Director: Ayesha Sood
Genre: Documentary Series
Streaming on: Netflix
As it stands, Netflix might soon surpass the Covid-19 pandemic as the prime culprit behind the capital city's falling foreign-tourist numbers. If one were to go by the streaming platform's nonfiction slate, Delhi is the rotten wound that India bleeds from. True as it may be, this obsession with one city – its people and politics, its horrors and hollowness – speaks to a larger cultural malaise: one that Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi is both culpable and conscious of. For once, the irony is not lost on the makers. But more on this later.
Directed by Ayesha Sood, the three-part docuseries is the third Netflix true-crime title in quick succession that's based on gruesome, headline-grabbing deaths in the National Capital Region (NCR). Much like A Big Little Murder (whose 2021 release was restrained by the Delhi High Court) and House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, Indian Predator follows a frustratingly fixed narrative template. The first two episodes explore the police investigation. The third one zooms out and does a postmortem of the society that makes a murderer. It's worth noting that Indian true-crime documentaries differ from their Western counterparts in terms of this third act. While Western titles stay rooted to the individualism and conflict of crime, the Indian ones insist on offering a moral resolution. This narrative style – of diagnosing a problem with an aim of fixing it – is likely an extension of Hindi cinema's social-message-drama problem. But if done smartly, as in the case of House of Secrets and now Indian Predator, a docu-series is capable of being an indictment of systemic cracks without flaunting its courage.
Indian Predator is about a serial killer who murdered three people, hacked up their corpses and left their body parts strewn across different parts of the city between 2006 and 2007. He would place their torsos outside Tihar jail, make phone calls to the Delhi Police and taunt them with cocky, expletive-laden letters. The language on the notes suggests he is from Bihar and also that, perhaps, he derives his daring from dastardly Bollywood villains. But the film-making in the first two episodes is curiously bland and one-sided. A lot of the narrative unfolds from the police's perspective, relying heavily on accounts provided by the cops responsible for the nabbing of the killer and the subsequent case-building. The recreations are almost lurid – the sickening sound of a sickle decapitating a body is used as a transition, and the cops look like fast-moving heroes racing against time in a Neeraj Pandey thriller. Only two journalists appear as talking heads, with only one of them criticizing the incompetence of the police in passing. The killer is presented as a crazed ex-prisoner who holds a grudge against the police for ill-treating him. In essence, there is nothing here you won't find in a '70s masala movie – police is good; psychopath is bad; the identities of the victims are secondary to the story that celebrates the chase. There is a hint of the man's past, but the media discourse is limited to what the police conclude: 7 murders since 1998, sentenced to life imprisonment. So far, so procedural.
But it's the third episode that reveals the resolute gaze of Indian Predator. If the first two episodes depicted the story in public and institutional memory, the third one reports the origins of a story that nobody – not the Delhi Police, not the media – considered relevant enough. The docu-series turns the camera towards the man's remote village in Bihar, where a slow but steady history of violence went unchecked by a system that equates the social agency of justice with the status of those involved in the crime. The sobering interviews of the villagers are interspersed with that of a victim's family in the city – a device that reveals the tendency of a nation to sideline the casualties of migrant culture until they become an urban statistic. By pursuing the fuller picture of a case reduced to loud newspaper headlines, the makers also indirectly implicate the police force for their role – and misdeeds – in the myopic sensationalism of Delhi-centric narratives. After hijacking the first two episodes, they are all but absent from the third one, save for a sheepish defense in the all-cops-are-not-corrupt vein. The journalists reappear as talking heads towards the end, as does a forensic expert who explains the mental consequences of societal neglect. The spoon-feeding is unnecessary, but I suppose it's hard to read between the lines when the lines are so vivid.
It helps that the series is aware it exists, too, because of three murders that happened in the city, not the horrors that transpired in a village. As a result, Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi becomes a rare documentary that conveys information only to expose our relationship with this information. In doing so, it challenges our isolated perception of true crime – and underlines the degrees of truth to a crime. After all, the skeleton of a tragedy is visible way before the body is discovered.