Content Warning: This article contains detailed descriptions of rape, sexual assault, and murder.
They called her Damini. The police and the press in India do not release the real names of assault victims, and so the public called her Damini, in reference to a 1993 Hindi film released in 1993 about a woman's struggle against society and her family for justice for a rape victim.
She was a 23-year-old woman who was brutally gang-raped on a bus in South Delhi on December 16, 2012, on her way home from watching a movie with a male friend. The six men attacked her and her companion, leaving him bruised but battering her almost literally to a pulp, raping her one-by-one, biting her face and body, beating her with an iron rod, inserting that rod into her vagina and anus repeatedly, and eventually pulling her intestines from her body through her vaginal opening. She and her friend were then thrown off the bus, naked, without their wallets or phones, and left for dead in a ditch. That's where the Delhi police found them and she was rushed to Safdarjung Hospital, where she underwent multiple surgeries to save her life. She was eventually airlifted to a trauma center in Singapore, thirteen days after the attack, for treatment, but it was too late; she passed away two days after reaching Singapore.
I was 27 years old when Damini was raped, living in Poughkeepsie, muddling through a period of recession-related unemployment, and my ears were still ringing from the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy Benefit Concert/Telethon, which my boyfriend and I had attended in person at Madison Square Garden a few days prior. The news of her rape was the first time a crime in India made international news. She was everywhere, all over CNN and MSNBC, and even Fox News, the first story that broke through the incessant hurricane coverage in the United States. And what happened to her shook me to my core.
My mother grew up in New Delhi. My parents met in New Delhi when my father was in graduate school and she was clerking in the Attorney General's office. My father's memories of Delhi are hazy and nostalgic, tinged with the romance of the era - the 1970s were a formative time in Independent India's political history, and my mother's family, intellectuals, and members of the government were on the front lines. He remembers the smells of the street food stalls, the buzz of the university campus amidst protests against the Vietnam War and Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency, going to movies and concerts with my mother, and Bollywood songs playing from every store as you walked down the street. My mother was a Delhi girl. I was born and raised in the United States, but I have always felt a deep and soulful connection to New Delhi, because of my mother, because of my parents, because of my anachronistic (for a Bengali) love of delicious Punjabi food, because of my fluency in Hinglish - the amalgam of Hindi, Punjabi, and English spoken in the city.
Delhi has changed a lot since my parents left in 1978. It's now known for being a city that is not safe for women, a city where women are frequently groped on public transit and in crowds, cat-called and harassed, and assaulted in public spaces, a city where women have absolutely no faith in the police force to even report when these assaults happen. Damini's story cast a huge international spotlight on the reality of life in Delhi for women, and it certainly was not a flattering one.
When Damini's attackers were found, captured, arrested, and questioned, they said that they had targeted her and her friend because they felt the couple was too free in their open affection for each other, and this flew directly in conflict with what they thought of as true Indian Hindu values - of conformity, of modesty, of submission. Religious fundamentalists are ultimately, all the same, no matter which religion we're discussing. At the end of the day, all they care about is ensuring that women do not have the right to be free, safe, and autonomous in their bodies and in society.
I hadn't been to visit my family in India since 2005. Because of what happened to the woman they called Damini, I decided that I would never go back. It's been ten years, and I've held to that decision faithfully. I always will. I'm a blue-haired, tattooed, curvy Indian-American woman with a mod haircut and a thick Mid-Hudson New York accent. I'm exactly the kind of woman that monsters like the men on that bus would target, for being too free, for being too independent, for not adhering to a very specific brand of seedhi-saadhi femininity. No, I won't ever visit India again. Sorry. Not sorry.
Delhi Crime is an Indian crime drama streaming series from Netflix written and directed by Richie Mehta. In 2019, its first season was released, set in the aftermath of the 2012 bus gang rape. Somehow, I didn't become aware of this show's existence until about two months ago, when Netflix started advertising promos for its second season. When I discovered Delhi Crime and saw what the first season was about, I knew I would be binging it posthaste.
Season 1 of Delhi Crime hews very similar in style to Law & Order's "ripped from the headlines" storytelling - in the opening title sequence, there is a chyron that states that the script is based on the actual case files from this notorious gang rape. It begins with the rape victim and her friend being found on the side of the road and follows the Delhi Police in its five-day manhunt to apprehend the culprits. The team on the case is headed up by Deputy Commissioner of Police Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah), her deputy, Inspector Bhupendra Singh (Rajesh Tailang), Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal), a new member of the Indian Police Service who Chaturvedi takes on as a sort of protege, Police Commissioner and Chaturvedi's immediate superior Kumar Vijay (Adil Hussain), and a large team of Inspectors, Sub-Inspectors, District Station Heads, and forensics analysts featuring a sprawling cast of actors from Indian TV and theater.
DCP Vartika Chaturvedi is an imposing figure, highly respected by her team and a fierce advocate for victims, straight from the playbook of Law & Order: SVU's Olivia Benson (one gets the feeling that Chaturvedi and Benson would be friends, or at least drinking buddies). When she hears about the gang rape, it hits her personally. Her daughter, Chandni, is desperate to leave Delhi because she is tired of feeling unsafe in her own hometown, and has decided to attend college in Toronto. Up until Chaturvedi is informed of the gang rape, she is convinced that she can show Chandni the good parts of Delhi and convince her to stay. Her experience in investigating this case allows her to fully understand her daughter's desire to leave. She and her team ultimately capture all of the men responsible for the attack, but her faith in the city she loves is shaken. Her passion for the job, however, is only inflamed.
Shefali Shah is absolutely phenomenal in this role, her face capable of expressing so much with only the slightest look, a slight smirk, a flashing of her wide, dark eyes. Her ability to command a room, dress down an insubordinate officer, interrogate a rapist, and manage the political maneuvering that her boss has to play in order to maintain control of the investigation is so nuanced and skillful. You never forget that she is a woman in a position of power in an institution that historically doesn't put women in positions of power, but she carries it well; if there is a chip on her shoulder, it can't be seen. I have been a fan of Shah since her role as Rhea, the cousin of the bride in Mira Nair's 2002 film Monsoon Wedding (my favorite film of all time, also set in New Delhi - the version of New Delhi my father remembers), and in the past 20 years, she has matured from a charmingly wry and sassy young girl into an absolute force of nature. This is the role of a lifetime for her and I am so thrilled that a wider audience is getting to witness her in action.
Season 1 of Delhi Crime is a masterstroke of writing, plotting, and acting. Over seven episodes, the suspense of the investigation and manhunt in juxtaposition with the intensive medical care of the rape victim (called "Deepika" in this series and played with harrowing vulnerability by Abhilasha Singh) had me absolutely riveted, even though I knew exactly how the story was going to end. (For those who don't know - in real life, and on the show, the men responsible for the attack were caught, arrested, and convicted. One committed suicide in prison, one was a minor at the time of the attack and served three years in a juvenile rehabilitation center, and the remaining four are still on death row. Damini died from her injuries, and her male companion escaped mostly unhurt but gave a salacious TV interview about his experiences shortly before Damini's death, which is pretty fucking gross, dude.) People who know me know that despite my love of Bollywood movies one of the things I vehemently hate is the artificial and unrealistic way that English is deployed in the screenwriting; the writers of Delhi Crime absolutely nail the way people in Delhi speak to each other colloquially in a combination of Hindi, English, and Punjabi (sometimes all in the same sentence - Hinglish!), and the naturalistic dialogue is a breath of fresh air from an Indian production. The show received very positive reviews from critics, and at the International Emmy Awards in September 2020, Delhi Crime received the award for Outstanding Drama Series - the first ever Indian series to win that award. It was renewed for a second season with the main cast returning.
I absolutely loved the first season of Delhi Crime, but if I had one thing to criticize, it would be the way the Delhi police force is glorified in the story. In 2012, it was generally known that Delhi police made many terrible mistakes in their handling of Damini's case, and they were thoroughly dragged in the media for it. Granted, this show is from the point of view of the police officers and pulled directly from the actual case files, so some pro-police bias is natural. That said, given what we know from history about Damini's case and the police's missteps, the Olivia Benson-ing of the officers in this story feels a bit disingenuous. (But hey, people say that Benson the Angel Officer is a disingenuous depiction of an NYPD officer, so... let's just accept that policing is problematic in many countries.)
Season 2 of Delhi Crime dropped on Netflix on August 26, 2022, and I was curious to see what DCP Chaturvedi and her team would be up against this time. Interestingly, this season did not claim to be based on actual Delhi police case files and instead told a fictional story about a crew of serial killers who seem to be members of the Kachcha Baniyan Gang. The Kachcha Baniyan Gang is known for terrorizing many cities in India targeting wealthy elderly people, brutally murdering them with hammers, axes, and knives, stealing jewelry and valuables, and looting their victims’ kitchens of liquor and food. They wear face masks and cover themselves in oil before their attacks to make it hard for their victims to fight back (due to the slipperiness of the oil). The season begins with Chaturvedi and her team being called to a house in a wealthy neighborhood where two elderly couples have been brutally murdered. Inspector Bhupendra Singh is the first to notice that the criminals' MO is similar to the Kachcha Baniyan Gang, but Chaturvedi is skeptical, noting that the gang has not been active in Delhi since the 1990s. While Chaturvedi's team is trying to wrap their arms around the scope of the first murder, a second murder with similar victims occurs, and due to a leak from within the police force, the news media explodes with stories about the Kachcha Baniyan Gang being back in action, frightening the citizens of Delhi. Chaturvedi has a sense that they are not dealing with the actual Kachcha Baniyan Gang, and when Officer Neeti Singh discovers a common link between the victims in both murders, they realize that they are dealing with a copycat. After further investigation and narrowing down of potential suspects, they finally find their main culprit, a woman who goes by the name of Karishma (Tillotama Shome), who is the leader of the copycat gang, driven by greed, ambition, resentment of her lower class status, and mental illness. During a somber conversation between Karishma and Chaturvedi (a fantastic reunion between Shah and Shome, who was also in Monsoon Wedding), Chaturvedi is taken aback to realize that Karishma doesn't really have a coherent explanation for her murderous rampage, and sadly has to inform the daughter of one of the murder victims that sometimes, criminals just can't clearly articulate what drove them to the desperation it takes to commit such heinous crimes.
In some ways, Season 2 of Delhi Crime isn't as strong as Season 1 - the plot gets bogged down in the drama of Neeti Singh's troubled marriage, Chaturvedi's daughter struggling at university in Toronto, and long scenes with Karishma and the three men she has intimidated into being her gang without much insight into how or why these three men would follow her in her psychotic escapades. But in other ways, by not being a direct depiction of an actual, famous crime and forced to be faithful to the historical record, Delhi Crime Season 2 has the freedom to offer critique into the corruption at the higher levels of the Delhi Police - Chaturvedi is flat-out ordered by her boss to tell the media that they have apprehended two members of the Kachcha Baniyan Gang responsible for the murders and show them to the cameras in order to curry favor with the public and with Delhi's Chief Minister, despite the two men they have in custody at the time having alibis for the crime and proof that they are in no way affiliated with the Kachcha Baniyan Gang. It also, through the depiction of a retired police chief who was an expert in achieving convictions in Kachchan Baniyan Gang murders as a consultant during his long career, investigates the legacy of British colonial racism in India. The Kachcha Baniyan Gang were largely made up of members of tribes and communities that the British considered "born criminals", notified as such under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. The law was repealed in 1949, two years after India gained independence from the British Empire, but it did little to change the stigma against these tribes, now known as "denotified tribes" or DNTs. In 1952, the Habitual Offenders Act was ratified, which borrowed principles similar to those in the 1871 British act - "born criminals" were now called "habitual criminals" and as a result, instead of pursuing actual criminals, law enforcement officials criminalized entire tribes.
This law was eventually also repealed but the negative image of DNTs has persisted, and DNT communities are some of the most deprived and destitute communities in India. The retired police chief who comes to consult with Chaturvedi's team is an outright bigot, who 100% believes that the British were right and DNTs are "born criminals", and his "brilliant" method of investigating these heinous murders involves raiding a slum in Delhi inhabited by a DNT community, bringing literally every member of that community into Chaturvedi's police station, and haranguing and abusing them to confess to resurrecting the Kachcha Baniyan gang to commit these murders. Eventually, it comes to light that this consultant has also been telling the DNTs in police custody that if they pay him off, he'll release them and eliminate them from the suspect list. (Once Chaturvedi discovers this, she basically tells the consultant to go fuck himself, thankfully.) I did not know anything about DNTs in India or their long history of being targets of racial violence at the hands of the British and the Indian police force, and I felt that this particular plotline was a thoughtful and sensitive way of exploring the subtle nuances of Delhi society that inform the way crimes occur in the city and the way the police operate. Delhi Crime is at its best when it interrogates the reasons why crime happens in Delhi due to the disparity between the lower classes and the elite in Season 2, and also when it shows how overtaxed and underfunded the Delhi police is in Season 1, offering explanations - but not excuses - for the institution's failures.
It remains to be seen whether there will be a Season 3 of Delhi Crime - at the end of Season 2, Chaturvedi is congratulated by Police Commissioner Kumar Vijay for cracking the case and told she will be getting a promotion within the Indian Police Service - which will involve being transferred to a remote area of the country. (Because yes, he is still mad that she defied his orders to identify innocent men as guilty to pacify the rabid news media.) I don't know how Delhi Crime works as a show without Shefali Shah as DCP Vartika Chaturvedi at its center - if they do a new season, I cannot imagine being interested in following a different DCP, and if they keep Chaturvedi as its central character it won't be Delhi Crime anymore, seeing as she's about to be shipped off to some remote hinterland of the subcontinent. But regardless of what the future holds for this series, I highly recommend watching these two seasons on Netflix - if you're a fan of police procedurals, if you're a fan of true crime, if you're interested in the way policing works outside of the United States, if you're interested in the way India's colonial past still has societal reverberations in modern India, if you're a fan of Monsoon Wedding, or if you just value well-written and well-acted shows, there is more than plenty to love here.
Reeya is a musician and writer based in NY's Capital District. Her debut album The Way Up was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.