“As news people, I think we’re very kuain ke maindak (frogs in the well),” said Chandni Dabas, Business Head Originals and Special Projects at India Today. She’s been one of the chief driving forces behind India Today’s foray into true crime features. The first of these is Indian Predator: The Diary of a Serial Killer, which came out earlier this month and became one of Netflix India’s trending shows within days of its release. Now, the frog is definitely out of the well. Dabas has already finished another season of Indian Predator and she’s working on three other non-fiction projects. “I see myself as a serious content partner in actually building this genre,” she said, speaking of non-fiction features. Dabas has set high standards for these projects — “I want to be like India’s Squid Game,” she said — and holds her legacy media background as an advantage. “When we go to a streaming platform, we go saying, this is the archive we have, this is the special access we can get this story, and these are the creative partners we can work with,” she said.
Living Media, which publishes India Today and owns the TV Today network, is the first of mainstream media companies to have turned producer, with an eye to repurposing its archives to make series intended for streaming platforms. “We’ve been very involved in the execution of it because we believe we can bring the fundamentals of good journalistic values to this,” said Dabas. In theory, the archives of a long-standing publication should be full of stories that are ripe for translation into the visual medium. In practice, it’s been a learning curve, but a satisfying one. “We got paid to research and develop a story [over months],” said Dabas, while pointing to the frenetic speed at which news has to be produced for print and television media. “We got over a year and a half to put together three episodes. Can you imagine the luxury?”
The Diary of a Serial Killer is a retelling of serial killer Raja Kolander’s case. Kolander has been accused of killing 14 people and convicted of three murders, all of which he committed between 1997 and 2000. The aim was to add insight to the available information by bringing in diverse perspectives and expert analyses. In addition to conducting research and interviews, the team had to film recreations of scenes and objects that were significant to Kolander’s case. “It was very difficult to get a lot of archival stuff,” said director Dheeraj Jindal. “We couldn’t find his [Kolander’s] diary, which was found at the time [of his arrest], or his car.” The car proves to be an important detail in the jigsaw puzzle of Kolander’s motivations and the recreated diary is one of the more chilling images in the documentary.
While the production team included seasoned journalists like three-time recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award Moumita Sen, there are no journalists from India Today who appear in the documentary. (The reporters who had originally covered Kolander’s case for the magazine are no longer with the magazine.) The production team was mostly made up of people who were new to true crime. For instance, The Diary of a Serial Killer is Jindal’s first full-length work in non-fiction. He was offered a pool of stories to choose from and felt himself drawn to Kolander’s story. “It fascinated me,” he said. “I wanted to know the how and why of the crimes.”
From the very beginning, Jindal was struck by the social context of these murders. “This guy [Kolander] comes from a forest tribe,” he said. “People came [to his story] with their own prejudices.” Although he did briefly wonder whether caste politics may have led to Kolander being framed for the crimes he’s been accused of, Jindal soon dismissed this idea. His interviews with those related to either Kolander’s victims or Kolander himself convinced him that Kolander was guilty. “Some people are scared even today of Raja Kolander,” Jindal said. The fear ran so deep that a few backed out of appearing before the camera.
Some of the most interesting sections in The Diary of a Serial Killer are when the documentary delves into the socio-political context of the late Nineties and early 2000s, highlighting the social impact of politicians like Kanshi Ram and Phoolan Devi — Kolander changed his wife’s name to make her Phoolan Devi’s namesake — who become prominent members of the political establishment. The area experts who appear as talking heads include anthropologists, tribal rights activists and a clinical psychologist. “This is not a prime time debate,” Dabas said. “We were looking for the right people as experts.”
Jindal knew from early on that he wanted The Diary of a Serial Killer to offer the viewer different perspectives on Kolander, including those that were sympathetic to the convicted murderer. His initial research into the case had led him to news reports from when Kolander was arrested and they all reeked of prejudice. “I felt there was a major caste angle,” Jindal recalled, pointing out that those investigating Kolander and many of the journalists who wrote about him were all upper caste. To ensure this bias doesn’t infect The Diary of a Serial Killer, Jindal and the research team gathered information from an impressive range of sources. From the investigating officer in one of Kolander’s cases, to Kolander’s family, the family of one of his victims and even someone who had once been a fellow inmate of the serial killer’s, The Diary of a Serial Killer is packed with voices, opinions and interpretations of Kolander’s behaviour. Jindal wanted perspectives that presented the audience with a portrait of north Indian society. Crimes like Kolander’s reveal “how a society functions”, he pointed out.
Possibly because of India Today’s reputation, network and goodwill, the team also got to interview Kolander, who is currently in the prison in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. Dabas downplayed how difficult it is to score an interview like this, only saying that they put in requests through regular channels because speaking to Kolander was on her team’s wishlist. To have Kolander in the documentary is a massive coup. (Vice Media, which produced the first segment of Indian Predator, was unable to present the subject of their documentary, Chandrakant Jha.) Jindal spent almost five hours with Kolander, interviewing him in prison. “By the end of our interview with Raja Kolander, I was convinced he was innocent,” said the director, who repeatedly mentioned the confidence that Kolander radiated. It took Jindal an hour away from the convict to break out of Kolander’s spell. “When I gave myself some time, I realised that he had been fooling me,” he remembered. The Diary of a Serial Killer highlights the inconsistencies in Kolander’s claims by contrasting them with other people’s testimonies.
The Kolander that Jindal describes seems a little different from the man we see in the documentary. Maybe because he’s been edited for coherence, the convict appears confident and direct on camera, but not the compulsive talker whom Jindal described when recounting his interview. “He spoke continuously for two hours,” Jindal said. “If I hadn’t interrupted him, he could have talked for four hours, five hours, without stopping.” The director also realised how Kolander tried to dominate narratives. If he was approached by groups of prisoners, he was standoffish or refused to speak to them. However, if an individual came up to him, Kolander charmed him completely. This detail doesn’t come through in the sections of the documentary that examine Kolander’s behaviour as a convict.
Alongside the sinister sides to Kolander’s personality, there were also accounts of him helping inmates by writing up letters and submitting their legal applications and gaps in the police investigation that raised uncomfortable questions. For instance, at least two people who were allegedly killed by Kolander, were said to have been alive at the time of Kolander’s arrest. One of these two was coincidentally in the same jail where Kolander was lodged after his arrest. Jindal and the research team tried to get in touch with these two survivors and their families, but one had passed away earlier while the other was in jail. “In a non-fiction format, you’re always working on the narrative,” said the director. “There might be some people who will back out, you might need to add certain other people, and your story keeps changing with time.”
This flux makes the process of making a documentary exciting, but it often makes The Diary of a Serial Killer seem confusing. Running parallel to Kolander’s denials are the prejudiced statements by the likes of investigating officer Narayan Tripathi. “Jaat hi aisi hai Kol (that’s how the Kol tribe is),” Tripathi says at one point. How do you trust the police investigation after hearing that? While some say the claim that Kolander drank brain soup is malicious gossip, Jindal’s visual storytelling repeatedly reminds us of his cannibalism. Unreliable narrators are fascinating, but when every perspective seems to be undercut by the one that follows it, The Diary of a Serial Killer feels anchorless. How does one note the casteism in the police officer’s opinions in a way that doesn’t raise questions about how Kolander was identified as a criminal? How can one believe the social activist who rubbishes the claims of cannibalism when there’s also an expert who says cannibalism could be a part of Kolander’s “criminal self”?
In the course of three episodes, we’re shown a multitude of perspectives – only for each to be discarded or cast in doubt. Any of them could be true, but by the same token, all of them could be untrue. Ultimately, The Diary of a Serial Killer feels rudderless because it lacks what all print articles in legacy media like India Today tend to have as a starting point — a third-person narrator whom the reader (or audience) accepts as reliable and objective. The extensive research lends richness and complexity to the documentary, but they don’t help it become engaging. By the final episode, most of the threads that have been gathered over the three episodes lie unravelled, instead of coming together to create a tapestry that brings us closer to understanding Kolander’s inner life. More significantly, despite the effort made to provide perspectives upon Kolander and the prejudices that informed the charges against him, the documentary doesn’t succeed in removing the associations of cannibalism. A simple Google search of the name “Raja Kolander” will show Kolander is still being described as the man who ate his victims’ brains. In fact, instead of raising questions about those allegations, The Diary of a Serial Killer might just have established Kolander as a cannibal in popular discourse.