Delhi Crime Review: An Unsettling Retelling of the 2012 Delhi Gang-Rape Probe, Minus Any Super Cops

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Delhi Crime Review: An Unsettling Retelling of the 2012 Delhi Gang-Rape Probe, Minus Any Super Cops

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Within the first half hour of Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime, streaming on Netflix, a police station loses its power supply; landline phones won’t work either. Elsewhere, an intoxicated and overworked constable stands at a checkpoint at mid-day, almost indisposed. And a middle-aged woman tells a young girl, “Don’t get married into a police family.” The crippled and dysfunctional Delhi Police is the heart and soul of this seven-part series, a fictionalised investigation into the 2012 Delhi gang rape, an incident that shook the nation to its core and led to landmark “anti-rape” law amendments.

Delhi Crime is anchored by DCP (South) Vartika Chaturvedi (a tenacious Shefali Shah) based loosely on former DCP Chhaya Sharma who headed the investigation in 2012. Chaturvedi is both the emotional and narrative hook of the series – at times crumbling under the empathy she feels for the victims, at other times consumed by the sternness with which she must command those below her in the face of constant personal, professional, and political challenges. Chaturvedi is closely assisted in the investigations by Chief of Special Task Force, Bhupendra Singh (Rajesh Tailang), Inspector Sudhir Kumar (Gopal Dutt Tiwari) a guileless yet committed officer, and Neeti (Rasika Dugal), a nervous, competent trainee.

The seven episodes of Delhi Crime chronicle the three days of a nationwide manhunt for the six men who raped, mutilated, and murdered a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern aboard a moving bus. Naturally, it is hard to cut through the series with an objective eye considering how the heinous, brutal nature of the crime makes it difficult to watch such a story as a fictional drama – especially when so many of us still experience the incident like a burn on the skin. Even though, much of what happens in the series is well-known and documented, witnessing the sordid details of that night is still hard to stomach seven years on, given they now have a bruised face and a broken voice to relate to. I twitched uncomfortably, thrown repeatedly out of the fictional realm of the show every time the victim’s suffering was discussed by doctors and policemen. Although, the makers do well to keep the audience outside both, the bus and the minds of the victims, so as to not mine the grief of the families for shock value.

The clear strength of Delhi Crime lies in its tendency to avoid the clichés of police procedurals: There are no super-cops with super minds at work, no unanticipated breakthroughs, clever psychological insights, or forensic discoveries. The work that the cops put in to capture the rapists instead, is straightforward, clerical, and at most times unremarkable.

There is relief when the perpetrators are caught, but there isn’t closure.

Guns are rarely drawn, chases and physical tussles are even more scarce. Grit here isn’t hoisted by the heroism of some, but the collective dutifulness of the many – a majority of whom are as baffled by the savagery of the crime as they are reluctantly committed to the harshness of their jobs. Most struggle with personal problems like finances, prospective marriages, or their stretched personal relationships. There are no nightmares, because people hardly get to sleep, let alone dream.

But criminals and crime continue to be unaccommodating of this systemic disability. Yet, none of the cops in Delhi Crime, scream out of the frame with Instagram-ready grace or Simmba-esque cockiness.

Delhi Crime’s problems then, are rooted especially in its language that doesn’t always latch on to the brashness of the local police. Some of the dialogues can feel made-up: For instance, in one scene, Chaturvedi’s school-going daughter tells her friends about a man “intercepting” her breasts. In another scene, a riot control officer instructs policemen by saying, “They have a democratic right to protest” in as plain English and as flaccid a sentiment; a little wishful even. But even then, Delhi Crime is a powerful and self-aware series, that may seem nihilistic at times, because it refuses to explain its pathos, or philosophise the nature of cause and effect. It may even divide viewers over fundamentals like sympathy and sensitivity.

Yet what makes the series compelling is Mehta’s mindfulness that doesn’t glamorise either the police’s job or its capability to do so. This is reality, the series seems to say – deal with it. It’s fitting then, that the end hardly feels like it: There is relief when the perpetrators are caught, but there isn’t closure. How could there be?

Thankfully, Delhi Crime doesn’t want to shock nor appeal to the cynicism of the disgruntled Indian. Neither does it want to cast rape and murder as a one-off tragedy that has been conquered. The series progresses with the knowledge that such crimes continue to happen even seven years on and policemen and women continue to struggle for justice in a world that is by design, unjust.