Netflix’s Delhi Crime (2019) is a seven-part series which revisits the infamous 2012 gangrape case of Jyoti Singh wherein the 23-year-old student was brutally raped and tortured leading to her demise and sparking national outrage in India. The series is an open tribute to the Delhi Police or “almost a love letter” as Piyasree Dasgupta caustically claimed over at HuffPost. This perspective can be attributed to the fact that Indian-Canadian director Richie Mehta wanted to privilege the police angle from the outset and which he perceived to be misunderstood. His family friend and story consultant who was also a “retired police commissioner” encouraged Mehta to make a film on the rape case and offered “access to case files and the investigating officers.” The protagonist of Mehta’s series, South district DCP (Deputy Commissioner of Police) Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) often referred to in the series as “madam-sir” since her leadership brings about a crisis of gender perception is based on Chhaya Sharma, the real-life DCP who led the investigation and apprehending of the criminals in Singh’s case. While Mehta’s series has won recognition for being the first Indian series to have premiered at Sundance Film Festival, criticism has focused on the open bias which comes at the cost of villainizing everyone else including the protestors, the media, government, and even the male victim of the assault.
The series aims to humanize the police officers as they attempt to understand and solve a "blind" case with minimal details with the clock ticking and the nation watching. Even before the actual crime occurs, Mehta deploys a subplot about familial tensions between mother (DCP Chaturvedi) and daughter (Chandni) to introduce the issue of sexual violence against women in Delhi; Chandni hopes to leave Delhi and its dangers behind for a safer Toronto. Afraid that her daughter may not want to come back, Chaturvedi pleads to make a case for a better Delhi in which she is doing her part as a police officer. While the narrative initially explores the experiences of young Chandni facing sexual harassment and outright molestation in some cases, Mehta forgoes further examination of these much larger concerns by reducing the plot to elements of a crime thriller, i.e., catch the bad guys.
Mehta’s desire to represent the police in a pristine light unintentionally raises more questions than it seeks to answer. For instance, in a sympathizing move towards the police, the opening voiceover naration explains the impossibility of preventing crimes given that Delhi has the “population of a small country.” Additionally, the distribution of the police force is such that half the force is “stuck in traffic duty and VIP protection,” thereby leaving the other half of the force to protect civilians. As the narrative unfolds, viewers are confronted with overworked officers who slog away in an underfunded system; the police station actually loses electricity twice because they have run out of utility funds. The solution is to move funds from the fuel budget to the utility budget. Yet, the (unintentionally) laughable and seriously questionable matter remains such that the police apparently lack a budget for handcuffs as the targets of the intense six-day manhunt for the rapists spread over at least five states result in bringing each rapist to jail by the police intertwining their hands with the criminals.
The act of intimacy between the police and the criminals yet again involuntarily generates a visual reminder of callousness and even violence given that the Indian police have been guilty of both. For instance, the Human Rights Watch’s report from 2017 notes that women from marginalized communities had a harder time getting the police to file a FIR (First Information Report). According to HRW, victims of sexual violence, in addition to being subjected to humiliating treatment at the hands of police, also experienced inadequate protection. An example closer to home was in the case of police brutality against peaceful protestors who marched to seek justice for Jyoti Singh. Their democratic protests were rewarded with authoritarian violence, an aspect that Mehta circumvents in his series.
Nation State as Benevolent Parent
To return to the issue of logistics in terms of arresting the rapist with handcuffs, one wonders why the criminals simply do not run away. Mehta does offer one instance where the rapist (Amar Singh) pushes the officer holding him and swims fast across the river. The police (because they cannot swim and can only wade in the water) manage to threaten the criminal into staying put by stating that they can tattle to his elderly parents what Amar and his brother, Jai Singh, have done (namely shaming the family name with their brutal gangrape, torture, and attempted murder). The absurdity of the situation where potential shame and disappointment to one’s parents coupled with social ostracization of one’s family becomes the motive for the primary perpetrator to comply with police request points to the larger issue of representation in Mehta’s narrative where law enforcement officials function as patriarchs or heads of family who protect the good citizens and discipline the errant ones (criminals and protestors included).
Gender studies scholar Anne McClintock explains that nations are usually imagined as larger family units or domestic surrogates for home in her essay “Family Feuds: Gender, Nationalism, and the Family.” Inscribing the political relationship between state and citizen as a domestic narrative renders the relationship between the state and subject into that of a disciplining and benevolent patriarch and child/childlike member in need of protection and discipline. For instance, instead of holding Amar Singh accountable by rule of law for trying to abscond employs the emotional and familial appeal, thereby incorporating the citizen/criminal and state/police relationship along that of a child and patriarch/parent relationship.
The truly problematic representation of this idea lies in the case of the frazzled and devastated parents of victim, Deepika, who are never explicitly told on screen that their daughter has been gangraped. The DCP, Vartika Chaturvedi and members of her team, function as guardians of Deepika’s family at large withholding critical information about Deepika’s situation from her parents while they remain the ones who control the knowledge about her situation. While Mehta attempts to portray the circumventing of critical information on the part of the police as an act of care towards the victim’s parents, the control over information infantilizes the parents and sets up the police members, an extension of the nation at large, as empathetic parental figures thereby incorporating the citizen and state actors into a “family” narrative.
The rewriting of citizens-state relationship into that of a domestic narrative manifests itself multiple times in the series where appeal to justice is made along the lines of imagining one’s daughter in the victim’s shoes. For instance, DCP Chaturvedi instructs the new female officer in training (Neeti) to “drop everything and be with the victim as if she is your own sister.” Another instance is when Chaturvedi’s trusted junior officer asks her what makes the case personal for Chaturvedi wherein she speaks about the possibility of the same happening to their daughters. Here too the state’s duty to uphold justice towards the citizen is conveyed along the lines of familial identification. Another such instance occurs when the magistrate responsible for recording Deepika’s statement in the hospital refers to her in the familiar and loving term “beta” or child. While empathy is important and necessary, the issue here is that the right of the citizen to be protected by the state and pursuing justice against crimes committed against her person in Mehta’s narrative gets framed and articulated via a depoliticized and gendered citizen subject. Mehta is not the first to employ the familial narrative since media outlets from the outset of the case in 2012 had dubbed Jyoti Singh as "India’s Daughter" which also became the title of British filmmaker Leslie Udwin’s 2015 documentary. The appeal to the familial is not merely limited for the good citizen but also extends to the rapists in jail, albeit in a move reminiscent of 80’s melodramatic Bollywood cinema since two of the rapists who try to commit suicide in jail write a plea for forgiveness to their mother on the wall using their blood. Thus, Mehta’s narrative circles back to metaphors of the family in order to portray the police as the benevolent but misunderstood parents.
To revisit the issue of unintentionally raised questions, Mehta’s series invites skepticism on matters of police training. In a ridiculous if not comical moment, Station House Officer (SHO) Vinod Tiwari with 13 years of experience is shown to be inspired by American TV to suggest the use of bite marks as forensic evidence. The actual use of dental forensics was crucial in Jyoti Singh’s case, a point made in Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter (2015) and also on the McCain Institute’s webpage page where they explain that “use of forensic techniques like analysis for bite marks as evidence, [was] hitherto unexplored in India.” However, in a moment of fictional liberty, the unnecessary reference to American television show as a source of inspiration to solve an important crime trivializes the important details of the actual case in favor of dramatic complexity and perhaps even humor.
Constructions of Masculinity and Victim Shaming
On the heels of questionable police training follows the issue of victim shaming, albeit for the male survivor of the assault. The primary perpetrator Jai Singh in the series accuses his target of engaging in a public display of affection which he claims served as an instigation for the attack. A senior police officer not only considers the couple making out on the bus to be a provocation for the attack but also outright states that if the statement proves true, the case could be weakened. The logic of the "weakened" case relies on moral policing where the patriarchal policeman determine public displays of affection between couples to be wrongful. The victim blaming continues unquestioned when the male survivor’s integrity is doubted by the same officer who offers the logic that had the officer been in the same situation, he would have “died” for his girlfriend and that since the male survivor was a “healthy man” and “stronger than [the perpetrators]” he could have fought off the gang attack and possibly called for help. Additionally, the case against him is further stacked when it is rumored that the male victim, Akash, is a womanizer and has yet another girlfriend stashed away somewhere.
Besides emasculating Akash by boxing him into stereotypical gender roles and constructions of masculinity, the series not only denies him the possibility of claiming to be an assault victim but also retaining dignity as a male survivor. His very survival with relatively minor injuries as opposed to the injuries sustained by the rape victim is called into question with no other purpose besides casting unnecessary doubts on the integrity of his testimony. While drawing negative attention to the male victim, Mehta reinscribes that men can use their physical strength either to assault women (bad citizens) or to protect women (good citizens). A remiss in either category in Mehta’s series implies emasculation. These strictly demarcated gender roles leave women to be passive recipients of violence or protection.
The questionable integrity belongs mostly to non-police characters including student protestors who seem to show up to the protest because their friends convince them to go, or adult protestors who threaten to transform into an enraged mob that is ready to lynch the rapists and thus, obstruct justice. The media is also villainized as the global source of false news; they apparently publish outright lies because the “desk editor demands that the [reporters] publish negative articles about the police” and in fact the reporters have been “ordered to blow the police apart.” For instance, DCP Chaturvedi learns from a news reporter that the news agency which is publishing false news is also the same agency whose news gets picked up by the BBC and hence, becomes the source of global fake news. The BBC of course is not credited with checking their news sources. Added to the list of justice obstructers are also power thirsty politicians who wish to gain control of the police force.
Gendered Emotional Labor
In Mehta’s narrative, the people with integrity and justice are not simply the police at large but female police officers specifically who perform acts of emotional labor and serve as bulwarks against excessive [male] violence. The DCP not only advises her male officers to not use aggression and violence against perpetrators and suspects but also disciplines male constables attempting to mentally torture the perpetrator in jail. In the one rare instance that the DCP enacts violence on the main perpetrator, Mehta downplays the assault as emerging from a fit of righteous anger that again has its basis in conceiving justice towards another as if she were one’s own daughter/sister/family. The constables working on the case, all of them male, are portrayed as largely unreliable figures, who do not understand or follow protocol. Mehta also depicts the woman officers as working around the clock without any complaint despite their exhaustion whereas the male officers voice their complaints about poor food quality, the need to go home, and physical exhaustion from working on an intense manhunt for six consecutive days. For instance, both the DCP and the officer in training, Neeti, provide emotional support to Deepika’s family. The welfare officer, Vimla Bhardwaj argues with her male colleagues to book the last suspect as a minor at the cost of weakening the amount of punishment doled out to the perpetrators because she is afraid the minor might be assaulted in jail.
At the end of the day, Delhi Crime, in privileging the police’s point of view, risks replaying problematic tropes of victim blaming, class divides, and economic inequalities in society as the root cause of violence. In addition, an important critique of the series has been in its representation of protests, where Mehta disregards police attacks on peaceful protestors in Delhi who were attacked with “water cannons, teargas shells and batons. Delhi Crime misrepresents the power and importance of the public protests which sparked important conversations around women’s safety issues and patriarchal policing of women’s bodies and sexuality but also led to legal changes in the form of new anti-rape laws and fast track courts. Mass public protests, especially the kind which occurred in Singh’s case that brought students, activists, feminists, and citizens at large together, are primarily a labor of love and empathy.
Mehta’s biased representation in privileging only policewomen as capable of employing gendered labor denies the agency and political participation of the citizenry who were a crucial factor in fighting for Singh’s justice. The moral of the story here is rather simple: the fight is simply between the good guys (police) and the bad guys (everyone else). Rather, the point that Mehta fails to capture is that the fight was between the people and an outdated and dysfunctional socio-legal system which allowed for atrocities such as this one to take place. However, representations of protests are not the only skewed facts. Another factual inconsistency is in the portrayal of the undebated suicide of the main perpetrator, Jai Singh, in the series, whose real life parallel, Ram Singh’s death in the high security Tihar Jail remains a questionable incident to this day. However, Mehta treats the suicide as a fact and raises no questions around the issue.
Additionally, the series in dramatizing the incident and investigation of the rape reduces the real-life Jyoti Singh as the dying Deepika as a patriot who even on her deathbed serves to glorify the police by thanking the DCP for taking her case. Mehta does not explore the important expansion of the legal definition of rape, resulting from Singh’s case in the form of the “Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013.” Lastly, the series remains ridden with loose ends. For instance, despite employing many details of the actual case including descriptions of the gruesome injuries sustained by Jyoti Singh, Mehta never names her in the film. She is referred to as “the female victim” whose “legacy lives on” in the series epilogue. According to Mehta, all names of characters were fictionalized for dramatization purposes and yet, the refusal to name Singh with her actual name or one of her many pseudonyms points to a failure of engagement regarding the naming politics which occurred during the case but also to the larger class identity politics at play; all important factors in transforming her into “India’s Daughter.” Singh’s presence looms in the narrative in the form of Deepika, a synonym for her actual name, Jyoti, both of which mean “light” in Hindi.
Arpita Mandal is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Connecticut. Her work explores postcolonial violence in Anglophone literatures through critiques of exclusionary nationalisms, gendered citizenship, and narratives of displacement and marginalization.