Murder in a Courtroom: A Different Indian Predator, but Not Necessarily Better

The Third Season of Indian Predator is Streaming on Netflix
Murder in a Courtroom: A Different Indian Predator, but Not Necessarily Better

If you look closely, you might detect a perverse sliver of nostalgia about the Indian true-crime stories emerging from the Netflix factory. The streamer seems to be in a tearing hurry to remind us of the bad old days, back when broken systems and societal apathy bred bloodthirsty monsters and men. It’s taken them less than four months to roll out three seasons of Indian Predator, almost as if to say: Remember how creepy this country was before the killer pandemic? Remember what horror and suffering used to look like? The gruesome dust from the butcher and cannibal seasons has barely settled, but here we are, grappling with yet another truth-is-stranger-than-fiction anti-fairytale of yore. It’s all so quick that I suspect the documentaries are sharing the same pool of actors for their staged portions. I could swear that the central face of this one bears a striking resemblance to the butcher.

The latest in the franchise is perhaps its most ‘commercial’ yet, both in terms of treatment and pre-Netflix infamy. Murder in a Courtroom revisits a cultural moment of sorts, a relatively well-known incident that was given the Bollywood treatment as recently as last year. The overwrought film, 200 Halla Ho (2021), was based on the notorious Akku Yadav case – where, in 2004, 200 Dalit women from a Nagpur slum stormed a courtroom to lynch and kill a serial rapist in broad daylight. Extortion and murder aside, the man had assaulted over 40 female residents in his reign of terror over their locality. It was an act of vigilantism and brutal vengeance that made headlines across the world; the long trial culminated in a landmark verdict a full decade after the ‘crime’. Till today, the consequences of the case echo through any discourse about mob justice and violence against women. Given Indian cinema’s penchant for rape-and-revenge sagas, it’s hardly surprising that this three-part docuseries, too, is unable to resist the tropey excesses of the genre.

More than once, we hear a witness use the phrase “just like a film”; a journalist even sheepishly admits that this story is perfect material for a web series. The makers interpret this literally, as a license to thrill. As a result, Murder in a Courtroom plays out like a docudrama – more drama than docu – in which the recreated scenes get more screen-time and priority than the talking heads and interviews. In fact, this could easily pass off as a better film than 200 Halla Ho. Director Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni (Vihir, Deool, Highway) flexes his fiction muscles, carefully crafting a series of atmospheric flashbacks based on survivor accounts. Whether it’s Akku Yadav’s dark origin story and his brushes with the law, the terror he subjects the women in Kasturba Nagar to, or even his lynching in court, no detail is spared in the cinema-fication of the narrative.

Even red herrings appear to be fair game. For example, two female residents speak about a plan they once hatched to kill their tormentor. The scene realizes their entire plan – including the sight of them carrying his body out – only for them to eventually admit that the plan failed. Then the real scene plays out. Murder in a Courtroom even opens with a montage of the women in Chak De mode – set to a spunky anthem – while they get ready and march to the court with sickles on the morning of the attack. To the makers’ credit, despite the overarching theme, things never get lurid. There’s not a single shot of how Yadav might have gone about his sick crimes, with the camera leaving the women to speak of the horrors they faced. Our imagination, for better or worse, does the rest.

As a work of nonfiction, though, the jury is out. Kulkarni tries his best to impose a sense of voice onto history, particularly with the way he makes every recreation look like a haunted memory. There’s an emotional synergy between the speakers and the images they’re recalling. He keeps the focus on the survivors and residents, but also expands the tone by including the friends and co-conspirators of Yadav. The women don’t shy away from confessing. The way they speak suggests that ‘revolution’ is what the world chose to see; all they wanted to do was survive. At some point, however, it becomes clear that the docuseries is paranoid of succumbing to the Netflix formula. The problem with swimming against the template is that, in the quest to avoid a typical macro view – urban commentators, psychologists, experts, historians – it goes a little too micro. It becomes a bit too aware of what not to do, and so stays confined to the “how much” and “what” of the story. The few journalists in the mix look out of place, barely touching upon the broader angles (caste, media coverage, repercussions of the case) in the process.

After opening with the usual overview, the first episode straight-up dives into making-of-a-monster territory. This goes on for a while. As enthralling as the events are, a sense of repetition creeps in. In the second and third episodes, multiple women and families describe their experiences with Akku Yadav in grave detail. The purpose is to reveal the sheer magnitude of evil that Yadav was, and just how isolated the community felt despite belonging to a modern city. It’s also a sign of the documentary taking a stand: Akku Yadav deserved what he got. He pushes them – and us – to the brink. One by one, we hear of the unspeakable things he did, the people he killed, the language he used, the threats he made. There is no respite. It’s drummed into our heads. The account of Usha Narayane, the woman who sparked a change in the slum, is especially unsettling.

But again, we tend to hear familiar words and lines, with each moment overlapping onto the next. The storytelling plateaus midway through, and with nowhere else to go, it seems to move around in circles. Even the recreations start to feel gimmicky, what with the curated bleakness of it all. Despite being a viewer attuned to the cultural significance of this story, it’s hard to ignore the narrative tedium that sets in. The refusal to zoom out beyond a point is frustrating, because the incident revealed the agency of a people that used their caste and class invisibility to their advantage; nobody recognized them because nobody was – and is – looking. At some stage, it’s important to ask: Is a documentary obliged to prove the point that it makes? Where does reporting end and telling begin? Ultimately, it says something that we know more about the predator than the prey. For a documentary that wants to blur the lines between the two, the irony is apparent. Just like a film.

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