Delhi Crime 2 Is Older, Wiser and More Alive to The World It Inhabits

Season 2 of the web series is now available on Netflix
Delhi Crime 2 Is Older, Wiser and More Alive to The World It Inhabits

Director: Tanuj Chopra
Writers: Mayank Tewari, Shubra Swarup, Vidit Tripathi, Enzia Mirza
Cast: Shefali Shah, Rajesh Tailang, Rasika Dugal, Adil Hussain, Gopal Dutt, Sidharth Bhardwaj, Denzil Smith, Yashaswini Dayama, and Tillotama Shome.

I've been more than a little sceptical going into the second season of Delhi Crime. The first season, released in 2019, was some of the most powerful television to emerge from India in years. But the criticism levelled at the series was rooted in its cultural position. Some viewed the gritty police procedural as a glorified image-restoring exercise. The three years since have only swelled this impression. On one hand, there's the true-crime fatigue perpetuated by a slew of similarly themed Netflix documentaries. On the other, there are the optics of a Delhi cop drama in an age of rising police brutality and state-sponsored violence. 

Delhi Crime 2 opens with full awareness of this discourse. We hear the voiceover of protagonist DCP Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) over Gotham-like visuals of the city. It sounds defensive, like it's reacting to an accusation: "It's hard to control a city like this with an understaffed force; we can't police the lifestyles of the wealthy and the aspirations of the less privileged". Subsequent scenes further this tone. A casual chat between Vartika and her husband features snippets such as "20 percent rise in crime rate", "138 policemen per lakh people", "not enough government funds", and "intent is right". We see an inspector instructing the tech guy to put the Delhi Police slogan ("With you, for you, always") on their social media page, albeit as a wry response to the trolling they receive. This clunky exposition can be read as the Delhi Crime characters internalising the stress of integrity in a crooked system; maybe their mind is just trained to rationalise their identity before expressing it. But it's more likely that the series itself is insecure, and therefore resorts to addressing the audience in disclaimer-like language. 

Fortunately, this lasts for a mere 15 minutes. The nerves vanish the moment Delhi Crime 2 stops talking and starts walking. Vartika and her team are alerted to the brutal murder of four senior citizens in a gated Greater Kailash (GK) neighbourhood. The case begins. More killings occur across upper-class South Delhi areas. A familiar pattern – victims are bludgeoned to death with hammers – hints at the return of a notorious gang. The targeting of the wealthy prompts pressure from 'above' on Vartika. Over the course of five exquisitely-crafted episodes, the series manages to frame crime as the grammar of national conscience. It suggests that a criminal investigation exposes the narrative of a country at any point of time – the policing, prejudice, politics and processions. Delhi Police becomes the perfect medium for a show that seems more interested in reflecting images rather than restoring them.

The choice of story alone reveals a lot. Much like the first season, Delhi Crime 2 is based on a chapter from the book Khaki Files: Inside Stories of Police Missions by Neeraj Kumar, a former Commissioner of Delhi Police. The chapter, titled Moon-gazer, features the terror spread by a local 'Kachcha Baniyan' gang and the detailed manhunt that follows. Characterised by their sparse attire during attacks – undergarments and masks – the Kachcha Baniyan gang is composed of DNT (denotified tribe) members attuned to a life of crime. But it's the show's clever fictionalisation of this story that speaks to the India of today. Given the criticism of Season 1, the writers seem to understand that sticking to the facts of Moon-gazer – where criminals from a marginalised community are captured by North Indian law enforcement officers – might not be the brightest idea in 2022. It might only reinforce the negative stereotypes of both sides. So the context is calibrated. The series adopts a more nuanced approach, striving to show its intent and not just tell (like in the first 15 minutes). 

For three episodes, Delhi Crime 2 uses every trick in the book to amplify the unfair world we think it occupies. Vartika notices that something is amiss at the crime scenes – it's as if the killers want to flaunt the evidence. Yet, she suppresses her instincts to pursue the Kachcha-Baniyan narrative. A celebrity lawyer enters the fray. He's the sort of character who isn't usually presented in a good light; his desire to represent the DNTs looks like a publicity stunt. A retired cop named Chaddha is brought into the team as a "tribal crime specialist"; his first order of action is to round up a group of DNTs from Shahdara and detain them in cruel conditions. Chaddha is a total bigot, but Vartika reluctantly gives him authority: He is problematic but effective. Two suspicious-looking youngsters from the tribe are tied to the GK murders; they even escape custody, an act that's interpreted as an admission of guilt. But all of this happens for a reason. It's in the final two episodes that the series shifts its lens, not only unmasking our notions but also extracting its own gaze from the clutches of due process.

This smokescreen serves multiple purposes. At one level, it teases out the British-era biases of a country that pretends to have cultivated its own. Even the cops – who are otherwise trained to follow facts – are swayed by the easy plausibility of caste rage. The lawyer turns out to be a voice of reason: Calling them out on their prejudices, questioning Vartika's methods, citing her institution's track record of scapegoating the marginalised. This humanises the police protagonists who, crippled by self-doubt, are almost too late to realise that heroism is the agency to succeed and the courage to fail at once. There are times when Vartika silently watches the protests at the gate and the outrage on news channels. She knows they're right because, on the face of it, she is doing exactly what her 'kind' is known to do: A trial by error. At another level, the smokescreen mirrors our conflicted relationship with modern-day procedurals. The cops generalising the tribe ties into an average viewer's cynicism of all things police. Just as the police learn that not all tribe members are criminals, we are expected to learn that not all cops – and cop stories – are corrupt. Most shows might have included a Muslim officer to enable the all-Hindu team's awakening. By resisting this crutch, this one takes the more pragmatic route to empathy and self-reckoning.

Most of all, the show's deviation from its source material democratises the vocabulary of oppression. The hostility against DNTs, for instance, becomes a narrative surrogate for the more covert culture of gender discrimination: Women are often treated as a minority without being explicitly labeled as one. This is the driving force behind the show's pivot, evident in the way the case wheels into the world of beauty parlours, jewellery and abandoned families. At one point, Vartika's male subordinate rejects the possibility of a female criminal, sincerely stating that "no mother can leave their child and go". Vartika, whose own daughter is a million miles away from both mother and motherland, can only shrug. She recognises the irony of the term "manhunt" just as she apprehends the irony of shielding a culture she herself doesn't trust. The only other female officer in her team, Neeti (Rasika Dugal), looks less than surprised. She knows that breaking the law – much like upholding it – is perceived to be a man's job. She is married to a soldier whose masculinity is threatened by her IPS career. In his head, protection is his birthright alone: He defends the nation, while she simply organises a city. 

The wintery physicality of Delhi Crime 2 is very much in sync with what it says. It's shot almost entirely bereft of sunlight. What this nordic-style tone does is create the illusion of isolation. It dilutes a typically urban density, which in turn allows the camera to lurk in spaces rather than weave through them. It also legitimises the race against time, making the days seem shorter than the nights, thereby raising the stakes for criminals who lose the luxury of hiding in plain sight. The editing expertly conveys the rhythm of a chase without increasing its tempo. There is a sense of authenticity about the sleuthing, one that is never at odds with the narrative's sense of cinema. Numbers are tracked, CCTV footage is pulled, pictures are flashed, shopkeepers are asked. There is no ingenuity at play, and no breakthrough is punctuated, as if to renew the bureaucratic nature of justice – it's not about saving the day so much as negotiating with it.

The terrific cast is why Delhi Crime 2 transcends its text. Rajesh Tailang is both tender and tough as Bhupendra, Vartika's closest aide. He knows that he is Vartika's support system, her working-class peek into the art of policing. But like the other men on the team, the ideological lessons – of tolerance, trust, open-mindedness – he learns from his female boss do not extend to his personal life; his only concern is his daughter's aversion to marriage. When he suggests Mr. India as a favourite film for her matrimonial profile, he seems to be vaguely aware of the metaphor of a hero whose invisibility becomes his superpower. Rasika Dugal, as IPS officer Neeti Singh, conveys the journey of her character between the two seasons with her body language. She was alert and curious as a trainee in Season 1; she now looks perpetually jaded. The toll of womanhood – juggling home and ambition – is writ large upon her face. The pressure of emulating her 'Madam Sir' shows. Tillotama Shome excels as the fictional puncture wound in the show's reality-shaped skin. She widens the mental goalposts of her character, embodying the "aspirations of the less privileged" part of Vartika's voiceover.

Bravery in this story is neither political nor personal – it is the sum total of surviving a system without distinctly defying it. We keep anticipating lofty gestures of country, closure, conflict or catharsis. But the characters rarely succumb to the circularity of storytelling. Everyone is too busy responding: To a domestic crisis, to a bullet, to an errant partner, to a phone call, to an accusation, to the short straw in life.

Most of all, Shefali Shah builds on a career-defining turn as DCP Vartika Chaturvedi. She lends Vartika a performative streak – as someone who so intensely plays the role of authority in a male-dominated setting that she probably exhales the second she enters a restroom. She uses English as a mark of aggression and Hindi as the language of calculation. In her hands, even Vartika's inbred privilege becomes a weapon. She is aware that if she weren't in the police force, she'd have been precisely the sort of South Delhi liberal who criticises the police for being government stooges. At one point, Vartika is so overwhelmed by the case that she rains a racist "you people" tirade on an unsuspecting tribal woman. Moments later, she looks haunted by her own inability to tell her facade from her true self.

Her inner battle – to bridge the moral void between human and hero – brings Mumbai Diaries 26/11 to mind. Particularly in terms of how bravery in this story is neither political nor personal – it is the sum total of surviving a system without distinctly defying it. We keep anticipating lofty gestures of country, closure, conflict or catharsis. But the characters rarely succumb to the circularity of storytelling. Everyone is too busy responding: To a domestic crisis, to a bullet, to an errant partner, to a phone call, to an accusation, to the short straw in life. In many ways, Delhi Crime 2 thrives on its own insecurities. It counts on our scepticism and informed biases. It speaks to the moment, but also listens to it. The result is a rare series that amends and defends at once. After all, crime is incidental when the policing straddles the line between adjective and verb. 

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