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Netflix Indian Predator Review: The Diary of a Serial Killer aces caste politics

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaSep 08, 2022 | 16:58

Netflix Indian Predator Review: The Diary of a Serial Killer aces caste politics

The Diary of a Serial Killer covers the cases of murder and cannibalism by Raja Kolander while analysing the socio-political elements around the case (photo-DailyO)

The Netflix documentaries on the Burari deaths and The Butcher of Delhi have proven the marketability of the true crime genre in India, with the latest example being the India Today Originals docu-series The Diary of a Serial Killer

Slowburn, engaging conclusion: Even though this season of Indian Predator lasts for 3 episodes like its predecessor, each of the episodes are quite distinct from each other. The first episode builds up on familiar true crime doc tropes: fast-paced and intentional choppy editing, the usual music building up before moments of violence, police and family sources stating some obvious facts. 

But the momentum starts building in the sophomore episode and then there’s no going back. While the first episode provides a much-needed investigative context on the murder of journalist Dhirendra Singh (the case that eventually incriminated serial killer Raja Kolander), it is the remainder of the series that provides an intimate (if not humanised) portrayal of the barbaric killer behind at least 14 cases of murder and even cannibalism. The case in itself brims with shock value. Kolander not only butchered his victims; he even ate their brains, targeting particularly intelligent and upper-caste victims for the same. 

A personal interview with the killer is one of the show's USPs

The production team’s journalistic research and Dheeraj Jindal’s direction aside, the biggest strength that Episodes 2 and 3 have is exclusive access to the criminal himself. 

Even though Raja Kolander got significant media attention back in the early 2000s, the man faded into obscurity ever since he began serving his life sentence. But now, his “comeback” for the camera is equally thrilling and haunting. The notorious miscreant who used to sport a black moustache has now evolved into a seemingly meek, old man with an unkempt white beard. However, the steely look in his eyes and occasional grins add to the show’s overall scare factor. 

The entry scene in Episode 2 itself is bound to raise eyebrows. In a desolate hall of Unnao jail, Kolander walks in with a smile wrapped on his face like a film star walking the red carpet. As the crew adjusts a mic on his collar, he joins his hands in a namaste pose. The entire sequence is fascinating as it plays out. The later moments of the interview show Kolander’s darker side but just his strange cheerfulness in the start and the framing of the whole scene is enough to grab the audience’s attention. 

The ethics of true crime docs can always be debated with both Indian and non-Indian examples. Whether the makers genuinely wished to know Kolander’s darkest secrets and motives or whether it is just a ploy to add shock value or whether the intentions were both, this will make for amusing discourse after the show. But as a plot element in the narrative, Kolander’s present-day interviews definitely boost the binge-value of the Netflix series. 

Interviews with Kolander’s children add to the grey areas: Among other memorable interviews include the contrasting viewpoints from Dhirendra Singh and Raja Kolander’s children. Singh’s son, who was orphaned from a young age, breaks down in the first episode arousing instant sympathy for his late journalist father. But as for Kolander’s children (who boast interesting names such as Adalat, Andolan, and Jamanat), their defensive arguments and calls for their father’s innocence lead the viewer down a rabbit hole of grey areas. The director isn’t prompting you to take the killer’s side but just the attempt to tap into the psyche of the killer’s family members (most of whom are innocent) and how they respond to their parent’s guilt (or innocence as they would claim). 

Talking to a victim and killer’s children for a documentary that will be streamed for millions can be a Herculean task for a film crew. After all, their memories can be quite triggering and harrowing. Reflecting the contrasting viewpoints of the children of Kolander and Kolander’s victims works in the documentary’s favour and doesn’t come off as trauma-exploitation (at least not as much as expected). 

The discussion on Raja Kolander’s tribal identity makes it a pretty introspective watch

Like every true-crime documentary, a psychologist or forensic expert is brought in as one of the sources. More often than not, no matter what strata the killer and victim comes from, these experts are interestingly the fanciest breed of English-speaking ‘uncles’. The Diary of a Serial Killer is no exception. But apart from roping in just police officers and criminal psychologists, the show includes some much-needed soci-political and anthropological perspectives. 

Caste is so deeply rooted in Indian society that it often gets invisibilised by the majoritarian population. Even before this documentary, one can go through ‘sansani’ news headlines in Hindi publications or go through YouTube videos explaining the case but hardly any of them delve into Kolander’s ethnic identity. 

Born as Ram Niranjan, Raja Kolander renamed himself blending the words ‘raja’ (king) and ‘kol’ (the tribal community that he hailed from). In other words, he proclaimed himself as the ‘King of Kols’. 

As anthropologist Badri Narayan mentions in the documentary, the Kols hailed mostly from and settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. When the tribal populations like Kols had to adjust to a more modernised, deforested society, they obviously had to adapt. Narayan refers to this as ‘community hybridity’, mentioning how many Kol populations wish to get recognised as Schedule Tribes (but have been clubbed under Scheduled Caste by the Government). 

Mentions of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram and Mayawati's rise to power and Phoolan Devi's transition to politics are also discussed in exploring the attitude of oppressed castes and communities towards the dominant upper castes. Kolander himself wished to become an MLA if he wasn't imprisoned; and made his wife take up the name Phoolan Devi for its recall value with the voters when she contested in the panchayat elections.  

"Because of the notions attached to the Kols, they were labelled as primitive. They are adivasi and it is assumed that adivasis even eat human flesh. We haven't come across such practices so far."
- Hansraj Kol, social activist
 

Such discussion obviously doesn’t absolve Kolander of his sins but it does reflect the stereotypes that many adivasi populations are subjected to. Social activist Hansraj Kol (who is from the same tribe as Kolander) doesn’t even believe that Kolander consumed the brains of his victims, thinking of it as just another stereotype that reduces tribals to ‘adi-manavs’ (half-human/inhuman). 

"This is his individual self", anthropologist Badri Narayan says, while accepting that even if Kolander reflected cannibalistic and murderous tendenices, it has nothing to do with him being a Kol. But clearly, the authorities think otherwise as is evident from former Kydganj SO (Station Officer) Shri Narayan Tripathi’s testimony to the documentary crew. Delhi Crime Season 2, the other recent Netflix production, also touched upon the tribe-crime stereotypes while talking about the Kachcha-Baniyan gang that terrorised Delhi back in the 90s.

SN Tripathi served as the Station Officer of Kydganj Police Station when he arrested Raja Kolander (photo-Netflix,India Today Originals)
SN Tripathi served as the Station Officer of Kydganj Police Station when he arrested Raja Kolander (photo-Netflix,India Today Originals)

While Tripathi mostly mentions the investigative details of nabbing Kolander, he goes on to offer his personal views on Kol people towards the second episode. To quote him directly from the documentary, “Drinking the brain’s juice is a typical Kol community practice.”. Unlike Narayan, Tripathi generalises Kolander's absurdities as those of the entire community. This one instance alone shows how even state officials have preconceived notions about tribal-origin people, reducing them to primitive forest-dwellers. 

Despite offering such multiple perspectives, Jindal’s direction never borders towards any preachy behaviour. The gritty, gory violence is established in the start but there is enough room for debate and discussion on not just the crime but the environment of the crime. 

To sum up, watch Indian Predator: The Diary of a Serial Killer to witness the lengths that the human mind can go to and the depths it can sink to; all in less than 3 hours.
 

Last updated: September 08, 2022 | 17:21
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