Hold on to those true crime hot takes

Why rushing out movies and shows on sensational crime cases can be premature.

The Allahabad High Court’s recent verdict in the Nithari rape and murder case acquitting prime accused Surinder Koli and Moninder Singh Pandher is a major setback for the victims’ families. We are none the wiser about who killed at least 17 children and women in 2005 and 2006 in Nithari, a village in Noida. 

Koli and Pandher had been sentenced to death by a trial court. But as often happens, the trial underwent a radical shift by the time it reached the High Court. The court found the police investigation irredeemably shoddy, remarking that “the casual and perfunctory manner in which important aspects of arrest, recovery and confession have been dealt with is most disheartening, to say the least”.

The case was instantly sensational because of allegations of sexual assault and cannibalism. In its verdict, the High Court noted that rather than pinning Koli as a sexual deviant and Pandher as his enabler, the police should have focused on one of the earliest theories that emerged along with the initial discovery of the corpses: organ trading.

The judgement puts paid to analyses of the case, ranging from the cerebral (a chapter in Rana Dasgupta’s nonfiction book Capital) to the borderline prurient (Ram Devineni’s The Karma Killings). While Dasgupta writes movingly about the economic divide revealed by the Nithari killings, Devineni’s documentary goes along with the theory about Koli’s alleged cannibalistic tendencies while giving Pandher a wider berth. The Karma Killings is available on YouTube.

The Karma Killings

The High Court’s verdict is a cautionary tale for filmmakers who rush to churn out movies or shows based on actual crimes. Such projects often revisit a case after the final judgement has been delivered. Yet, there have been instances where true crime productions have been rushed out even when the ultimate legal recourse has not yet been exhausted.

The viewing public loves nothing more than quick hot takes about gruesome killings. And the grislier the event the greater the hunger for a summary with some insight thrown in about how the crimes happened, who was responsible, and how the investigation proceeded. The mainstay of such projects is a serving or retired police officer holding forth on the Sherlockian methods of detection involved in arriving at the truth. The Nithari verdict suggests that such statements should be taken with a barrel of salt.

A film or a series that is “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” is deemed that much more credible than the fictional crimes over which creators sweat. But with the possibility of new evidence always present, and given what we know about the nature of police work, it is perhaps wiser to rely on the imagination.

A couple of films inspired by actual incidents offer sideways glances at the business of reopening well-thumbed case files. David Fincher’s Zodiac is, for the most part, a fascinating study of the impossibility of arriving at a clean solution. Up until Zodiac tries to identify the most likely culprit, the movie is a riveting account of an investigation that consumes its participants and, given the false leads or delays in the investigation, is doomed to fail.


Fincher’s film re-examines a murder spree committed by a man who calls himself “Zodiac” in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s and 1970s. Hardworking police detectives and journalists become obsessed with the case, but the killer’s identity remains elusive. The film points a finger at one of the suspects but the end credits declare that he may not have been The One, as DNA evidence doesn’t support his culpability.

A better film than Zodiac is South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Here too, a pair of police detectives obsessively chase down leads into a series of rape-murders. One of the investigators revisits the scene of one of the crimes, only to learn that the absconding murderer appears to have been at the spot not too long ago. In a twist that could not have been predicted when this movie was released, the actual killer was finally unmasked as late as 2019.

Memories of Murder

Perhaps a show that gets it right is the Netflix series Kohrra, some of whose imagery has been inspired by Memories of Murder. While the person behind a man’s murder is unmasked, the show reveals in its stunning final moments that other, unfathomable mysteries abound. The case might be closed, but there are loose ends still fluttering in the wind, perhaps never to be resolved.

What to watch this week

Jonathon Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a deeply satisfying work of fiction that proves that fiction is as worthy as true crime. We wrote about Demme’s haunting adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel of the same name here. The film is available on Prime Video.

The Silence of the Lambs.

On the other hand, David Fincher’s Mindhunter is very much inspired by actual characters. The two-season Netflix series looks at serial killer profiling through the experiences of two government agents. Handsomely produced and beautifully filmed, the series is a cerebral exploration of a phenomenon that is still poorly understood.

The Prime Video show Dahaad, directed by Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi, has been inspired by the exploits of “cyanide killer” Mohan Kumar. The show’s biggest spoiler: its most charismatic character is the murderer in question, played by Vijay Varma. 

Vignesh Raja’s Por Thozhil, available on Sony LIV, is a nail-biting, well-performed police procedural that wastes little time in setting up its premise.  

Por Thozhil.

Among the recent crimes that continue to fascinate us is the Burari mass deaths of 2018. At least two shows and a film exist about a bizarre descent into occult practices. The most fulfilling of these is Leena Yadav’s House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths on Netflix. The most valuable takeaway from the docuseries: there is no one conclusive, put-a-bow-on-it takeaway.

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