Netflix’s latest limited series shines a light on the Burari deaths, a case which held the whole of India in its grip in the summer of 2018, when 11 members of the Bhatia family were found dead in their home.
The case turned the national spotlight on the bylanes of Delhi’s Burari area, a blow one gets the sense it has still not recovered from, as is often the case with communities at the heart of which something uncommonly rotten emerges.
Presented across three 45-minute episodes, the limited series from Netflix’s original documentary arm offers unparalleled access to both media and Bhatia family home movie footage, as well as interviews with family, friends and law enforcement.
But while the series will satisfy anyone unfamiliar with the fate of the Bhatias, those au fait with the crime may be left wanting more.
Warning: the following contains spoilers for House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths.
‘Etched in my mind until the day I die’
On July 1, 2018, a neighbour, alerted by the still-closed grocery store belonging to the Bhatia family, and the uncollected morning milk delivery spoiling in the sun, pushed open the unlocked door to their house in Sant Nagar and walked upstairs only to emerge screaming moments later.
The series wastes no time in getting straight to the heart of what he found there, showing harrowing images the trigger warning at the outset attempts to, but can in no way, prepare you for.
Eleven members of the Bhatia family (also known as the Chundawats) were dead inside. Ten hanging from a metal grate in the ceiling, colourful saris wrapped around their necks; while the eldest, the grandmother Narayani Devi, 80, lay on her side nearby. On the roof, the family’s dog Tommy had been tied up, left to bark himself hoarse in the sun.
“I don’t think anybody has ever seen this kind of crime scene ever in his life,” intones Manoj Kumar, station house officer at the Burari police station. “This is something that has been etched in my mind until the day I die.”
The dead were Devi, 80; her sons Bhuvnesh, 50, and Lalit, 45; daughters-in-law Savita, 48, and Tina, 42; and daughter Pratibha, 57. Then there were the grandchildren, Pratibha’s daughter Priyanka, 33, Bhuvnesh’s children, daughters Nitu, 25 and Monu, 23, and son Dhruv, 15; and Shivam, the only child and son of Lalit, also 15.
It’s worth remembering the names and ages of these family members, because the series offers scant insight into who they were as people, their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Information about the youngest victims, the two teenage boys in particular, falls disappointingly short.
Blindfolded and gagged, with their hands and feet bound
The use of original footage throughout the series is impressive, capturing the harsh and at times incendiary spotlight the media shone on the local community. The tension and agitation in the air is palpable as more than 5,000 people swarmed the lanes daily, some to gawp, others to demand answers the police weren’t ready or able to give. All were filming endless footage on their mobile phones.
Comprehensive, too, are the talking heads brought before the cameras by director Leena Yadav. This includes family members, friends, neighbours, police officers, forensic experts, psychologists, doctors, journalists, writers, crime reporters, former employees, co-workers and teachers. Even the family plumbing contractor is interviewed.
For some, this is clearly a cathartic experience, allowing them to work through the apocalyptic event which obliterated three generations of the same family. For others, it’s all in a day’s work. Although the toll the investigation took on the forensics team is obvious.
A nearby CCTV camera showed no one outside of the family had entered or exited on the nights leading up to the deaths. It showed Tina and Shivam bringing in four newly purchased stools on June 28. On June 30, Tina and another woman are seen bringing home more stools; five plastic stools were found around the family. Later that night at 10.29pm, Lalit’s son Shivam opens the family’s plywood shop, bringing a small bundle of wires upstairs. This would be the last time any of the family was seen alive.
An unfulfilling foray into media sensationalism
The series begins with the deaths before branching out into the hows and whys. We already know the what, when and where. At first, murder is not ruled out, and while it likely felt necessary to follow the police investigation in that brief direction, the entire first episode feels a little like being led up the garden path. A cursory internet search yields the outcome of the case, which is why a deeper dig into the whys might have been a better use of screen time.
Tangents go off into the role of the Indian media and sensationalist reporting around the crime. Everything from numerology to soul possession is given the kind of airtime that is usually the remit of QAnon conspiracists, and the series is right to point out the danger this kind of “reporting” presents. At one point, the family’s plumber’s daughter undergoes trial by media, accused of being a “tantrik” because her father installed 11 pipes in the Bhatia house and 11 people died inside it.
While the documentary’s disdain for this kind of sensationalism is well-intentioned, the tangent isn’t given enough room to breathe, coming across as cursory. It would be better explored, perhaps, in a different documentary altogether.
“There has to be knowledge, there has to be intention, and there has to be motive behind a crime,” Dr Joy N Tirkey, deputy commissioner of Delhi Police Crime Branch, explains, after homicide and home invasion are ruled out by lack of evidence. “Why should they die? And who should kill them? And for what?”
As far as the who and what go, the discovery of handwritten diaries in the house soon shed light on a family that wasn’t at all what it seemed. The why, to this day, remains elusive.
'It’s time for daddy’s visit'
The spotlight shifts, a little too late in the series to allow for the kind of in-depth analysis hardcore true-crime fans will crave, to Lalit. Although he was the youngest son, family members agree he was the favourite. When his father Bhopal Singh died, he took up the position of family patriarch, a role he set about with quiet fervour. The kind that ends with your whole family dead at your behest.
“Everyone looked up to him,” notes a family friend with unironic understatement.
The diaries, 11 in all, recovered from the family home, covered the period from September 2007 with the final entry just before their deaths.
Pages and pages of musings, revealed by handwriting analysis to have been written by Priyanka and Neetu, had been dictated by Lalit, who had come to believe his dead father was not only communicating with him, but also visiting him.
The revelation that nearing the deaths, Lalit had dictated “It’s time for daddy’s visit” feels like it should come with one of those musical stings signalling impending doom in horror movies. Another heart-dropping entry reads: “Nobody will disobey what’s written here.”
Lalit’s mental and emotional hold over the family had grown like a cancer since his father's death. Family and psychologists point to two separate incidents as likely contributing to the declining mental health, as a result of which, Lalit set about controlling every aspect of his family’s lives, directing them to see any form of coincidence as “God’s will”.
Eventually, as with most cult leaders, Lalit crossed the fine line between faith and delusion, leading his family in a seven-day ritual he dubbed “Badh pooja”, named after the banyan tree whose roots hang from its branches. The family members would be hung in similar fashion.
Debate continues to rage over whether this was suicide, murder or accidental death. A diary entry that reads: “Everyone will help each other in untying”, seems to point to the latter.
A psychological autopsy concluded they believed they would walk away from the ritualistic hanging to emerge on to a higher plane.
“Instead of a psychological autopsy, what we really need is a sociological autopsy,” muses female journalist Barkha Dutt towards the end. “At the heart of it, there seems to be this mass resistance to talking about mental health.”
Ultimately, a discussion about mental health, and the power and influence the patriarchal figure holds in Indian society might have been a more insightful place for this fascinating documentary to start.
'House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths' is out on Netflix now