Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Those of us familiar with Indian television shows are accustomed to a certain look and feel. In much of it there is something missing, if you are spoiled by Hollywood standards. Rarely will you find the elusive combination of high-quality screenwriting, acting, direction, editing, lighting and film technology to call an Indian TV series world-class. In an interview Bollywood actor Prashantt Guptha told me that screenwriting in India is the weakest link in the chain.
This is especially disappointing because in so many ways, India is a more interesting setting for film than most places in the world. With cultural, religious, ethnic, and breathtaking landscape diversity both rural and urban, the ancient and ultramodern juxtaposed bizarrely, and humans and their problems literally overflowing onto the streets with fantastic food everywhere. The music and the clothes are as intense as the food. Add a potent crush of political and societal issues such as #MeToo and gang rape always in the background, and India is ripe for a global television audience. Netflix’s Delhi Crime is a must-watch television drama based on true events, that exhibits the awesome potential of mating Western technology and expertise with Indian artistes and an Indian city as itself the main character in the show.
I was not expecting much from Delhi Crime when I began watching it- expecting some hackneyed themes from the Indian true crime police procedural, especially because Bollywood has done tons and tons of police film. Yet Delhi Crime is a true masterpiece and stands not as a great Indian show, but a great show period. Too many times I have seen Indian actors mailing it in while the story drags on and broods on its own wannabe profundity- such as Netflix’s first Indian offering, the less watchable Sacred Games, which wasted the talents of a number of fine actors. I don’t even remember what this show was supposed to be about after watching most of the season with a now-crushed desire to review it on this site.
Delhi Crime is on the other hand hard to stop watching from beginning to end. It’s not just binge-worthy. It is the best Indian television I have ever seen. We start with a gruesome crime in the nation’s capital, much worse than just a run of the mill gang rape, with highly realistic and honest portrayals of the involved Delhi police officers and officials- heroism, incompetence, workaholism, corruption, warts, and all. The political overlords were not lionized or demonized. The show is much more raw than most Indian cinema with its escapism and desire to paint everything in black and white: the cop as either hero or devil, without nuance. In this the show reminded me favorably of HBO’s classic, The Wire: criminals and cops alike are shown as complex individuals with troubled but relatable personal lives and pasts. With the wide array of philosophical differences between the various characters, the show provides a competent bird’s eye view of the Nirbhaya case which stained India permanently. As the icing on the cake, the music is fitting, and the food looks so good at times I was salivating.
Shefali Shah acted so well in the lead role, I almost thought that she was the real life Delhi Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the investigation- in turns managing the team brilliantly and misfiring easy decisions. The bad guys were so greasy and disgusting, I thought they just may have pulled the real life villains out of prison to be on the show. The actress who played the victim Abhilasha Singh had a small but memorable stint. Overall, none of the acting was bad. This is just about a first for Indian TV in my experience.
There are only two facets I choose to criticize in the show. There are shockingly piss-poor translations between the spoken Hindi dialogue, the overdubs, and the subtitles. Secondly, the storyline of the DCP’s troubled daughter is trite, unnecessary, distracting and poorly executed.
Most of all, kudos to Canadian-American director and co-creator Richie Mehta. Let’s hope Netflix, Amazon, and other Western based studios will continue their deep dive into Indian film. There is much that is worth watching in modern India, a misunderstood rising superpower whose welfare has increasingly critical ramifications for the rest of the world. Put this one at the top of your queue, or better yet- turn it on now!