and women turned up simply because the sheer violence of the event terrified and infuriated them. They also wanted the police and the government to just work to their capacity and curb these incidents. For women, who have been conditioned to normalise sexual violence when they face it, it was, once again, a reminder that their lives and bodies are hostage to forces unknown to them.
Occasionally, Srivastav is shown ranting at her force but never for issues they are accused of in real life — insensitivity, discrimination or even complacence.
The moral policing shown in a very confused scene is also hard to stomach. A police officer is shown to be outraging that the male companion of the rape victim had gotten physically intimate with her on the bus (possibly an angle introduced by the filmmakers). During an angry outburst, he blames the man’s physical overtures as having sparked the assault on the woman. In this one appalling and confusing moment, the narrative robs the victim completely of her agency and suggests that public display of affection could be a ‘trigger’, or even justification, for rape. I waited for the woman DCP’s character to present a counterpoint to this narrative, but she stoically walks away without reprimanding the male officer for his misbegotten ideas.
Centre vs the state
The show identifies former Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, under whose watch the investigation took place, as a ‘story consultant’ for the series. A representative for Netflix told HuffPost India that Kumar helped director Richie Mehta script Delhi Crime, which makes it pretty clear why the show tells the story it does.
The script makes a fairly unsubtle reference to the Delhi government wanting control over the Delhi Police (the latter is controlled by the central government). Arvind Kejriwal’s government has been locked in a bitter battle with the Modi government over this issue. In the past few years, the Delhi Police have also been accused of toeing the BJP government’s political line by arresting sloganeering students and lathicharging college-going protesters. So the timing of the release of Delhi Crime and the consequent whitewashing of the Delhi Police, weeks before the country goes to polls, is a little strange . More so because the centre-state tussle over the police was not a searing political issue during the regime of Dikshit, as both the state and central governments were led by the Congress.
In fact, the director struggles to make this thread of the ‘story’ relevant to the other parts of the plot. The series also shows the central government as being empathetic to the police and the state government as the evil force trying to come in the way of its working. This unconvincing conflict being thrust upon the narrative as a kind of political signalling on the back of a real incident of gangrape and murder is yet another factor that pulls this series down.
As if the intensity of hero worship was not enough, the makers of Delhi Crime introduces a sequence where the woman — fighting for her life in the hospital — tells the DCP that she is glad that the former is looking into her case. It’s one of those things I will forever wish I could un-see.