The story of the actual ‘Butcher of Delhi’ is no ordinary tale. However, Netflix’s three-part docuseries fails to do justice to this gripping tale by putting it in a cliched documentary template far too constrained for the questions and themes it brings up.
Ayesha Sood-directed VICE production Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi retraces the police investigation into Chandrakant Jha (played by Altaf Hussain), a seemingly ordinary migrant worker from Bihar turned serial killer with a grudge against the system. Jha was convicted of three gruesome murders between 2003 and 2007, although the actual number is said to be much higher. The show unravels the murders and (occasionally) the man behind them through the eyes of investigating police officers, journalists, a forensic scientist and people from Jha’s village, Ghosai.
Investigating officer Sunder Singh seems quite comfortable in front of the camera and has a flair for telling Jha’s story in a way that gets one hooked. But, unfortunately, that’s as far as the appeal of this docuseries goes.
Falls prey to true-crime clichés
Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi has most of what you would expect from a true-crime documentary — newspaper clippings from the time of the crime, a scrapbook-like recreation of pictures taken by the police, and re-enactments of the murders. It starts, after all, with the one dialogue most true-crime clichés begin with—”I haven’t come across any such case in the last 23 years.”
However, as familiar a sight as this may be for lovers of crime documentaries, the series relies too heavily on gore and shock value to have a sense of originality.
The slow-motion recreations feature one too many shots of knives being washed, flowing pools of blood and graphic shots of victims being tied up and choked. There are only so many times one can watch a man hack another to death without it unnecessarily interrupting the plot. All this happens as a background score of thumping heartbeats and menacing tones exaggerate events at uneventful points in the investigation.
Further, although there are attempts to explore Jha’s psyche, they are not convincing. Forensic psychologist Dr S.L. Vaya and others often run in circles with their observations, leaving one with a picture of a serial killer alienated from his specific socio-economic position in India—an obvious deduction.
One video clip of the real Jha is perhaps where we get the most information about his character. One can see in his crazed eyes a twisted and frustrated vendetta against injustice that Altaf Hussain is simply unable to capture with his re-enactment. It seems a lot less layered than what Jha’s psyche would demand.
Throughout the series, you see an archetype — a spurned, attention-hungry, self-appointed judge — but not the real serial killer.
Action confined to last episode
In episode three, however, testimonies from victims’ families and people from Ghosai personally affected by Jha’s actions come as a welcome breath of genuineness in the documentary. Here, pictures from Jha’s personal camera are revealed, setting a tone far more chilling than the gory recreations we witness in episode one and most of episode two.
The personal experiences of these villagers seem much less contrived and add more to the documentary than half-hearted re-enactments.
Conversations with victims’ families raise questions about the class bias in the justice system, although the series ends before exploring them further. Allegations of police brutality and indifference from Jha as well as the victims are brought up most vividly in this episode. However, the series fails to question the police.
Commonly brushed over topics such as mental health issues among the poorest sections of society are also brought to the fore in episode three, but again, these strings are pulled only halfway, and unique questions are left unexplored.
For some viewers, all of this may not be a problem. If you’re looking for a familiar, comfortable true-crime watch (as comforting gory murders can be), this show is probably a good weekend binge. However, Netflix’s other Indian crime docuseries, like House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths (investigating the deaths of 11 members of a Delhi family), might make for a better watch.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)