Director: Leena Yadav
Genre: Documentary Series
Streaming on: Netflix
It has to be said that, like its international counterpart, the Indian true-crime genre on Netflix follows a stubbornly routine template. A modern docuseries is an investigation of not just a case but an entire culture. Neatly packaging the vagaries of reality to fit a fixed pattern of storytelling evokes more of an academic exercise than an artistic one. One can sense the conveyor-belt efficiency of a process that allows for no narrative deviation. In a span of three months, for instance, we’ve seen the release of two eerily identical three-part docuseries: A Big Little Murder and now House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths. Both shows are based on gruesome, headline-grabbing events in the National Capital Region. The themes and treatments of both are so similar that I could simply replug my review of A Big Little Murder and you’d be none the wiser. It shouldn’t be so easy. Our overlapping memories of tragedy often rob its inhabitants of their cultural identity.
The structure is familiar. The first part traces the details of a doomed Delhi morning; the second reveals the strange results of the investigation; the third does a postmortem of a society that’s averse to the complexities of human nature. The series counts on the fact that most viewers are well-versed with the sensationalism of this incident. Our relationship with the Burari case is closely linked to the truth of the tragedy. Back in July 2018, I remember reading the term “mass suicide” in every newspaper reporting the deaths of 11 family members in a middle-class North Delhi locality. As inherent voyeurs, we tend to paint a mental picture of such scenes. I didn’t need to. I was particularly invested, because the apartment I had moved into had been the venue of half a family suicide. A young man and his sister, who worked for the previous tenants, had hung themselves in the living room; their mother and her partner were found hanging in another apartment not too far away. The opening episode of House of Secrets does a decent job of establishing a moment from every possible angle; archival footage is intercut with interviews of shocked officers, forensic experts, reporters and neighbours. The talking heads are chosen wisely, except for a clinical hypnotherapist, whose early presence dilutes the suspense and indicates a case of psychological element. But an animal activist describing the rescue of the 12th and only surviving member – the family dog – is a nice touch. These first two parts are solid if not spectacular, and suggest a sense of occasion – something that was sorely missing from the overplayed scenery of A Big Little Murder.
However, I also remember slowly losing interest in the Burari case as the weeks passed. Curiosities waned. The term “shared psychosis” made its way into reports. Murder was ruled out. It was no longer a front-page story. The faces of the family members faded from memory. In fact, I don’t recall reading the outcome at all. The third part of this series explains why. Psychologists throw light on India’s prickly relationship with mental health. A voice expresses surprise and disappointment at how the incident didn’t incite the right conversations. A few journalists admit that the salacious media coverage all but disappeared in the absence of an absolute answer. The lack of a typical culprit denied the case the attention it deserved.
Here’s where the series is at its best – it doesn’t leave all the conclusions to the wise talking heads. Some of the answers are rooted in the irony of the images. For instance, one of the officers interviewed is seen visiting his extended family and participating in a religious ritual with them. Almost every relative of the victims is heard using some variation of “it’s God’s will” in passing. An old friend jokes about how his wife can’t leave the house without taking permission from his father. The series trusts the viewer to realize – while watching these seemingly ordinary Indians – that the reason an entire people are unable to accept the moral ambivalence of the Burari incident is because it echoes their own sense of domesticity. The tragedy is merely an exaggerated extension of the concept of Indian familyhood – and its traditional coupling with patriarchy and blind faith.
Perhaps the timing is not incidental. The makers don’t spell it out, but this tone of a true-crime series also hints that it’s difficult for a democracy prone to occult subservience – now more than ever – to acknowledge a death by delusion. The Burari case is a morbid microcosm of a nation obsessed with reverence and ideological superiority. The relatives of the family still suspect foul play – just as the security guards and residents of my colony do about the previous inhabitants of my apartment – because an admission of anything less scandalous and more human will implicate our own existence in a long-standing sociological epidemic. A docu-series like House of Secrets is a subtle indictment of the documents on which history is written. If only the makers themselves didn’t use industry-standard, A4-sized paper.