'Delhi Crime Story': TV Review | Sundance 2019
Netflix's Delhi-set drama shows the importance of context in keeping the police procedural genre from going stale.
Procedurals, even the most gory and violent, are built with audience comfort in mind. Unless you're an utter genre neophyte, you can tune in to a procedural and know its rhythms and arcs with reasonable certainty. They're shows meant to be watched in partial distraction and with a sense of relief in knowing that whether the show is set in New York or L.A. or Chicago or Miami, crimes will be solved, diseases diagnosed, or cases tried in a familiar enough way so that you can also fold laundry, prepare dinner or vacuum the living room.
Put Netflix's Delhi Crime Story in a category of anti-procedural procedurals. The seven-part drama, which premiered its first two episodes as part of Sundance's Indie Episodic program, focuses on the type of horrifying sex crime that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has built nearly 450 episodes around — chew on that figure for a couple of seconds. Canadian writer-director Richie Mehta, whose background is in film, certainly knows his procedural conventions. Those conventions pop up over and over again in the initial Delhi Crime Story episodes, and because of Mehta's focus on cultural context, they all feel reasonably fresh and consistently engaging.
Delhi Crime Story is based on real events from 2012. The series begins with the discovery of a naked man and woman in a ditch. He was beaten. She was beaten and gang-raped in ways that are detailed in the dialogue and, thankfully, less so visually. The crime took place on a city bus.
Gradually and accompanied by chyrons telling us their rank and years of service, the various law enforcement figures on the case are introduced. Leading the case are Deputy Commissioner of Police Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah), a longtime department veteran who fixates on the gruesome nature of the crime and is determined to oversee the case's solution herself, and Neeti Khanna (Rasika Dugal), an inexperienced trainee whose potential Vartika is able to spot.
The series opens with a foundation-laying voiceover that paints Delhi as a woefully under-policed city in which half the force is stuck on traffic duty or on VIP protection. It concludes by teasing that this was "a crime that took the city to the brink." The voiceover verges on hard-boiled, much of Vartika's dialogue is comparably turgid, which had me thinking Delhi Crime Story might be some kind of Indian noir. It's a possibility that I was totally on board for, but one that didn't quite pan out.
Delhi Crime Story is one of those elongated procedurals that Peak TV and streaming have birthed and enabled, in the character-driven vein of The Killing or Seven Seconds, only without their character complexity. In the opening two episodes — almost completely about assembling a team and beginning the process of tracking down the crime-scene bus — most of the character beats are among the series' most heavy-handed moments. Vartika, for example, has a teenage daughter who's eager to flee to Canada, convinced that India is garbage. Vartika takes it upon herself to give her daughter reasons to stay, a rosy picture jeopardized by the series' central crime, which gets immediate media interest and misrepresentation. And Neeti goes out on a date as prelude to a potential arranged marriage, the kind of thing that introduces the subject of gender roles and relationship power dynamics among young generations in contemporary India. Nothing related to these characters is introduced that doesn't lend itself to Mehta's bigger thematic points, and any dialogue that isn't on topic thuds a bit.
There just isn't time to make jokes or digressions when it makes more sense to show viewers the convoluted nature of the Delhi justice system. Somehow, and probably for the best, this is where Mehta's reliance on exposition has a lighter touch. There's a The Wire-esque aspect to how Vartika has to handpick a motley team of officers and investigators who she knows she can trust in order to keep the case out of the morass of Delhi's bureaucracy. Two episodes aren't enough for most of those investigators to make even the slightest impression as individuals, though I think I've been able to categorize people as "harmfully inept" or "hopefully effective." Nearly every bit of incremental progress requires the cashing in of favors or going into hock on new ones. Instead of being presented as corruption, the convolutions of this city are presented through a prism of entrenched classism and sexism and an assortment of isms that would never come up in a Law & Order or NCIS episode.
The series feels more like the work of a sincerely interested outsider than a native piece of representation. Or maybe it just feels like it's being made for outsiders? The "Delhi is crowded!" approach isn't going to be revelatory to anybody who has seen a locally shot movie or Delhi-set episodes of The Amazing Race. Still, there's a focus that prevents Mehta and cinematographer Johan Huerlin Aidt's approach to the city from feeling stereotypical. Everything in the first two episode stems from traffic, and that's how the series captures Delhi's crowding, its urgency and the central crime itself. Traffic is a vehicle, so to speak, for some exposure to Delhi's geography, its frenzied rhythms, and the gaps between people and neighborhoods that can be insurmountable on physical and metaphorical levels.
Whether it's the interrogation of a cagey suspect or a confrontation with a stern authority figure or the push-and-pull with political and media figures, everything in Delhi Crime Story is familiar-yet-different. Throw in the visceral punch of the horrible crime itself — the desire for resolution is one of outrage, not mystery-driven curiosity — and some complicated and detailed variations on cell-signal tracking, CCTV monitoring and other common procedural beats, and you get an above-average genre exercise.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)
Cast: Shefali Shah, Adil Hussain, Denzil Smith, Rasika Dugal, Rajesh Tailang, Yashaswini Dayama
Creator-director: Richie Mehta
Premieres: March 22 (Netflix)