Richie Mehta's Delhi Crime Story, a seven-episode series exploring the investigation into the 2012 gang rape case, is only his latest project to explore the bleak side of the city. His debut feature, Amal (2007), based on his brother's short story, centered on an honest autorickshaw driver in the Capital. His next, Siddharth (2013), about a zipper repairman's search for his son, was born out of a conversation he had with another Delhi-based auto driver whose 12-year-old boy went missing the previous year.
The Indo-Canadian filmmaker, who was in Delhi when the incident made headlines, describes the atmosphere of candlelight vigils, effigies being hanged and widespread rumours as "strange and conflicting". "Everywhere you went, people were just talking about the case and trying to figure out what had happened. You were just hearing rumours. One of my cousins said, 'Yeah it happened in broad daylight on a bus.' That didn't make any sense. Everyone was just trying to piece together the information and no one knew what was true. It was just a sad environment. There was this mix of rebelliousness, but at the same time, a hardcore right-wing attitude of hanging these people. I was just trying to observe and understand it," he says. Nearly four years of research followed.
Now, Delhi Crime Story, which stars Shefali Shah, Adil Hussain, Rajesh Tailang and Rasika Dugal, will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Mehta spoke about why the show will be cathartic for audiences, how his collaborations with women gave him a fresh perspective and why he wants to take the "TV out of TV series":
What made you see the cinematic potential of this investigation?
It was understanding the situation a little more. On one hand, the Delhi police felt great pride at having solved the case because it seemed impossible. There was no description of the perpetrators, no names, nothing. On the other hand, they took a lot of flak for all the faults in policing, all the lapses in law and order.
One of my family friends in the police connected me to the cops and the principal players in the information. Everyone kept connecting me to Chhaya Sharma, who was the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) in the south district at the time. I had long conversations with her over many, many years. The reason this case was solved was because she was one of the first senior officers at the hospital where the victim was. She called her team there. She felt morally compelled by her own conscience to solve the case. It was not a politically motivated solving of a crime, it was personally motivated by someone high up in the Delhi police who heard about it and said, "No way. Not on my watch." And that's very rare. You see that in movies all the time, not in real life.
I realised that the police's process of solving this case, which was very complicated, shed light on some pertinent things. One is the issues they face daily, which make it difficult to solve cases like this. When you see their limitations, you understand they can't do this every time. It's too difficult. The system is not geared for them to succeed. In this case, all the things aligned and it worked out. In many cases, they don't have the resources, they don't have the means, they don't have the manpower. When they're called to crime scenes, they don't have the conveyance to go there. They have to take alternative modes of transportation. And I'm talking about inspectors. These are things nobody knows. So when you start to understand the basic things like that, you go, "Wait a sec, who am I blaming here? And why?" So I thought this was an interesting opportunity to, for once in the Indian media, take a compassionate look at the police. To understand that it's not the fault of the people, but of the system that is really broken and ill-conceived.
What did the research process involve?
The research involved reading the verdicts, which are 300-plus page documents detailing the investigation. It also involved speaking to every inspector, sub-inspector, assistant commissioner of police, DCP and joint commissioner of police and understanding things from all their points of view. Also reading news from the constables, head constables, constables on the ground. There was pressure on them from the top – the Ministry of Home Affairs, the chief minister. They went through the whole gamut of the government, the policing system, the legal system. Chief justices also got involved. So I had to read all these documents in addition to meeting all these cops. I wasn't recording these conversations but I was taking such detailed notes that I was basically writing a thesis.
You've said it was important for this to be a genuine collaboration with the women you were working with, as they could offer insights you couldn't have possibly had. What insights did you gain through conversations with them?
The main person that this is based on is Chhaya Sharma, DCP of the south district. It was about understanding her perspective and her response to this. She reacted to this in a way that any human being would have but I think it had to be different for a woman, which I couldn't relate to. I know from a man's point of view what kind of emotional reaction you have to a crime like this. When I first heard of this crime, outside of the gut-wrenching reaction, I thought, "What would I do if I was in this situation? If this happened to a girlfriend or a friend? Would I intervene and be killed? Or cower in the corner and be able to live with myself?" If you're walking down an alleyway and see something happening to a stranger, do you just walk away and say, "Chalo, I don't want to be killed today." Would you ignore it? These things were going through my mind because it's not something I envisioned happening to me, it was something I envisioned witnessing and deciding whether to intervene or not. Chhaya didn't say, "What would I do in this situation?" She said, "I am in this situation. And I'm a woman. And I'm in a position of authority. And I'm not going to stand for this. So what can I do? I can stop these people." So I spoke to her over many years and saw how she relishes what the law can do for women. When we got Shefali Shah to play the character inspired by Chhaya, it was a process of working with somebody to bring a character to life.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the series?
Something that was really interesting was that if you look at how this case unfolded, step-by-step, pretty much every possible reason that this crime occurred was covered by how it was solved. The police had to go to Naxal territory at one point, they had to go to the villages, they had to get the entire police infrastructure in Delhi to break down how to find this bus. Just by walking in their shoes, you could find out all the things that contributed to this crime – caste dissection, class dissection, economic disparity. So I thought that if I could show the journey of how the police tried to find these guys, I could also illustrate the factors that contributed to the crime. That is why I couldn't contain it in a one-and-a-half-hour film. It was getting too big. The details are important.
The audience will go through a kind of catharsis because they will have all the information, they need to understand why this happens, from a social standpoint, from a political standpoint. And they will come out, not only better educated, but with no easy answers. They will understand that you can't just stick the blame onto someone, there's a more productive way to channel this anger.
You've described Delhi Crime Story as a series, saying the 'TV' from 'TV series' should be dropped. What did you mean by that?
Most viewers watch on their phones or computers now. The idea of television is broadcast. You still have broadcasters showing shows on television at a scheduled time and you have to return the next week or the next day to continue it. Here, we have the concept of 'prestige shows' that are made like motion pictures. They're not made like the old TV serials that air every day for the next 20 years. No insult to them, but obviously they're creating every single day so they have to keep the monster rolling. In this case, you have projects that are very thoughtful, have the highest quality talent behind the camera and in front of it, and they're basically long films. They have that quality. The writing has to sometimes be better than the writing of films because you have to sustain interest for a longer period of time. Delhi Crime Story is the equivalent of a seven-hour film.
You've also said new streaming platforms have "shattered the veneer of gloss". Do you mean there's room for darker, gritter material now?
That's exactly what I meant. It's not just darker, that's an arbitrary term and easier to play at. When you have something glossy that to me means you can't really explore something. It's something light. You can maybe touch upon it, use it for the purpose of drama and move on. The purpose is pure entertainment. Now, we can go well beyond entertainment, really dig into a topic. My motive with Delhi Crime Story was not entertainment at all. It was to get people to see things in a different way. It's usually something that was relegated to parallel or arthouse cinema but has now entered the mainstream. You're getting platforms like Amazon and Netflix to say, "We'll get these amazing independent directors and get them to write these compelling series, taking on certain issues." They're engaging to watch, they're not inaccessible and still much deeper than what would've been in a film.