There is a moment in Crime Stories: India Detectives when the police address the existence of the camera directly — to request them to leave the room so one of the accused can open up. Make the accused open up, or open the accused up — who knows? It is not like the Bangalore Police will give unhindered access to documentary filmmakers in order to have well-lit shots of them whacking out a confession with an oiled baton. (In the one scene we have of the police whipping the accused, the shots frames only the officer, and not the accused being whipped, a visual trick to minimize the efficacy of violence.)
[T]he show is unable to conjure the required suspense to rationalize its 50-minute episodes. Nothing feels urgent. Timelines keep appearing on the screen telling us how many hours have passed since the murder or kidnapping, but for what effect is it deployed?
I don’t mean to imply that the police are only violent, but that the police are also violent, and any documentary that seeks to follow them, and unearth their lives for drama, meaning, and measure, must grapple with the complexity of the police as an institution today — one that can protect and pummel. Otherwise, like this series, it comes off as a mouthpiece of the police state. (BN Lohith, a police inspector, notes after a murder, “I feel I have failed in my role as the ‘father’ who protects society.”)
Directed by N Amit and Jack Rampling and produced by Tarun Saldanha, there are 4 episodes, each following a separate case, with separate officers, across the city of Bangalore, touted by Netflix as “the most shocking and puzzling crimes that the city has witnessed”. They couldn’t be more wrong.
This might sound awful, it probably is, but we live in a world where murder — whether by one’s own daughter, one’s client, or one’s blackmailee — is not shocking, neither is it puzzling. We stare at the depths of the devil every morning as we crack open a newspaper or swipe open an app. Watching Crime Stories I often found myself thinking — this is it? Just murder?
To the documentary’s credit, it opens up the idea that murderous menace might not be as rare as we think (and hope) it is. The murderers are people who might be indistinguishable in a crowd — in the first episode when the daughter who killed her mother is snapped by the documentary crew at the airport, she looks unassuming, bored, spectacled, pimpled, with a backpack. She could be anyone. It is chilling because extrapolating from this — murderers can be anyone.
But the show is unable to conjure the required suspense to rationalize its 50-minute episodes. Nothing feels urgent. Timelines keep appearing on the screen telling us how many hours have passed since the murder or kidnapping, but for what effect is it deployed? The show plods on in its own lethargic, arbitrary pace. For example, four teams are out to search for a kidnapper, and suddenly one of the officers gets a call saying they nabbed him — that’s it. There is nothing chilling or compelling about the chase. Clues come about with a casual utterance. In the first episode, the police chase of the daughter, now absconded to Andaman, is shown to us through their GPS coordinates. We can see the police closing in on the accused as dots on a map. The point of being so closely aligned with the police, I assumed, was to inherit the thrill of that chase. Instead, we get talking heads theorizing about crime and its various sources.
In two of the four episodes, the main culprit is told right at the beginning. The rest of the episode is about layering this accusation with doubt. We get glimpses of the life of the police officers — how they polish their shoes, how they play with their specially abled child, or fondle their kids, or quiet shots of them at home on the phone on loudspeaker, with a cycle propped against the wall in the background. This is supposed to elicit, what, sympathy?
Besides, the talking heads of the police officers have this staged quality you are able to see through immediately. We see Latha Mahesh, a sub-inspector (or a “lady sub-inspector”), note in a talking head that the very image of prostitution makes her angry and sick, “I honestly wouldn’t even want to touch them.” This is at the beginning of the episode when we find out that the murdered is a sex-worker. But then, at the end of the episode, after speaking to sex-workers, and being confronted by the repeated violence in their lives, she has a change of heart. This change of heart is articulated in the same talking head. She’s in the same place, same clothes, but now her opinions have changed. So, it is clear that she performed her initial disgust just so an arc is given to her — she is the protagonist. It is hard to take such sudden swerves seriously, especially if you can see through the blatant artifice. The episode ends with her educating the sex workers about the Suraksha app.