Netflix’s Delhi Crime is a Fascinating Study of Two Cultures

A view of Indian traffic at night, with motorcycles and cars coming toward the viewer
Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

Near midnight on December 16, 2012, a crime with shocking savagery and scarcely believable brutality, soon to be known throughout India and the globe was discovered. It began with a passerby finding two partially-naked bodies in a ditch on the side of a highway.

The backdrop for the Netflix show Delhi Crime is the infamous ‘Nirbhaya’ gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman, formally known as Jyoti Singh, on a bus driving through Delhi’s streets.

But if you were thinking about watching it, let me be clear: the show emphasizes the hunt and apprehension of the six rapists, using actual case files from the authorities. While the crime is always there, hanging in the background, that is not the show’s focus. The series revolves around catching the accused rapists.

The show occurs in places that I know personally. The bus stand in Munirka, the neighborhood in South Delhi where Joyti boarded her fateful ride, was a few blocks away from where my wife Sasmita lived for years.

Delhi Crime was a general hit with the critics when it debuted in 2019. And the show won the International Emmy for Best Drama in 2020.

Plus, I love the stories behind the story. I was unfamiliar with the narrative and details of the chase and capture of the Delhi bus rapists. It was informative to view Indian police operations and that was also educational for me.

Here are my other thoughts as I processed the seven-episode series.

I was grateful for the absence of a re-enactment or a flashback of the assault. There is no barbaric imagery of the horrific act, just verbal recounting.

Thankfully, since I watch all Indian shows with English subtitles when I sensed characters were about to discuss the actual events, I closed my eyes.

There was no way to depict the rape without it feeling cheap or exploitative. I’m glad the producers did not even try. That being said, it is a generally dark show with little levity in its seven hours.

The main character is female Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Vartika Chaturvedi, played by Shefali Shah. She leads the Task Force, putting her most trusted detectives on the case. After being awakened in the middle of the night by an officer informing her that two naked bodies were found severely beaten on the side of the road, she immediately senses more to the story and is unfortunately correct.

What follows is a crime so brutal and in her words ‘demonic’ that it shocks the entire nation, becoming a global story. The aftermath led to weeks of republic-wide protests and the creation of new country-wide rape laws.

DCP Chaturvedi is a strong woman, who never apologizes for her gender in a profession that is notoriously patriarchial. Yet, she is clearly in charge. At the same time, the crime deeply affects her and she is determined to catch the men responsible. She shows her human vulnerability. This seeps through in interactions with her daughter, husband, and one of her staff, Neeti. Neeti is a young policewoman who has begun the job that same day, and who idolizes DCP Chaturvedi.

DCP Chaturvedi’s story begins 12 hours before the crime. She’s talking with her daughter who is hoping to leave India and go to college in Canada. Chaturvedi tries convincing her that Delhi and India are great places to live. She promises to show her daughter the good side of the city. The subsequent events severely challenge this idea.

There were a few times where the officers on the case voice their wish to be American police. They long to be paid enough to be unsusceptible to bribery and have the proper resources available to them.

Delhi’s police are pushed to the breaking point logistically.

In one scene, the station’s electricity disappears right as one of the accused is brought into the jail. Another time, two policemen discuss paying for their own gas and how expensive it is. It is another reminder that despite the solid police work occurring and the Task Force’s dedication to solving the heinous crime, they are still subject to India’s poor power grid and impenetrable bureaucracy. In essence: they suffer like anyone else in India.

Another example was a scene where the Delhi Police Chief is grilled by Delhi’s Chief Minister about why the police did not stop the moving bus or see it.

He poignantly asserts that New York City’s population is more than eight million people with a police budget of $4 billion. He contrasts that with Delhi’s population of more than 16 million and only a $400 million budget. The discrepancy was shocking.

The men who committed the rape were genuinely terrified for their family’s honor.

At the end of one episode, one of the criminals tries running away. The police officer chasing him says they will tell his mother what he did and that ends his escape attempt immediately. He is nearly sobbing, fearing that his parents will find out the evil deed he committed.

In another scene, an accused is crying uncontrollably in his jail cell. He believes that his mother will commit suicide, once she discovers what he’s accused of doing.

Again, I thought about the vast difference between the two cultures.

I doubt that tactic to elicit a confession would be effective in the US. Yet, for the Indian police, it was seemingly more powerful than the threat of jail and death itself. Family honor is treasured above nearly everything and the show spotlighted that numerous times.

For the Delhi police to nab all six accused within one week is a pretty incredible feat. Two of the accused were known only by one name, and common Indian names at that. Yet, working their informant network and dogged policing meant they nabbed them in a few days.

The show received some criticism for its police portrayal. The detractors said it was a paean to Delhi police, a recognition that was undeserved and glossed over the Indian police’s reputation for incompetence, dishonesty, and apathy.

More interesting to me though, was that the Indian police were not treated as bumbling idiots or vilely corrupt. Instead, they were depicted as competent, modern, enterprising, and caring people. That type of Indian police representations in Indian-produced media, such as Delhi Crime is rare.

The account would be dramatically changed if the rapists were wealthy, sons of connected Indian families.

It would have been difficult, maybe impossible to find all six of them in only five days if they came from money and means. India is rife with stories of well-heeled Indians who get away with serious crimes, including rape and murder because of their affluence and social networks.

I seriously doubt that rich Indian men would have meekly surrendered, and been terrified, as displayed by the culprits. I am also dubious that the Indian police could have used all the resources available to track the men down, and not be stymied by higher powers with reputations to uphold, societal ties and relationships taking precedence over finding the guilty.

Thankfully, in this case, they were not. But for literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Indian cases, that’s reality.

My last thought was on Delhi Crime’s inability to delve into the problem of India’s sexual assault and rape culture. The show skirted the larger issues around the topic. I understand the reason, but I felt there were places that the directors could have woven India’s rampant violence against women narrative into the story.

In a scene towards the show’s conclusion, two detectives are discussing the reasons for the inhumane crime and one blames the growing gap between the rich and poor. Blaming wealth inequality for such an atrocious act avoids the underlying issues, and India’s sexual violence against women problem extends far beyond such a well-worn trope.

Indian adoptee from Kerala. I write about adoption, my intercultural marriage, and contemporary India. Prawns are my love language. @adoptedkeralite