This July, the first season of the true crime anthology Indian Predator dropped on Netflix, immediately becoming the most-streamed title of Netflix India for the weekend. What attracts Indian viewers to true crime documentaries so?
As the true crime market is expanding with Spotify podcasts and Netflix originals like The Burari Deaths, it makes sense to know a layperson as well as a psychological perspective behind their popularity.
Sensationalising first: A primary element of many a true crime documentary or podcast is to sensationalise the crime or add a slightly cinematic edge to it. And India is no stranger to sensationalising real crimes, be it the amusing “sansani” style of news reportage or crime dramas like Savdhaan India or Crime Patrol.
But for the binge-watching generation that is straying away from television screens, new true crime mediums are emerging. Many of Spotify India’s exclusive originals include crime podcasts such as Death, Lies and Cyanide, The Big Shots - Dosa King, and Crime Kahaniyan. As for Netflix, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths proved to be a massive success spawning not just discussions, but also meme trends on the central family and its notorious patriarch Lalit Chundawat.
The Butcher of Delhi: Now, with the release of Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi, the Internet is abuzz with another Indian true crime documentary to talk about. The docu-series deals with Chandrakant Jha, the serial killer mostly known for throwing severed bodies of his victims outside Tihar Jail. In the week of its release, the series reached the #1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 trending movies and TV shows in India, even surpassing a much-awaited blockbuster like The Gray Man.
As these documentaries not only showcase archival material related to the criminal in question but also attempt at recreating the crimes, they might definitely be disturbing for some. At the same time, their growing popularity only proves further that there is a huge streaming potential for Indian true crime.
The psychology behind it all: Delhi-based counselling psychologist Nandita Kochar explains how the genre might impress professionals who have some sort of stake in crime. They tell DailyO, “I think everybody has a stake in crime. If you’re a lawyer, you can look at it from a legal and judicial perspective. If you are in social work, then the social environment factors that put the criminal in that space. The reason everybody has a stake even outside of professional roles is because crime is a human gone off societal expectations, and a society comprises us all. Additionally, it hits closer to home because a HUMAN did it. Not some other species; one of our own kind.”
As for Kochar’s own profession, they add that their work does include delving into cases of violence and abuse to such a point that it gets normalised. Works of true crime then show how bad (or even worse) such violence and abuse can get.
Sheer curiosity: But as for the viewers who might be outside these professions, the motivations to binge on such shows might be out of sheer curiosity. As Kochar adds, “If I were to narrow it down psychologically speaking, there is a factor of intrigue to it. We are all sort of going through our 9 to 5 jobs and here we get to know about a serial killer who has been planning their crimes for months. You realise that ‘I was spending my days like this and meanwhile, and here’s a guy who has been learning how to tie knots or how to procure co-ed [women] from colleges!’.”
Watch, but with caution: Getting to such a viewer’s perspective, 21-year-old Gaurav is a student at Chandigarh’s DAV College and an avid watcher of true crime docs as well as crime drama series like Netflix’s Mindhunter. While he definitely finds such content exciting, he adds that there is a level of caution that needs to be exercised while consuming such content.
“Most of the time, the audience is watching these documentaries because of the serial killer. The violence and gore is sensationalised and can even border on trauma porn at times. They don't even try to analyse the situation from the victims' families' perspective. In the West, we have seen how killers like Ted Bundy were seen as no less than celebrities,” says Gaurav, on most of the American crime docs that he has binged on.
Ultimately, whether the killer in question was a troubled genius or just a demonic being, the lens with which the viewer views the killer ultimately depends on the perspective of the documentary-maker. As seen from both Burari and Indian Predator, the creative team does put in the effort to incorporate the views of mental health professionals, police and journalists. However, other filmmaking elements like the camera transitions, dramatic recreations, and voice-overs can go a long way in influencing the audience’s mindset.
Kochar feels that these Indian docs, much like their Western counterparts, incorporate some recurring tropes that add to the drama but alienate the criminal further away from the society. In other words, the criminal gets demonised instead of getting humanised. So, the constant zoom-ins on “Lalit’s eyes in Burari” clearly contribute to his evil persona, distracting the viewer away from the mental/socio-economic and other issues that Lalit went through that ultimately prompted him to take a drastic step such as convincing his family to mass suicide.
"When I give crime that Ekta Kapoor-feel, I take away the humanity of it. I take my own role in creating Lalit or creating the butcher guy," Kochar adds.
The question of adding the filmmaker’s perspective on such sensitive cases is an ethical one that will only lead to further debate and discussion with the release of more such true crime documentaries. Where do we draw the line in documenting a crime and sensationalising it? That still remains an open-ended question.
Films vs docs: When it comes to creative representations of Indian crime, true crime docs might seem more relatable to the present generation as they at least represent deliberate attempts to mimic the reality. Even with their dramatic elements, the Indian Netflix originals would obviously not be as dramatised as movies inspired by real-life serial killers and gangsters such as Main aur Charles, Shootout at Wadala, Rakta Charitra, and so on. Obviously, there can be realistic exceptions like Talvar (which was inspired by the Arushi murder case) but these are few in number.
Here to stay: What is for certain is that true crime is here to stay in India. Fresh off the success of The Butcher of Delhi, the sophomore season of Indian Predator (subtitled Diary of a Serial Killer) is all set to premiere on Netflix this September. With the first season being produced by Vice, and India Today partnering for the second one, true crime docs are also adding a new dimension to crime journalism.
In a 2021 article from India Today magazine, Chandni Ahlawat Dabas, India Today’s executive editor for originals, special projects and events, said, “You will see a lot of research has gone into looking at the context. For the first time, the treatment of the story is not just about the crime. With OTT, we are digging deeper.”
A high at the end of it all: While it is not common for Netflix to reveal region-specific viewer numbers always, it is very probable for the genre to blow up with more docs. To conclude, as Kochar simply puts it, “One way to look at it is just like how people consume substances like LSD or MDMA to see the kind of places a human mind can go. I think this [binge-watching true crime docs] is just a very different and sober way of doing it!”