Director: Richie Mehta
Cast: Shefali Shah, Rajesh Tailang, Rasika Dugal, Adil Hussain, Gopal Datt, Denzil Smith, Sanjay Bishnoi
Streaming On: Netflix
The moment we read about a crime in the newspapers, the terms “investigation” and “manhunt” always pop out. They sound important, official, “organized” even. You imagine a sophisticated command center, state-of-the-art technology, secret conference-room meetings and perfectly trained crack teams hunting down nervous culprits with commando-like precision. You imagine people – ruthless robots – in total control of the situation. But what you don’t imagine is just people, humans, trying to control the situation. You don’t imagine a zonal police station with a limited electricity budget doubling up as the command center for what is arguably the most important manhunt in modern history. You don’t imagine the members of a non-elite team struggling to space out their sleep patterns and meals. You don’t imagine a vegetarian officer calling up his boss to crib about meat and heat in a Naxal-infested region. You don’t imagine a traumatized DSP addressing her husband as “babes” in their daily phone calls. You don’t imagine a nervous squad forming a human chain to wade through knee-deep water because none of them can swim. You don’t…imagine.
Some might say that the term “police procedural” in the context of an Indian setting is an oxymoron. Delhi Crime takes up the unenviable task of depicting the police at a point of time in which they must rekindle their abusive relationship with the procedure. On the face of it, the seven-episode show details a female-led, five-day-long, pressure-cooker search for the six male perpetrators behind the 2012 Delhi gang rape. But beneath the token gender dynamic (the supporting vocals – a surgeon, judge, trainee and journalist – are assertively feminine) and “India’s daughter” subtext (the neglected domestic lives of the team’s three key officers revolve around daughters), this is also the story of a people having to reacquaint themselves with the rules of civilization to capture its most uncivilized deserters. It is the story of a people having to rediscover their own humanity to make sense of a historically inhuman misdeed. At every step of the team’s way, you sense that they are checking themselves, resisting the muscle memory of crass impulse methods – not for the cameras, the global media glare or the disruptive political machinery, but for themselves. For their own spirit. For some balance. You can almost sense DSP Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) and her officers pause for a minute on apprehending each suspect. Before even summoning the strength to react, you can sense them thinking: Are we these monsters’ Frankensteins? Is “due process” the only thing that separates us from them?
Which is why Delhi Crime is brave and consistently riveting for the focus it chooses. It delves deep into the five-day-long investigation and manhunt following the gang rape – that is, the task that was seemingly a mere formality for a nation seething with guilt. When I first read about the incident, the very concept of justice felt irrelevant. It was always about when they would be caught. The series commits to the ifs and the hows of a job that cannot afford the luxury of answering the whens. That the narrative operates within this futile space and fashions an engaging, time-sensitive thriller out of it is a minor victory for the Indian web ecosystem. Here is a show that takes something infamous and extensively discussed, something so repulsive that we want no memory of it, then deconstructs the infamy and manages to earn our investment by amplifying the heartbeat of a bad memory.
The craft, in this sense, is as unobtrusive as possible. Each character is designed to represent a different sociocultural dimension of the case. DSP Vartika is an upper-class, privileged lady well aware of the irony that she might have never been in charge if the victim came from a family like hers. When we first see her, she is perpetually exasperated, visibly in a battle to not just survive in – but shape – a man’s world. A wide-eyed jolt replaces her aggressive eye-rolling once the magnitude of her latest case dawns upon her. Shah, always a formidable presence on screen, delivers her finest performance yet in a role whose cacophonic fury is defined by stunned silences. Vartika’s daughter, Chandni (Yashaswini Dayama, whose sprightly gait has convinced directors to stereotype her as the bratty schoolgirl-next-door), represents the digital armchair-activist generation; she participates in protest marches but wants to study abroad because Delhi has disillusioned her. The writing, at times a bit overstated, stakes the fragile mother-daughter bond – and not just careers, reputations and overall morality – on the sole success of Vartika’s mission.
Like an editor recruiting the most necessary (as opposed to ‘best possible’) team for a specialized print edition, Vartika also surrounds herself with the attributes she is missing. She emotes rage in the vocabulary of the men, too shaken to register the linguistic connotations of these homegrown cuss words. She favours two contrasting subordinates. There is the journeyman, Bhupendra Singh (the ever-dependable Rajesh Tailang), a senior officer who she believes is the last of the righteous working-class gentlemen. His unlettered dedication serves as a reminder of why she used her education to reach the top; his street-smart loyalty keeps her faith in the fundamentals of a broken system. There is the fresh-faced academy graduate, Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal), who Vartika takes under her wing so that she, too, more than the other girls in a male-dominated field, can be thrown into the deep end without a life-vest. In another film, Bhupendra and Neeti, rustic dispositions and all, might have even combined to form a Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) to Vartika’s mentor-like Kalpana (Saloni Batra) from Ivan Ayr’s alternate-universe Delhi-cop drama, Soni. There is also the Commissioner, played by Adil Hussain, who transcends his passive presence as a man pestering his female chief for updates throughout the film. He slowly morphs into an empathetic link between the government and the ground – a la Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to Judi Dench’s M in the politically intricate James Bond movie, Skyfall.
Perhaps the most startling scene in a show full of startled people is the one where the humans confront the demon. Vartika’s face, on listening to the prime suspect remorselessly describe his actions, is a revelation of sorts. It depicts the tortured restraint of a hunter who is expected to internalize the wild blood-thirst of the hunted only to retain a domesticated outlook once the chase is over. She wants to kill him, but she cannot, despite using revenge as a basic driving force of the mission. The least she wants to do, then, is understand him. To know why he did what he did. Why use an iron rod? Why pull out her intestines? The filmmakers cannot afford her an answer, though – she occupies a black-and-white world, one where capture is success and escape is failure, and one in which she is too busy proving herself to mull over the psychology of madness. But the makers want us to know their take on this. They want us to recognize their voice in what is otherwise a rational, episodic interpretation of an irrational chapter.
And so we hear them speak through Sudhir Kumar (Gopal Datt), one of Vartika’s trusted subordinates, on a road trip to Rajasthan in search of a suspect. Like most seniors inclined to dispense unwarranted wisdom to their driver, Kumar explains how simple economics is responsible for such crimes. The gap between the rich and poor, the population, the lack of sex education, freely available porn – the man is unusually perceptive for someone in his position. When asked how he knows so much, Sudhir Kumar casually replies that the frequent drives home every month give him plenty of time to think. And introspect. And perhaps, read or write. Far more than his world-literate DSP, even. He may as well have been posting a Facebook status. It’s these drives between uneasy destinations – these tiny infusions of well-informed opinion into what is essentially dramatic long-read reportage – that make Delhi Crime one hell of a ride. And one ride of hell. One where there is little to distinguish the investigation from the manhunt. And the procedure from the police. After all, if a crime exposes the wounds of civilization, it’s the inquiry that reveals the scars of its keepers.