Among the things that the women of Kasturba Nagar remember about the local thug Akku Yadav is that he was tall, fair, had a sharp nose and whenever he heard songs from the Salman Khan film Tere Naam (2003), he’d start dancing. They also remember the code name they had for him. If anyone spotted him, they’d tell others that “Madam” was coming. It was a signal to hide girls and young women, so that they don’t become prey to a man who would later be accused of having raped over 40 Dalit women. Others knew Akku as the “hymen thief”. His youngest victim was 10 years old.
When Indian Predator: Murder in a Courtroom begins, it seems as though writer and director Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni is counting on the audience not looking up Akku Yadav on Google. Akku, born Bharat Kalicharan, was an accused in multiple cases of assault, extortion, murder and rape. Days before his gruesome death, he’d surrendered to the police, saying his life was in danger. He was right. On August 13th, when he was to appear in court, Akku was lynched to death. Google — particularly Wikipedia — will tell you all this and even provide details of how he terrorised the people of Kasturba Nagar. However, Kulkarni does more than profile a criminal. With Murder in a Courtroom, he gives voice to survivors, which makes this series perhaps the most elegantly executed true crime we’ve seen on Indian streaming services. As the women and men of Kasturba Nagar remember what Akku did to them and their loved ones, what emerges is a portrait of being unprivileged. Ravaged as it is with pain and trauma, Kasturba Nagar is also a site of survival, resilience and beauty and Murder in a Courtroom recognises this. Cinematographer Deepti Gupta lights every room, backdrop and interview subject like this is an oil painting. The colours are rich, the darkness is sliced with golden beams and jewel-bright details. There’s a lamp or a piece of furniture that makes the shadows seem darker. A group of women sit with the regal elegance of a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Rarely have spaces associated with poverty looked so beautiful without being prettified.
Murder in a Courtroom speaks to survivors, their family, Akku’s family and friends, advocates, and activists. (Only the police — whom Kasturba Nagar residents repeatedly accuse of having colluded with Akku and having protected him during his last days — don’t get a word in, but Kulkarni does have archival footage of police speaking to news channels about the case.) Interspersed with the interviews are re-enactments that don’t fall into the trap of gratuitous violence (like The Diary of a Serial Killer did, for instance) despite alluding to sexual assault and rape. Kulkarni’s elegant storytelling is elevated by Jerry Pinto’s subtitles and Monisha Baldawa’s excellent editing. The violence is implied and it feels far more powerful than the tired euphemisms we’re usually shown in re-enactments. Some of the most powerful sections in Murder in a Courtroom are scenes emptied of people, with voiceovers of unidentified speakers talking about the crimes that are discussed in the series. Next to the real voices, the recreated segments could have felt theatrical, but they mostly feel organic. Akku’s role is played by Happy Kalizpuria and rarely has there been such an ironic mismatch between an actor’s name and their role. It’s to Kalizpuria’s credit that he radiates as much menace as he does and that he isn’t entirely overshadowed by the incredible real-life women residents of Kasturba Nagar who unhesitatingly admit to having murdered Akku. “We killed a rakshas,” says one woman and multiple people explain again and again how the systems failed the slum dwellers, who felt the only way out of their hellish circle of violence was to kill Akku Yadav.
Kulkarni loops back to the lynching in the final scenes of Murder in a Courtroom, but it doesn’t feel repetitive. Instead, you realise how carefully Kulkarni has selected interview subjects and testimonies to build up to this recreation, which now is less chaotic, more desperate and terrifying in its violence. When Savita Wanjari (one of the women accused by the police of murdering Akku) is asked to recall what happened in the courtroom that day, she says she can’t describe the scene — and laughs. There’s no trace of regret in that sound. Ram Gedam, who is much more than “fellow inmate” (his official description), talks about calmly eating samosas after witnessing Akku’s murder. It’s both chilling and mesmerising. Murder in a Courtroom is a piercingly sharp reminder of what it means to be underprivileged and how the civil liberties most of us take for granted are inaccessible to the marginalised. When asked if she thinks Akku’s death and the ultimate court verdict in his case gave the residents justice, Kasturba Nagar’s Leela Kumbhalkar says, “No one gave us justice. We fought and took justice our own way.” We’ve got goosebumps.