‘Delhi Crime’ review: Never Gets Better

LICH rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

In taking up what is one of this century India’s most heinous crimes and choosing to narrate it via the Netflix series Delhi Crime, writer-director Richie Mehta treads around shards of appropriateness and sensitivity to the real-life victim and her family. And he comes out triumphant, leaving you stunned with a sense of despair and corroded emptiness.

On the night of December 16, 2012, a medical student and her friend boarded a bus that had six men aboard; what followed was a gruesome, inhuman session of violence against Jyoti Singh (the series is dedicated to her memory)—the boy was beaten mercilessly too, but what Jyoti endured is something no one, ever ever must have to go through. Mehta doesn’t show the scene onscreen, but details of the violence are narrated in the medical reports and in a later episode, in a gut-wrenching statement by the victim in the series, Deepika (Abhilasha Singh). Those details are enough to make your blood boil, your stomach churn, and shrink in horror. It are these emotions that drive DCP South Delhi, Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) to form a crack team to track down the perpetrators. This, even as she’s in the midst of a family push-and-pull of convincing her own teenage daughter, Chandni (Yashaswini Dayama) of how safe and beautiful Delhi is. Post this incident, things go down in a spiral of conflict between the two; balancing them is Vartika’s cop husband Vishal (Denzil Smith with the right dignity and heft).

Shefali Shah, Denzil Smith: support systems.

As the series opens, the director introduces you to the cops who will have a major role to play across the seven-episoder, and etches out a distinct arc for each one of them as the story progresses. Told from the point of view of these characters, the director stalks them and their investigation meticulously, combining drama with an intense eye for detail, human foibles and challenges. None of the team has it easy, they’re all holed up at the police station where the charge is filed, and then as the criminals flee the city, they fan out all across north India, piecing clues, CCTV footages, family trees, and call records together. Mehta uses classic soundtracks to follow the team—there’s a Sachin Dev Burman number in a jeep that becomes the topic of banter; in other scenes, numbers by Rahul Dev Burman and other composers play in the background—no matter where you go in this belt, old Hindi film tracks are a melodic binder across classes and slums. Andrew Lockington‘s outstanding background score ties up the series—segueing from a haunted weariness that highlights a turn in the investigation or covers a dank jail cell to a sycophantic throb to up the sleuthing tension.

Rajesh Tailang, Mridul Sharma: a tight investigation.

Amidst all this, there’s political intrigue as well: public outrage fueled by the self-appointed justice of media builds up a messy story of the ostensible lack of policing and thereafter lackadaisical approach  to the crime; this cries out for optics and damage control. Here, there’s power-play see-saw between the Delhi Chief Minister (Sanjiv Chopra)—the police is governed by the Center, not the state—and the Police Commissioner Kumar Vijay—Adil Hussain in a finely polished, stiff-upper lip act, wrapping his character’s challenges with dignity and grace.  

Rasika Duggal: newbie with lots on her plate (and mind).

But it is the actors playing the investigating cops that are a highlight. Each and every one of them is marvelous: Anurag Arora, Jaya Bhattacharya, Vinod Sharawat, Gopal Dutt, Gaurav Rana, Siddharth Bhardwaj, Amitabh Acharya, Ramji Bali, Asif Ali Khan, all of them turn in arresting performances, their story bits adding the humane bite to the story. The casting of the six on the lam is perfect, especially Mridul Sharma as Jai Singh. Take a bow, Mukesh Chhabra (himself playing the station in-charge of Karauli post).

Anurag Arora, Siddharth Bharadwaj, Gaurav Rana, Rajesh Tailang: crack team.

Leading the way are Shefali Shah and Rajesh Tailang, the latter playing Inspector Bhupendra Singh and the supportive, placating cop to Shah’s fury-and-spitfire charge. Tailang plays off Shah’s intensity with superb acuity, he rolls out the importance of statistics to calm her down while elsewhere, he joins her for her special decoction coffee, smiling off such luxuries with a how-does-it-matter-what-brand-it-is shrug; follows her angry explosion after the first arrest with one of his own; and then in the final episode, a jaunty walk and a hands opening into a smile gesture of deliverance, all done superbly.

Shefali Shah is the highlight of Delhi Crime.

Shefali Shah is the highlight of Delhi Crime; in her deep, expressive eyes do you see the angst of the police force, of a mother, of someone who’s got the world’s load on her shoulders, literally. And yet, the actress can turn that angst into a furnace of red-hot rage as quickly as she can super liquefy it into a mother’s love, a leader’s concern or simmer it into tough love. Hers is one of the top performances of the year on LICH, hands down.

If Shah’s character is the face of struggle and ultimate triumph of the justice system, newbie IPS officer Neeti Singh is you, me, and all of us who can’t quite fathom our fear-hate-love-respect relationship with cops in general. As Rasika Duggal plays her brilliantly in a translucently quiet and helpless performance, she makes you question everything about everything—including this series itself: is solving such a gory crime a cause for celebration? Or cause for pause and think why such a crime occurred? (There’s Gopal Dutt’s character’s superb exposition on why this happened in an episode.) What’ll it take to prevent another one from happening? Is there any hope at all? This harrowing, difficult-to-watch yet must-watch series ends as it begins—director Mehta and cinematographer Johan Heurlin Aidt offering no succor—a dark lit scene with no sign of silver lining in sight. Like Vartika and her team, you’d do well to quietly savor an ice-cream stick. Before the next crime headline hits you.  

LICH ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Delhi Crime (2019– ) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Delhi Crime is rated A (Restricted to adults) There’s intense scenes, profanity, and violence.

Delhi Crime
Director Richie Mehta Running Time ~50 min per episode
Writer Richie Mehta
Stars Shefali Shah, Rajesh Tailang, Adil Hussain, Rasika Duggal
Genres  Crime, Drama