Firstpost at Sundance: Netflix's Delhi Crime reconstructs 2012 gang-rape case with sensitivity, not sensationalism
Though the incident Delhi Crime addresses happened over six years ago, it does not limit the urgency of the show's narrative.
Editor's note: This article was originally published after the premiere of the first two episodes of Delhi Crime at Sundance Film Festival 2019. It is being republished in view of the global release of the show on Netflix on 22 March.
Following the savagely brutal Delhi gang rape case in 2012, thousands of Indians — students, activists and ordinary men and women — marched onto the streets across India in outrage, holding candlelight vigils and calling for stricter laws to create a safer environment for women. It led to a heightened awareness of sexual violence against women in the country as the problems and possible solutions were hotly debated in the editorials of newspapers and websites, and virtually all news programmes and talk shows.
More than six years after that crucial turning point in India's collective consciousness, filmmaker Richie Mehta looks to revisit the case in Delhi Crime, which was picked up by Netflix at Sundance Film Festival 2019. The first two episodes of the Indo-Canadian writer-director's seven-part docudrama series premiered at Sundance Film Festival on 29 January and there was a moment of stunned silence before the crowd erupted into a round of applause at Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, Utah.
Brilliantly constructed and heartrendingly performed, Delhi Crime revisits events from the day of the sadistic crime to the final arrest, spanning a period of six days (16-21 December). It chronicles how a top Delhi police official named Vartika Chaturvedi (played by Shefali Shah and partly based on DCP South Delhi Chhaya Sharma) leads a special task force to nab the six perpetrators, amid mounting media and political pressure — and a demoralised teenage daughter eager to leave a country that doesn't respect its women.
In a Q&A following the series premiere at Sundance, Mehta, who was in Delhi during the crime and the subsequent protests, reveals he had to go through over 1000 pages of documents and case files in a period of six months. He spoke to various police officers involved in the investigation over a course of year and a half. "The first year of research, I became anti-social. I have a nightmare almost every night," admits Mehta.
Delhi Crime skillfully interweaves fact and fiction into a gentle-paced, cohesive whole. In one of the scenes, Vartika's daughter recounts an all-too-common episode of being groped in a crowded Delhi metro. But Richie reveals he included the anecdote from an incident which in fact happened in Toronto. "The show tries to illustrate why these things are happening around the world," says Mehta, who hopes the show to resonate with a global audience because sexual violence is a global epidemic. And he vehemently believes it doesn't matter if you're from the Western part of the world or Eastern, conservative or liberal because "this is not a right or left issue. It's an issue about civility."
Mehta offers a powerful yet nuanced take on the case that doesn't in any way feel sensationalised or exploitative. Structured like a law-and-order procedural, it is a well-researched and inherently interesting examination of how a city reacts to a terrible tragedy. While the brutal rape isn't shown, it's discussed in details excruciating enough to highlight the heinous nature of the crime and our ongoing culture of gender-based violence.
Shefali Shah, who delivers a powerful lead performance, reasoned why it is necessary to execute such a true crime series with empathy. "When you're doing a show about a true crime or true story or playing a real-life character, it requires an immense amount of sensitivity and precision to maintain the respect of the various people who went through these things," she said. Discussing how she prepared for her role, she added, "Richie laid out the blueprints for us actors...I just used what I felt when it happened and I channelised the anger, frustration and pain. Then there was Chhaya Sharma. She lived through this. She handled this."
Rasika Dugal, who plays a police officer trainee, did plenty of research for her role, getting information from IPS officers and police officers in training. "I spent time with a lady officer, who joined the police force leaving a very promising job because she was idealistic and wanted to change the world," she said.
Delhi Crime is an engaging and unsettling reassessment of a crime that caught global attention in December 2012. Though it happened over six years ago, it doesn't limit the urgency of the show's narrative. And it has all been executed in a way that invites little sensationalism.
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