Delhi Crime: Director Richie Mehta on his vision to create a project that gives viewers a sense of catharsis
Delhi Crime's director Richie Mehta speaks about his decision to not include a rape scene in his series, and the research he undertook on the work of the police force
Filmmaker Richie Mehta was in Delhi the morning of 17 December, which would come to be known as one of the city’s most testing days. People had woken up to the news of a horrific gang rape. The crime was heinous, and the stories about it unsettling. “A family friend told me that the crime had taken place on a moving bus,” says Mehta, “in broad daylight. ‘How is that even possible?’ I asked myself.”
This was one of the many rumours swirling around. Over the course of the day, people would learn the truth in the news, and from the police force itself. And the city would never be the same.
Time passed, investigations were undertaken, and a legal verdict was given. An ex-police officer who knew Mehta asked if he would consider making a film on the case. “I said that I don’t think there should be a film about this, it’s not a position for me to take… I was asked to read some of the documents on the case [available in the public domain]; if I saw something there, I would be introduced to some of the officers involved, who were at the front lines.”
This prompted Mehta to study the case, but not through a director’s lens. “I was trying to grapple with what had happened, like many of us were. It also came from the journalistic side of me… I was amazed at the precision with which this case was solved, and so quickly. I met the officers involved in the case and I was blown away by them. These were people who really wanted to do the right thing and in the right way.”
Delhi Crime, Mehta’s Netflix series based on the same case, progresses in much the same way. In the beginning, one confronts gruesome details, slowly learning about the method followed by the police to nab the perpetrators, leading to a resolution and better understanding of the situation. It involves going from a place of anger and frustration (at the crime, its perpetrators) to greater empathy and compassion (for those who solved the case). “Then graduating to thinking, 'Let’s fix this together'. I want the end result to be catharsis for viewers.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Mehta decided to tell this story with a focus on the police, in the manner of a police procedural.
“The police were the people who knew more about it than anyone else,” he says. Over six years, his vision for the film evolved and he unlearned a great deal about the police force. “They’re just regular people – and I don’t think many people understand that. We discussed aspects like when did they find out about the crime, what they said when the DCP called them to the hospital where the survivor was in the middle of the night. One of them told me they didn’t have a ride to get there, and I was surprised. I didn’t think people knew this. I don’t think people understand the impediments, and if there is anger pointed towards the force, it’s probably misplaced, especially in the context of this case.”
The series begins on a realistic and simultaneously sympathetic note: The revelation that Delhi is such a large city that all of its areas cannot be manned by the police, especially when they are assigned to other duties, such as VIP protection. There’s one scene where a constable is reprimanded because he bought medicines for his ailing wife – while on the job. Another dialogue exchange highlights a police station’s inability to pay its electricity bills.
Mehta took a conscious decision to not include the scene of the crime in the narrative. “It was a personal condition – I would never. It helps when you have really strong actors who understand the sensitivity of the material. That is 90 percent of it. In those situations, when the words being said and heard are so hard to hear and say, as a director I ask, ‘What is the best way to minimise the damage, to make it palatable?’” Mehta says that when it comes to subjects like this, one can prevent a work from turning into trauma porn by showing the least amount of trauma as is possible.
Viewers may find episode one and four difficult to get through, despite Mehta’s treatment. Watching the truth – even a bare-bones version of a it – can come at a great emotional cost. “My understanding is that Jai Singh (one of the perpetrators shown as inflicting immense violence) turned [when he confessed to the crime], just like that. Even the people interrogating him were perplexed. They’d never seen anything like this. We showed this bit to make it believable and understand the motives of these officers going forward; the idea is that we need to sympathise with them, we need to see and hear the information they encountered. And we [the crew] have to do it in the most tasteful way possible, because we’re not out to sensationalise anything.”
Coming to set each day and enacting trauma and emotional stress can cause fatigue in a production’s cast and crew. Mehta says that the solution lies in everyone doing their best. “In a scene like the interrogation [where the perpetrator gives a triggering testimony], everyone who is in it and behind the monitor is holding their breath. There’s pin-drop silence, and we keep moving because we have a lot of personal time to think of the ramifications of what we’ve just done/shot.”
Before he could embark on the project, Mehta had to seek permission from Jyoti Singh’s family, which was non-negotiable to him from an ethical standpoint. He had several discussions with them, making them aware of what he was doing at every stage. “The last conversation I had with them was before production. They completely understood what I was doing. I said if they wanted me to stop, I’d stop. They were very gracious but also recognised that something positive could come from this,” Mehta says.
Apart from telling a story of gender violence, Delhi Crime also brings together narratives of women officers who worked on the case, played by Shefali Shah and Rasika Dugal – all of which needs sensitivity and attention to detail. To ensure that he was not misrepresenting his subjects, he sought feedback at every stage. But most importantly, he tried to stay true to whatever he learnt from the women officers he spoke to.
“I tried understanding their point of view... When you have a female constable at a police station who takes a complaint from another woman, what kind of empathy is she feeling for that woman? If it’s the 500th complaint in the week, what is she feeling in that stage? Part of my vision was to be faithful to these experiences, and then to get the right people to portray the characters.”
Mehta says The French Connection and The Zodiac were two films that influenced his approach. While some of the police officers were candid with him, a lot of the portrayal is based on his own observations. “Sitting in the same room as them helps one to understanding simple facts, such as some of them are allowed to go home only once every two months. If you’re on duty for two weeks straight, there’s no respite whatsoever. And it’s not like it’s a psychologically light job, you’re seeing trauma every day,” he says.
Is the police dealing with a menace much larger than it can possibly handle? “As human beings, they’re probably doing the very best that they can. Are they equipped, and do they have the resources? We know universally that they don’t. When you have a police force like that dealing with grossly populated areas, the numbers just don’t add up.” What motivates them to turn up at work day after day is their optimism, says Mehta. “They know they can’t stop crimes from necessarily occurring. So the only thing keeping the piece in a city of 17 million people are the people. They deal with one or two thousand bad apples, the rest are good.”
Delhi Crime streams on Netflix from 22 March
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