Netflix’s Delhi Crime Is a Fascinating Cultural Study

The backdrop for the Netflix show Delhi Crime is the infamous Nirbhaya gang rape and murder on a bus in Delhi, India in December 2012. But if you were thinking about watching it, let me be clear: the show emphasizes the hunt and apprehension of the six rapists, using case files from the actual event. The crime is always there, hanging in the background. But that is not the show’s focus. Its focal point is on catching the rapists.

I watched the show because it occurs in places that I know personally and because it received solid reviews. The bus stand in Munirka, where the girl boarded her fateful ride, was a few blocks away from where Sasmita lived for years.

Plus, I love stories behind the story. I was unfamiliar with the narrative and details of the chase and capture of the Delhi bus rapists. It was informative to view Indian police operations and that was another of the show’s benefits for me.

I have a few other thoughts as I processed the seven-episode series.
I was grateful for was the absence of a re-enactment or a flashback of the assault. There is no brutal imagery of the horrific act, just verbal recounting. Thankfully for me, the show is in Hindi and I used English subtitles. Therefore, when I sensed they were about to discuss the actual events, I closed my eyes. There would be no way to depict the rape without being cheap or exploitative. I am glad the producers did not even try. That being said, it is still a dark show and there is little levity in its seven hours.

The plot is immediately engaging and the acting is superb.

The main character is a female District Police Chief (DCP), Vartika Chaturvedi, played by Shefali Shah. She leads the Task Force, putting her most trusted detectives on the case. After being awakened in the middle of the night by an officer who tells her that two naked bodies were found severely beaten on the side of the road. She immediately senses more to the story and is unfortunately correct.

What follows is a crime so brutal and in her words ‘demonic’ that it shocks the entire nation, becoming a global story. The aftermath led to new rape laws in the country and nation-wide protests.

DCP Chaturvedi is a strong woman, who never apologizes for her gender. Yet, it is clear she is in charge. At the same time, the crime deeply affects her and she is determined to catch the men responsible. She shows her human vulnerability. It seeps through interactions with her daughter, husband and one of her staff, Neeti. Neeti is a young policewoman who has literally just started the job, when the events take place, but who idolizes DCP Chaturvedi.

Chaturvedi’s story begins 12 hours before the crime.  She talks with her daughter who is hoping to leave India and go to college in Canada. Her mother tries convincing her that Delhi and India are great places to live.  She promises to show her daughter the good side of the city. The subsequent events severely challenge this idea.

There were a few times where the officers on the case voice their wish to be American police. They wish they were paid enough to be unsusceptible to bribes and have the proper resources available to them.

Delhi’s police are pushed to the breaking point logistically.

In one scene, the station’s electricity disappears right as one of the accused is brought into the jail. Another time, two policemen discuss paying for their own gas and how expensive it is. It is another reminder that despite the solid police work occurring and the Task Force’s dedication to solving the heinous crime, they are still subject to India’s poor power grid and impenetrable bureaucracy. In essence: they suffer like anyone else.

Another was a scene where the Delhi Police Chief is grilled by the Chief Minister in Delhi about why the police did not stop the moving bus or see it.

He poignantly asserts that New York City’s population is more than eight million people with a police budget of $4 billion dollars. He contrasts that with Delhi’s population of more than 16 million and only a $400 million dollar budget. The discrepancy was shocking.

I looked up Delhi’s police budget for 2018 and it is still less than a billion dollars. But, the population is now more than 20 million.

Another fascinating element of Delhi Crime was the power of community, particularly the role of shame.

The men who committed the rape were genuinely terrified for their family’s honor.

At the end of one episode, one of the accused tries escaping. The police officer hunting him down says they will tell his mother what he did and that stops his flight immediately. He is nearly sobbing with fear that his parents will find out the evil deed he has committed and gives up running.

In another scene, an accused is crying uncontrollably in his jail cell. He believes that his mother, once she finds out what he is accused of doing, will kill herself.

Again, I thought about the vast difference between the two cultures.

I doubt that tactic to elicit a confession would be effective in the US. Yet, for the Indian police, it was seemingly more powerful than the threat of jail and death itself. Family honor is treasured above nearly everything and the show spotlighted that numerous times.

The chase fascinated me.

For the Delhi police to nab all six accused within one week is a pretty incredible feat. Two of the accused were known only by one name, and common Indian names at that. Yet, their informant network and dogged policing nabbed them in a week.

The show received a lot of criticism for its police portrayal. Many reviews said it was a paean to them and their prowess and glossed over all the incompetence, corruption and apathy that Indian police are known for. I think that is a fair critique.

But what I found interesting was that for the first time I can remember, the Indian police were not treated as bumbling idiots or vilely corrupt. Instead, they were depicted as competent, modern, enterprising and caring people. Indian police representations as in Delhi Crime are rare.

The story would be different if the perpetrators were not uneducated laborers.

The story would have been changed if the rapists were wealthy, sons of connected Indian families.

It would have been difficult to find all six of them in only five days if they came from money and means. India is rife with stories of well-heeled Indians who literally get away with murder because of their affluence and connections.

I seriously doubt that rich Indian men would have surrendered as meekly, and terrified, as the real culprits did. I am also dubious that the Indian police could use all the resources available to track them down, and not be stymied by higher powers with reputations to uphold and ties taking precedence.

Thankfully, in this case, they were not. But for literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Indian cases, that is the reality.

My last thought was on Delhi Crime’s inability to delve into the problem of India’s sexual assault and rape culture. Two detectives are discussing the reasons for the inhumane crime and one blames the growing gap between the rich and poor. He focuses on the idea that the poor have to take what they want, even by violence, otherwise, they will never get it. That’s a well-worn trope, but India’s sexual violence against women extends far beyond that.

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