Smriti Kiran: We are chatting all things Delhi Crime, a seven-part series, based on the six-day manhunt for the six culprits that followed the heinous gang rape in Delhi in 2012.
Produced by Ivanhoe Pictures, Golden Karavan, and directed, written and created by Richie Mehta, Delhi Crime world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, where it was acquired by Netflix and released on the platform in March of the same year. Delhi Crime brought home the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series. More than the awards, the series propelled conversations and brought into focus discussions around systemic fault lines: class, caste, patriarchy, misogyny and gender.
Richie Mehta, the one-man army, worked for six long years to tell a story none of us should forget.
Richie, I want to dial back to 2013. You’d written a script on Nirbhaya and in connection with the script, you went to meet Neeraj Kumar, the Commissioner of Delhi Police at that time. This is six months after the incident. This meeting with him became the beginning of your Delhi Crime journey. What happened at that meeting?
Ritchie Mehta: I had gone to meet him about something else. I had a script which was inspired by some of the feelings I had about the crime. All that the people in the arts community can do is communicate their feelings at some point when they feel something so strong, especially when they are conflicting feelings. So, I went to meet him just to ask him questions about police procedure on this other script. During that meeting, he said, ‘Beta, forget about this story you’re doing. I have something better for you.’
“This crime was still plaguing us.”
He had seen my other films, so he knew what I was up to. He knew the kind of work I was doing. He handed me the 370-page verdict. He said, ‘I think you should make a film about this.’ That’s when I said, ‘I don’t think anyone should make a film about this. I wouldn’t even know where to start, and I’m not sure if the world is ready for it nor is it appropriate.’ But he said, ‘Listen, why don’t you read this verdict? It’s just come out. It goes into detail, the investigation that my team undertook to catch these culprits; and it goes into the whole case – the details of the case that most people don’t really know. Then, if you want to meet some of the officers, I’ll introduce you; and you figure out your way into this if you think there’s a story there.’ So, he really left it open for me and was very sensitive about my feelings about it.
From a human standpoint, this crime was still plaguing us. We were still thinking about it every day – everyone I knew and even in the media. So, I wanted to learn more about this. I went back and read this document. It took me a couple of weeks to read it, and I was so intrigued because of the details of that verdict. If you read any verdict from a judge, the judge is trying to put together the story of what happened. That story begins from the crime, reportedly, in terms of the point of view of the first person who discovered it, which was this PCR Constable, who I showed in the first scene.
From that point on, it’s all about how the information came to be known: who figured it out and how, and is that information accurate. That’s what the judge is trying to determine, which is what we’re trying to determine. The judge’s goal was the same as the public’s goal in this circumstance, because not only is it about identifying who did it, it’s also about identifying where these people are, what they’re doing, why they did it. All of these things were somewhere in this document – not in extreme detail, but enough that the story made sense. To me, that was very intriguing.
There were holes in the story, too. There were certain points where it just said, ‘Informant revealed this, and the police discovered this.’ That’s when I said, ‘I want to meet these cops because there’s more information that’s missing, especially the key question: Why did they do it?’
Smriti Kiran: Richie, you started meeting a lot of people, one of whom was Chhaya (Sharma), whom Vartika (Chaturvedi) is based on. You made the verdict your Bible and had 70 pages of notes. But the landscape was very different in 2013-2014. House of Cards had just been released on Netflix and series were mostly made for television. Delhi Crime was still a film in your head so how did it flip to a series?
Ritchie Mehta: The document you’ve identified was a compilation of my understanding of the timeline, compiling information from the verdict as to those five-six days after the crime as well as what the police officers had told me. I kept meeting them, getting to know them more, and they would give me information. Oftentimes, on various incidents and moments, there were two-three officers whom I had met who had different points of view, not in terms of the result of the incident but in terms of how that unfolded and little details. Mostly just personal perspective, like you and I would have a different feeling about a certain incident.
“I realised it must be the women’s point of view on this crime against a woman, and it must be the point of view of the women trying to solve it.”
I started compiling all these different points of view into a timeline, and that became the Bible document. Day one, this happened; day two, this happened; this happened at ten o’clock; this happened at 11. I would also have sources for that. If it wasn’t the Bible, it was these people. When I had that, I looked at it and said, ‘If this should be anything, then I don’t think it’ll fit in a film.’ That’s a very loaded statement because it took me a couple of years to get to that point where I decided that this was worth doing. Part of my evaluation at each stage was, ‘Should this even exist?’
At each stage, I would meet an officer and get to know them. Chhaya, especially. The more I got to know them, the more I felt for these people. I thought they were incredible. These particular people I was meeting were so extraordinary. I’d never met anyone like them. Then I started to realise the point of view of this story, if there is one to be told, must be the women’s point of view on this crime against a woman, and it must be the point of view of the women trying to solve it. That’s the surface level. There’s more to it than that.
But it was so big. I could see that if this was a film, it would be a seven or eight-hour film, and it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t necessarily want to make an eight-hour film that went to one or two festivals maybe, and then disappears forever. If this was going to be something I invested my time into and energy for years, it had to be something that was accessible.
Then, I got lucky. I met David Levine who became a dear friend of mine. He was at HBO and was overseeing some of the biggest shows at the time: Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective. He understood story, structure, research, and the difference between a film and a series. I had met him about something else but that pitch didn’t go very well. He said, ‘What else are you working on?’ I said, ‘I have this film I’m researching, about this heinous crime in Delhi,’ and I described it to him. He asked, ‘Would you do that as a series?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a series, but I have this research and I have this timeline and the story, which is essentially an eight-hour film.’ He goes, ‘I can help you with that.’
So, I started writing it out as a series. I would just send him versions of it, and he would just give me a couple of pointers and say, ‘This is what you’re trying to do, but I think this is a better take on this in terms of the story structure.’ He opened my mind up to what we were capable of doing in the series space before it was happening at a global level. It was about a year and a half of the process of going back and forth with David on various things.
Smriti Kiran: Then emerged a 170-page Bible with detailed episode and character breakdowns. But HBO did not make this because then they felt that they were not ready to invest in a non-English project. You were very convinced about the fact that you wanted this to be multilingual, primarily in Hindustani. So, what did you do when you worked on this and they said that they couldn’t do it?
Ritchie Mehta: I sent it to my agents in Los Angeles. They read it, and they thought it was worth pursuing. They, then, connected me with a potential financier/producer – somebody who they had worked with previously. It was a new company, and it was started by a guy named David Stern, who was running it. They sent him the Bible without me even knowing and then came back to me and said that he wanted to finance the pilot script.
Then, they connected me. He was based in New York and we just started chatting, getting to know each other, and I said, ‘I think this guy understands what I’m trying to do, and he believes in what I’m trying to do. Let’s give it a shot. Nobody else wants it.’ I signed the rights to him, and he financed the writing of the pilot, the first screenplay based on my Bible. He would give me great notes along the way. That was the first step. Then it gets more sordid.
Smriti Kiran: How did Golden Karavan and Ivanhoe come into the picture? While you were trying to get financiers on board to actually fund your project, was there ever an effort to go to different platforms to figure out whether they would like to come on board?
Ritchie Mehta: Sure, but that’s now. We are talking about the spring of 2016 when this happened. I had just finished India in a Day when I made a deal with David Stern and started working on it. I can’t remember how many months that was working on the pilot script. After we finished that, I went and pitched it to some platforms. Before that, no platforms were looking for a series. This was just starting to happen in early 2016, where all the platforms globally were getting into content, even Hindi language content. David pitched it on the U.S. side; I pitched it here in India. Nobody wanted it. They just said, ‘Sorry, it’s too controversial. We’re not interested.’ I’m not even sure they read it. It was very clear that nobody was interested at that stage.
“Golden Karavan and Ivanhoe decided to come together and finance this 50-50, and create the show at very high risk.”
I thought it was dead in the water. We didn’t know where to go. Then, I had an off-hand conversation with Apoorva Bakshi. We were old friends, and they had distributed my films Siddharth and Amal. I trusted them. I just said it offhand to Apoorva that I had this Bible about this case, that I thought it was dead in the water, and I was just going to leave it for now and figure it out some other time. She asked if she could read it. I sent it and she read it that night. She had spoken to Pooja and they came to me and said that come hell or high water they’re going to make sure that this project exists. That was such an inspirational moment for me, because these are Indian women who grew up in Delhi. To me, they are the most critical audience for this and the most important audience for this project.
When that happened, I connected them with David Stern, and David connected them with other partners and financiers of his company, and they formed Golden Karavan, an entity, which then came to finance this project, at least the first stage of it.
Smriti Kiran: When all this was happening, you still didn’t have a platform that was going to say, ‘Okay, if you produce this, we are going to put this on’?
Ritchie Mehta: Nope, there was no platform at that stage. I think there were conversations Golden Karavan was having. There were these other producers: Florence Sloan, Jeff Sagansky, Aaron Kaplan, who had come together with Pooja and Apoorva. They were having conversations with the platforms, who were still not interested – they thought it was too controversial.
Then, we all connected with Ivanhoe, which is Sidney Kimmel Entertainment now. That was via Kilian Kerwin and John Penotti. So, Golden Karavan and Ivanhoe decided to come together and finance this 50-50, and create the show at very high risk. To this day, I’m quite amazed. There was a risk, but they knew my work, they knew what I was capable of at that stage, and I’d left nothing to the imagination in the writing, so they took a huge financial gamble because nobody in the world that I know of was outrightly financing a show, especially when all the platforms declined. They were convinced that when it was done it would sell.
Smriti Kiran: What are the creative challenges of putting together a narrative that is based on a real incident and is deeply sensitive?
“I cannot make up more drama than what already exists, nor can I do it for exploitation.”
Ritchie Mehta: Whatever the creative challenges were, on a script stage, I solved them before I brought on anybody. So, all of this was done at a stage where I could have parachuted out of the project and nobody would have been none the wiser. As a result, I had a real personal safety net: if I failed in the writing stage, the stakes were very low. As a result, I didn’t feel that pressure early on to get it right from a societal standpoint – I just felt a pressure to justify its existence to myself.
It’s hard for me to answer that because I didn’t have any precedents to go on. There were a handful of shows that I’d ever seen based on real stories. But because this was still such a very deep cut that was so recent, I almost equated it as a 9/11 of India. There’s 26/11, and all these events, but this was a civil crime. This was not active international terrorism but a civil crime. The entire world noticed because nobody had ever heard anything like this. It changed India, and it changed everyone’s perception of India.
So, that pressure to get it right stemmed from the fact that if I’m going to do a narrative fictionalised dramatisation of this, the dramatic high points of the series must not be fabricated. I cannot make up more drama than what already exists, nor can I do it for exploitation. Those were the two big pillars I had.
Smriti Kiran: In the process of writing and exploring this narrative, what was your emotional point of entry into the series? What was your lens as a storyteller? Is that the first step that one has to take when one begins to write and does that evolve as one goes along?
Ritchie Mehta: It is absolutely the first step. The question is: Why do you want to make it? Why should it exist?
If you’re meeting an official at a high position, and let’s say the meeting is one hour, you could end up sitting for four to seven hours in the office just to get their attention. Because they have other things, and they don’t kick you out of the office when other people come in for the business at hand that they have. So, I would sit and observe as much as I would discuss with them. I went to many stations because the cops had been dispersed at that stage.
“I realised that the story has never been told from their point of view, from a human point of view.”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The lights going out in the station, for example – and this is the wealthiest locality in all of India. Also, going out with some PCR vans for their duty and understanding what a day looks like; trying to track down the traffic constable.
The first character, Ram Pratap, who finds these people, had been transferred to traffic. So, even tracking this guy down and then finally having a conversation with him. When he came in, he was so tired. He didn’t want to meet me. He didn’t care. He just wanted to go home. His shift had been 17 hours or something like that. It takes him three hours to commute in and three hours to go out.
All these things kept compounding as I would observe, and I realised this is where the story is. When a lady constable told me that she felt pressured from her husband to go home and cook for him that night, but she had just found a two-year-old in the dumpster that morning, which she had to deal with, that’s when I started scratching my head saying, ‘I don’t think people know this.’
Part of the anger after that crime was pointed towards the police officers. I had the same anger, but then I realised that the story has never been told from their point of view, from a human point of view. If we tell them, ‘You need to protect us from these demons running around the streets,’ we have to understand what we’re endowing them with and what their psychological takeaways are. That started to be my entry point.
I’m an optimist. So, ultimately I kept telling myself, ‘What’s the point of doing something like this if it’s so grim, especially when other documentaries have come out about it, which were very, very disturbing?’ It all came down to one moment. I once met a police officer at a police station near Nehru Place and asked him a question about some procedure. He went, ‘Let me give you an example. Last Tuesday, we found a prostitute face down in the ditch, naked, murdered. That’s part of the story. That’s not the point.’ I said, ‘What you just described to me is Jack the Ripper, and would be the front page in London or New York or LA for six months.’ And he goes, ‘That’s just a Tuesday here.’ After that, I said, ‘Do you still believe in people and human beings? And are you optimistic about them?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Then, he told me the stats, which I have in the series, that 17 million people at the time in Delhi had 80,000 police officers, out of which 45% are on traffic duty, which leaves 55% of the 80,000 to do preventive policing. They statistically cannot stop a crime from happening, which means the only thing keeping the peace are the people themselves.
I asked multiple officers after that. They all said the same thing. ‘We believe in people. We see the worst bad apples, but it’s a small percentage. Everyone else wants to make the world work.’ That’s when I realised that this is it: this is my way in because this is what I believe; and if I can start with the crime and somehow end on this type of sentiment, then it’s worth doing.
Smriti Kiran: You make that very clear in the first episode because every character has been painstakingly detailed. You show the kind of challenges that they have – for example, Ram Pratap doesn’t have time to get medicine for his wife, or Bhupendra just caught a terrorist, but what he has to deal with is electricity bills and a telephone not working, or Vimla warming up chapatis on a heater.
Ritchie Mehta: I can’t make those details up. When the real Vimla told me that, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘You know those heaters,’ and she described to me the heaters and then said that that is what she was doing. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You were doing that during this manhunt when the entire world was watching you guys?’ She said, ‘Yeah, of course, it was cold. What else are you gonna do?’ I just couldn’t believe it.
Smriti Kiran: Also, getting a forensics team, which is considered basic, is such an event in the series. They have to pull strings to get a forensics team, and Vimla even says, ‘15 saal ho gaye lekin kabhi forensics team nahi dekhi.’ There are also these subtle touches, for example, her being a woman officer, she adds later, ‘Mere kehne se toh chaprasi bhi nahi aayega.’
Ritchie Mehta: That’s right. This is why I wanted to do the series. This information would be given by accident. At one point, one of the officers – I think it was Chhaya – said, ‘The forensics team finally showed up after I made some calls.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you made some calls? Don’t they come anyway?’ ‘No, beta. You don’t know how it works,’ and then she told me. I said, ‘I understand that most of my understanding of police work comes from Western TV shows and films, but I thought this was even the basics here. I thought everyone I know in India assumes the same thing.’ And she said, ‘No, I had to call in favours. We all had to call in favours to get them.’ Even then, there’s this little side thing where they resist on the bus.
Smriti Kiran: I have to be the devil’s advocate here. I need to ask you this because this is also one of the criticisms of the series that came in. We know there are massive logistical gaps. The police force is supposed to run a marathon with their hands and feet tied. But in a country where police brutality and overreach is also very real, how did you keep the balance?
Ritchie Mehta: I was fully aware of the narrative that already exists in the media, and it’s justified for so many reasons. That’s why I was so adamant about sticking to truthful pillars in this. I would never purport to resent the police force, the Delhi police, IPS, in any way. All I can say is that I can vouch for these 12-15 officers, who I showcase in this show. I can vouch for their motivations and for how difficult it was and what they tried to do. That’s what I can vouch for. I have a problem with fictionalised renderings of the police force; I have a problem with takes in the media which are exploitative – both sides of it: whether they show superheroes or not. In this particular case, I thought it was really important that this act as a counter-narrative to what’s already out there. I’m not there to represent all of the police. I’m just talking about this particular case.
That came to me in one incident. I was sitting with one of the officers at Okhla police station who was involved in this, who’d been transferred there. We were chatting, and I asked him about some of the lady officers under his command. He called one of his lady officers in, who was very thin – she looked gaunt. He started questioning her in front of me, very simple questions: ‘Beti, did you eat today?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, I had a little bit.’ ‘How long did it take for you to get here?’ She explained her commuting route. He said, ‘What time are you leaving?’ She said, ‘Late at night,’ and then she left. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you think if some crazy scumbag enters the station violently, she’s going to stop him? She’s the first person sitting there in the lobby. Do you think she’s going to stop him? There’s no way.’ He goes, ‘This is the police force. She has the best of intentions. But that’s the people we have.’ That’s when I realised this counter-narrative needs to come out: that they’re really struggling.
“In this particular case, I thought it was really important that this act as a counter-narrative to what’s already out there”
I did more research in the New York and London police departments earlier and the basis for mass corruption was based on the fact that they didn’t have enough resources. So, they had every incentive to be corrupt.
Smriti Kiran: What are the things one has to be careful of when creating material based on real incidents involving real people? Is there a legal, factual vetting process that the screenplay goes through from the start?
Ritchie Mehta: Yes, exactly. That was one of our stumbling blocks before we went into production. The process in the West is called Errors and Omissions Insurance, when you need to be insured, once a project is finished. All that insurance does is cover you for legal reasons, say, if somebody sues you, and says, ‘You’ve slandered me, made things up.’ So, we did not go into production until we had Errors and Omissions Insurance on the script, which is a rare thing. Normally, we do it at the end of the project. I would not because we wouldn’t get covered – there was controversy and there were so many facts.
As a writer, part of that process is being meticulous in my annotations. There were things I had to fabricate dramatically, but those are in the b-moments. I call it the frog DNA, which is a Jurassic Park reference, which is to just fill in the gene-sequencing gaps that we couldn’t find in the mosquito blood – but those are never greater, crazier or more far-fetched than the reality. So, my annotations were very detailed and there was even a team that Apoorva had set me up with to help me verify some of the annotations, and then we got a legal team to vet all of that. Neeraj Kumar also verified some of the really controversial points and backed us up on that. Once I had that, then I felt comfortable that I could go forward with this and represent dramatically, fictionally.
Smriti Kiran: Richie, how many of the people in the crack team are real and how many of them are amalgamations? Did you create any one of these, or did you have to kind of merge two characters that you met in real life?
Ritchie Mehta: All I’ll say is, would the real officers be able to see themselves in these individuals? I’ll do the reverse of it. I believe that the real officer would see himself in Bhupendra; I believe the real officer would see herself in Neeti and Vimla. Rakesh, Subhash and Jayraj are amalgamations of either two or three officers – that’s where things started getting really abundant. But there were elements, for example, in Neeti, the personal relationship she is in was based on another female officer who had a really rough go in a relationship, and it became news because she was a police officer, and that was something that I just wanted to plant in case I continued on with the show. But that was a completely different thread from a different person. Then, there were elements, for example, in Vimla, which transferred to other female characters. Sometimes I would just move things about. I couldn’t make up stuff, but I could amalgamate.
Smriti Kiran: It becomes very clear that these officers have seen heinous crimes, very brutal crimes but when Vartika puts together the crack team, one of the officers says, ‘Ma’am, ye toh dekha hai hum ne. Isme itna different kya hai?’ She says, ‘This is insanity.’ Do you think this was done the way it was done because there was a woman at the helm of this?
Ritchie Mehta: I believe so. That’s one of my deep feelings about this: I believe that because Chhaya was called in the middle of the night and came in, and because of the human being she is, this is what happened – this is how it unfolded.
Smriti Kiran: The relationship between Bhupendra and Vartika reminded me of the tenderness and the deep faith that two people working together can have in each other and how empowering that is. Is this something that you built-in, because this is one relationship that brings in some amount of tenderness in what is very dark material?
Ritchie Mehta: There’s immense respect that they had for each other for the amount of time they’ve spent together. To be honest, to this day, I’ve never met them in the same room together. I’ve only spent so much time with them individually and heard about other people from their point of view. The amount of times the real Bhupendra would tell me about Chhaya and what he felt about her in terms of respect as a colleague, as a human being and vice versa, and then also what other people would tell me about them. Because these are people who are not necessarily used to expressing themselves emotionally, especially to someone like me; they might do it with somebody in their inner circle. In Bhupendra’s case, he’s not the type of person who expresses himself emotionally. So, it would just be a lot of my observations and inferences. This is what I believe the substance of their relationship was. I did fabricate that hug at the end. I had to. I was just like, ‘I need it. I need this hug.’
I felt I needed it, so I put that there. But I also don’t feel that it was necessarily out of place. With the challenges they were facing, at the end of the road, I’m sure there were some moments of endearment. I know, for example, they did have ice cream at India Gate. These types of details I would find. I believe that I represented it as accurately as I could, knowing fully well that the emotional thrust of it would for sure become the backbone of the whole show. It had to be. And it was obviously platonic in every way.
Smriti Kiran: Do you believe that the role of the media and the widespread protest that happened was almost something that came in the way of the work that the police were doing?
Ritchie Mehta: I’ve looked at it from a very specific perspective. This is where the character of Chandni came in. She’s a fabricated character, an amalgamation of another officer’s child, whom I put into Vartika’s lap. It was very important for me to have her represent the young women in Delhi. It also represents some of my experience – just from the point of view of attending the rallies and the protests, which sometimes got out of hand, and that she wasn’t necessarily there for violent reasons. I thought it was really important to show that point of view. She gets a lot of screen time for that reason.
I thought it was really important to represent the counter-narrative because we all know the rest of the narrative – everyone watching the show who presses play knows what those protests were. I’m not trying to discredit that or discount that. There’s validity in that. I was a part of it, so I believe it, and if it happened today, I would probably be part of it again. Is there any reason to get violent? No, I don’t believe that. But I thought it was important to show the other side of it. I would never want to take away from the validity of it, but we’re talking very specifically about these officers.
I also chose the Neeti character for a reason, because that was based on a real person. The choice I made to even show that point of view came when I spoke to a real officer. She told me she was by the bedside of the victim spending a day and night at the hospital helping, the best she could as a human being and an officer. And then she was called to India Gate, to the frontline duties, when they got violent, where they put lady officers out front to try and discourage mostly the aggressive males.
She said that she went out there to protect and serve the people in her mind, but she would be forced to face this onslaught of aggression, of people saying ‘You haven’t done enough for her. What have you done for her?’ And she would say, ‘In my mind, I’m sitting there 24×7, I can’t even talk about what I’m doing. I’m trying to help this woman. And now I have to beat your head in! Literally, the people I promised to protect. Then I would take a rickshaw, go back to the hospital straight, and cry in the bathroom.’ She would tell me these things, and I would say, ‘I don’t know if it’s right, but your point of view is authentic. That’s what I want to show, because it’s real, and you’re as vulnerable as any of us.’
So, I took that stance. But I believe this show doesn’t sit in a vacuum. I believe it sits alongside everything, the baggage everyone’s bringing to it.
Smriti Kiran: You also took a stance on the credibility of Akash, the victim’s boyfriend.
Ritchie Mehta: Again, I went on what I was told by officers. Those opinions were, in many cases, of their own, and I was very specific about stating that these were opinions of the officers. At the same time, he was a trauma victim. I went out of my way to state that – that I don’t know what I would do in that circumstance. We can all take a stance right now and say, ‘This is what I would do, that is what I would do,’ but we don’t know.
Did he do the interview? Yes. Did it potentially compromise the case in court? Yes. All these things were true and these were completely verified publicly. So, the crux for me is, if I’ve chosen to take Vartika’s point of view, and she tells me that one of the great moments of heartbreak in her life was when this happened, I can’t shy away from that because I’m trying to show her point of view; so I can help her – that’s part of my promise. But he’s a human being like anyone else, and it’s not easy.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve said in a lot of your interviews that you were very certain that you wanted to do right by the people who trusted you and shared their stories with you. How do you balance doing right by people and your story because people might not be happy with what your perspective is?
Ritchie Mehta: That’s a tricky question. I would never willingly or knowingly cross a line that would break the trust of somebody who had trusted me. I made a lot of promises on this, mostly to the lady officers, to the family of the victim. Those were my Holy Grails. Those were promises made along the way, especially the big one was to Chhaya because she really trusted me. I said, ‘I will not allow this project to get out of my hands. I won’t allow it to become something that I don’t intend. My intention is to try and make your job easier in life. Because I trust you and you have trusted me, so I’m going to try and do right by what you have given me.’ I stuck to that.
Those are not necessarily easy promises to make, but because I didn’t have experience in series at the time, I didn’t know that they were so gargantuan. I had done independent films. If I make a promise, I can stick to that. I can see that film to the end. I didn’t think this would be Herculean, and it ended up being that. If some people get upset along the way, I’m still sticking to the promises I made.
Smriti Kiran: Richie, when you’re dealing with a subject matter that is so distressing and is so difficult, how did you keep your sanity? How did you keep it together? Especially you because you’ve been living with this material without anyone for at least four of those six years.
Ritchie Mehta: I was very lucky to attend a talk by the great Roberto Benigni. He said something very wise. He said, ‘If you’re directing a project, you can’t be that guy who’s crazy on the street and being driven by emotions because films are a very scientific process and you have to be very methodical.’ This is coming from a guy we know to be completely bonkers. So, you have to hone in on that message and be really, really specific about what you’re trying to do, and your mannerisms. But when you initially find the subject, you can be as crazy as you want. You just have to hone that down.
“With each person who would come on board, it almost became like therapy sessions.”
That happened to me. Part of my discovery of the validity of the project, whether I should even do it, was based on how I was feeling about this and what it was making me go through. I remember the first time I read the medical report—which I wrote verbatim in the show—I was devastated. I was depressed for a month. It devastated me. That’s also when I was saying, ‘What’s the point? Why would I want people to go through this? Who the hell would want to go through this? Who wants to read these reports or hear them?’ And then as I discovered my way out, it also got me out of this deep sadness, because then I realised, ‘There are so many people fighting this. There are these women out there fighting this for me. I should look at them as well and see the positive, even though it’s very complicated.’
The process of writing got me through it. Then with each person who would come on board, it almost became like therapy sessions. We would discuss these things with each other, and it was extremely empowering for me to go forward. Then, when we went to production, a lot of the cast and crew would have issues along the way, and really emotional moments. But for me, I had gone through it. So, in a way I became like, ‘I get it. Take the time you need. I’m there if you want to lean on me. I’ve gone through this; I’ve gone through all the crap; I’ve gone through every moment that this is going to do, and now I’m on the scientific mode of executing it, but you are still in that place because you just came on board. I understand that.’ So, we were there for each other.
Johan (Heurlin Aidt), my cinematographer, was adamant about us having a moment of silence the first time we shot in the ditch in Mahipalpur, outside the airport, because that was the spot. So, we got there, and a part of me was like, ‘Okay, let’s go. We have to execute this, and it’s cold and awful, let’s get out of here quickly.’ He was like, ‘Can we please have a moment?’ and the whole crew took a moment of silence, and it was the right thing to do. But I had already done that, the first time I came here, five years earlier, to scout this place.
Smriti Kiran: It was a huge risk to finance this and do it without a platform. What were your key learnings? What do you think creators need to do when they are writing a series and when they go out to pitch it, both logistically and creatively?
Ritchie Mehta: You said the word ‘creators,’ so I’m just assuming that these are the people who have conceived of the project and own it, for which there is legal side or the IP side. And then there’s also owning it in your heart, in terms of it having sprung out of a need to tell this story.
Now, I can’t really advise people because it’s predicated on what your financial situation is. I’ve gone out of my way in my life to keep my life very simple. I don’t have an automobile, I have a bicycle. We live in a tiny place. We walk everywhere we need to walk. My wife and I have very low overhead. That’s by design. That’s a life rule: the fewer expenses you have, the more freedom you have in life and the less you have to say yes to things. That translates directly to how I approach this.
For me, the key learning from this show in terms of this question is, if I’m conceiving a show that I really care about, I will not go to present it to anybody until I have determined the heart of the show and have probably written my Bible, which is anywhere from 100 to 200 pages, and I’ve gone through that whole process of evaluating its validity and reason to exist.
Now, can you subsidize yourself during that time? I make sure I do, because of my very simple overhead. So, if it takes me six months or a year or two years, I very quietly work on that. I might even do other things on the side just to get by, but I will not sell that prematurely. If I don’t know the heart of it, it’s vulnerable to other people to change that and alter it, even by the smallest suggestions that I’m not sure about. If you go somewhere and try it to get it financed, they will take the rights for it. They will take the rights away from you in exchange for paying you to continue it or buy it from you. If you’re ready for that, go for it. That’s money for you. If you’re not, and you want to see this thing through, you need to work on it in a vacuum. That’s very important, and that’s how I conceive of my shows, even the stuff I’m working on now.
I have multiple offers for very interesting series, which I’ve declined. Most of them because I’m just focused on continuing this process of developing projects. When I know exactly what they are, I’ll go out to the market – when I have a little bit of leverage. It’s like striking oil in your backyard. That’s how I look at it.
Smriti Kiran: You had originally written and shot eight episodes.
Ritchie Mehta: And edited eight episodes. There are eight episodes out there, but then along the way, one of them got collapsed in the edit. In the process of editing, we lost one.
We collapsed one and two. So, there are lots of scenes from one and two which are on the cutting room floor. Most of episode two was gutted, in fact. That’s the advantage that we had by being independently financed, because the brief I got from the producers was, ‘Make this the best you can make it,’ which is very rare – the business and the creative happened to coincide. Because I was trying to make it the best it could be, the business said that if it’s the best it can be, we can sell it.
Along the way in the edit, we found that there was a real drag in the second episode. We thought it was really important to get to this interrogation as soon as possible because it was like the big mountain of the show. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can liberate emotionally, and then go with it. That was supposed to be the end of episode three, when they start the interrogation, whereas now it’s the end of episode two. So, one episode is completely gone. And I’m so grateful that we had the producers we did, to have the freedom we did. If I’d gotten that show commissioned at the script stage and a platform paid for eight episodes, they would say, ‘No matter what, you are delivering eight episodes,’ and the show wouldn’t be what it was as a result. So, we were very lucky.
I also have to say it was our editor, Beverly Mills. She’s so good. She challenges me so much, and it’s really important that you have an editor that does not just do what you say, but really busts your balls. She was amazing.
Smriti Kiran: What did you hope Delhi Crime would do and did it do that?
Ritchie Mehta: I’m not sure what I hoped, but it has done more than that. I really don’t know because I wasn’t working with precedents. I looked at the series Bible for The Wire. David (Simon) was very kind to show me that. That was a great procedural show about all kinds of aspects of society.
There was no precedence for what I was trying to do. There were huge influences, I drew from all over the place, but there were no precedents in the manner and in this market that I could look upon for reference. The producers took a huge risk. There was no precedence for that risk. They just responded to the material.
So, I don’t know what my expectations were. I just know that when we finally went to production, I said, ‘My expectation and my hope is that I can stick to these promises. That’s all I’m going to do: stick to these promises, and see it through to the other end, and ensure that there will not even be a one percent generation loss between the final product and what my hope is bringing all these other artists at that time together.’
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Aksh Calvan: What were the essential plotting tools that came handy for you while dealing with so many characters? Where do you stop and not stop yourself from dramatising something?
Ritchie Mehta: I’ll be honest, it was pretty easy for Delhi Crime. You have to put in the time either on the writing or in the research or both. There’s an X amount of time required to get it right. In this particular situation, I put in more time on the research, less on the writing – it all balanced out.
For example, while I was sitting with an officer, they would tell me a story about crossing the river, or a story of apprehending a terrorist or going and interrogating the innocent brother. As they would unfold, I would say, ‘Oh my God, that’s a scene!’ ‘Oh my God, that’s a scene!’ ‘That’s a scene.’ I can see these scenes forming in my head, and I was so sure that they were interesting dramatic scenes, and that where they sat on this line of ethics of police behaviour is grey. That was very important to me. I wasn’t actually saying what they’re doing is right or wrong. That’s not for me to say. All I can do is present, to the best of my ability, what I believe happened.
I knew these were sequences when I spoke to these cops and they kept telling me these incidents around that main interrogation of the first suspect. I knew that would be a 35-minute scene, minimum, which also then defined to me that this wasn’t going to be a film. I couldn’t spend one-third of the film in this interrogation moment. It would have to be part of a bigger exercise. So, the reality of these interactions I had started defining the characters and the structure.
I’m motivated by the promises I make, which could also be promises to yourself. For example, I’m working on a show right now which is based on somebody who’s not alive anymore. So, I’ve made a promise to the spirit of that, of what I believe that person is, or the people around an incident, and I will stick to that no matter what. Each person I bring along, whether they’re producers or financiers or a platform, I have a conversation with them in those terms – where I say, ‘This is the Holy Grail that I’m working towards, the Bible document of the story, but this is really what I’m working towards, this is the promise of it, this is what I believe it must be and it must not deviate from that. If you agree to this, then we can go on this journey together.’ That’s the basic requirement. There are all kinds of other requirements, of course, but the basic is that.
So, I will never cross that line ever because I won’t be able to sleep at night. If that promise is off, I’ll be plagued for the rest of my life. So, I hold that. That’s why I say you don’t show it to other people until you know what the heart of the show is because, to me, the heart of the show is connected to that promise, even if it’s the promise you make to yourself. Even if I realise what that is, I don’t pitch it the next day. I need to sit on that for a few months and make sure that I didn’t get that wrong. Once I know that that is the intention of it, that’s my intention of it, nobody can take that away from you. You can give it away by accident. Nobody can actually take it away from you.
Mansi Sharma: The camera in the series acts almost as a character. It seems to hold the perspective of the viewer herself. Was that intentional? Also, how do you manage to leave the viewer feeling haunted in some ways but not hopeless?
Ritchie Mehta: The camera was absolutely intentional. That was by design. The camera would basically be you, the viewer in the room – the viewer would walk in the room; they would sit down with the characters; they would leave with the characters; they would eavesdrop. Every shot was on the shoulder of our cinematographer or camera operator. We never used a steady cam. The only time we used a tripod was for the last shot of the entire series, looking at the six people hanging on the tree, the six dummies.
I was very specific about that, so was Johan, because that’s how I discovered the story. I would be in those environments, and I would sit with them. I would be that third person at the table. I witnessed one cop interrogate a terrorist, and I didn’t even know he was a terrorist because they were having tea together. Afterwards, when the guy left, the cop asked me, ‘Do you know who that was?’ I said, ‘No, who? Your friend?’ He goes, ‘No, no, that was a convicted terrorist. I was actually getting information on another case.’ I said, ‘I was sitting with him!’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s how we do it. Sometimes they’re happy to talk. We don’t have to do anything.’ I was that guy sitting as the third person at the table. So, I said, ‘That’s probably the most appropriate way for you to come into the story the same way I did.’
There was no point in doing the series if you felt despair from beginning to end. I can’t stand shows and movies that do that, because there’s no point. We know the world is shitty, but the terrifying aspect of this show existed before you pressed play. You knew what you were getting into. I didn’t need to emphasize, I didn’t need to show it. What I needed you to do was work against it. And that’s also what I believe in, personally, as a human being. That was what the discovery was.
Obviously, it’s a grey area. I wanted the last shot to be that of those dummies because that’s what I saw on New Year’s Eve of December 2012 as I was walking through India Gate with Rajesh Tailang, who plays Bhupendra, and Akash Dahiya, who plays Neeti’s love interest. Three of us were walking and we saw that. It was so haunting because we didn’t know where we sat on the spectrum of judgment on that image. That’s where I knew the audience stood as well. So, I wanted to end on that point.
Also, the most important aspect of the dramatic structuring of the show was, each scene in and of itself was about people trying to do the right thing. That’s what each scene was about. That starts to impact you as a viewer. You start to feel that after some time. You’re not surrounded by dread in the show. That’s the river of darkness that runs underneath the whole thing, underground. I’m not showing it. I’m showing this stuff above ground where everyone’s trying to do the right thing.
Shivani Tibrewala: Did you only stick to things that happened, or did you fictionalise as you went along and took creative liberty? What were the challenges involved in creating and sustaining interest and the thrill and the drama in a series that was based on publicly known events that everybody was conversant with?
Ritchie Mehta: As I said before, I use the frog DNA analogy to fill in those gaps. In Jurassic Park, they used it to create dinosaurs – they didn’t create frogs. So, what I did was minuscule detailing and usually stuff in the personal stories. In terms of my fictionalisation and the liberties I took, I would take two or three characters and combine it into one.
I also asked the real people, ‘What did you do that day? On Sunday, December 16, 2012, before this happened?’ because most of their lives changed after they discovered the crime. So, I asked, ‘What was your life before that? Was your understanding of the world slightly altered?’ This one cop did tell me that he was trying to get his daughter married. And I said, ‘How did that go? That’s personally dramatic.’ As soon as they found out I was with the Delhi police, they called it off.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Nobody wants to be associated with us. They assume that we’re corrupt. Except I’ve spent my whole life never taking a corrupt penny, and it was a point of pride for me. I never realised that for that reason I would inhibit my daughter’s potential. I never realised that would happen. That’s what I was thinking about that day.’ Again, I’m like, ‘Well, that’s a scene. That’s easy.’ These things just started forming themselves.
How did I create that thrill or what people know? First, people didn’t know what I just told you: their personal stories and their emotional understanding of what is happening. There was no media about what was happening in these cops’ minds and hearts. That’s what I was getting to know. This whole statistic that they believe in human beings – they’re not out in the world espousing this to people nor is any newspaper covering it. What I wanted to talk about was, these people, especially these women, are in effect psychologists. They’re at the front lines dealing with these horrible human beings, doing the worst acts, and they’ve spent so much time thinking about it that we need to know what’s in their hearts and minds. That’s the basis of this show. That’s not in the news. The case becomes a framework, a skeleton, to get to know these people. And then the thrilling side of it is all the tricks of dramatic trade: of editing, of music, of when you create your cliffhangers – that’s all filmmaking 101. We could have edited the show very differently, and made it very slow and boring; but we decided in the edit that the more thrilling it is and the more it moves and propels forward, the better we can get audiences to invest in the idea that I want, which is getting into the hearts and minds of these people.
Sayani Gupta: How do you direct non-actors and actors for the same scene?
Ritchie Mehta: That’s very interesting. My barometer for whether a scene works is very instinctive, from a performance point of view. If I’m hearing the actor speak and I’m watching them, are they moving and acting plausibly? As if I was in that real police station and I heard somebody saying this, I wouldn’t even think twice to look at them – it would be part of the background.
For example, we shot in a real police station for 16 days, and that was a functional police station. They were kind enough to give us the third floor. As we were moving around and doing things, cops would come in and out of our shot; sometimes in and out of the corridor, because they didn’t necessarily know we were shooting. We were so low impact in terms of how we shot. So, sometimes we’d be shooting going down a corridor and another cop would just walk by, and that cop would actually just be going about doing their work and didn’t necessarily think what we were doing was out of the ordinary. I would look at those as indications; and the amount of time I spent in that environment, in reality, I would just listen and watch. Are these people acting in a plausible way whether it’s an actor or a non-actor?
Most of the people we worked with were actors. There were very few non-actors, even the ones I would think you would assume are non-actors are actors because they knew what to do. That’s the other key: if you’re going to cast anybody, I try and cast them from that environment. Half of the people knew police officers, constables, and police stations, so they also knew the behaviour of it. It’s very instinctive. It’s like when it’s off, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. That’s when I start to recalibrate.
Nasreen Munni Kabir: How much of the speech or diction of the real police officers influenced your dialogue writing? And because the international community of TV watchers are so reluctant about subtyping, how did you make yours so seamless that they did not create a distance from the characters of the narrative?
Ritchie Mehta: Sanyuktha Chawla, an amazing dialogue writer, had done the Hindi dialogue translations at the last stage, and she worked miracles to make sure their voice was reflected. I wrote the whole thing in English. 30% of the show is in English because a lot of these officers would speak English or, as we know, in mid-sentence they switch, as we all do. I was so adamant about making sure that that was there. So, I wrote the whole thing in English, and Sanyuktha, being from that environment in Delhi, did a wonderful job making sure the dialect was accurate. She knew exactly what to do to translate.
What I requested of her was to not change a word of what I had written, so that the final script that I have is identical to the subtitle. If you were to read the subtitles, that’s exactly what I wrote. There’s an infinite amount of possibilities in what you hear versus what you read, and Sanyuktha was wonderful in catching that.
Also, I know what these cops sound like and what they did, and I’m still fluent in the language. I just don’t know what words to get that are the most appropriate. I did the subtitles myself. I swear it drove me insane, but I did every subtitle myself on that show. And it was the thing that I was working on even until an hour before it launched on Netflix, because I believe strongly that it’s part of the direction of the viewers’ eyes. You’re directing the viewers’ eyes in the frame. So, anyone who’s not speaking Hindustani, who’s watching this around the world, their eyes are going to be darting around the frame. So, I was very specific about when the subtitle enters and when it leaves.
Netflix, in this regard, was amazing. They even redesigned their subtitle protocol because I was so adamant about getting things right, rather than it being automatic.
Srestha Banerjee: There’s a lot of pressure upon any filmmaker to fetch attention and grab eyeballs as per the producer’s demands in general. What made you sail smoothly above all these average expectations and maintain a firm stand despite running a huge risk, and not sensationalising the content in terms of treatment, execution, and above all, helming such a grand show without advertisements based upon the shoulders of a female protagonist?
Ritchie Mehta: The pressure is obviously there to get the eyeballs and get people to want to watch this. This is also where I really have to credit Netflix for so many things. When they came in and purchased it, they responded to it as human beings, not as somebody saying, ‘We’re going to get eyeballs on this. We’re going to make millions off of this. We’re going to get new viewers.’ It wasn’t that at all. They responded like human beings. It was Indian women who were making the choice to acquire it, and Indian women who were running the marketing and promotion campaign, responding as human beings.
So, Neha Kaul, who’s running marketing, and even Simran Sethi and Neha Sinha, who acquired this, told me very much that this couldn’t be on billboards, that this couldn’t be a massive promotion campaign that I would see for normal shows, that this had to be done in a way where people just either responded to it as human beings and started telling each other about it through word of mouth or they didn’t, because they weren’t out there to exploit the show, just like I wasn’t out here to explore the content for a series.
It was the first time in my life I witnessed this happening, where the intentions of the show were held all the way through, and when everyone came on board at each stage, they stuck to those intentions, because they just felt it. They all found their own way in. If they had come to me and said, ‘We want to buy this, and we want millions of people to see this, and we’re going to put this on aeroplanes,’ I would have said, ‘No, that’s not what this show is at all.’ But they didn’t do that, and they knew not to, because they responded like human beings. So, I was very lucky they responded that way.
We showed it at Sundance and the programmers there responded to it as human beings as well, saying, ‘We just want to show this. We don’t know where it’s going to go if it’s going to go anywhere.’
It’s a real tough one for people because every decision that’s made from a platform or generally are made for commercial reasons. If you’re lucky, you encounter those people who say, ‘No, not this one. I want to do this one because I believe in it.’ If you don’t believe in it as a creator, certainly they’re not going to believe it.
Swaratmika Mishra: You became an advocate to tell the story from the police perspective, which I think receives the distinction of a new angle to narrate a story like this. What propels you to tell another story of that kind from a similar perspective as a creator, seeing as it can really take a lot of energy from you?
Ritchie Mehta: I’m not doing it again, because it took too much out of me. I’m not proceeding on season two. I’m just an executive producer. It took the life from me to do this, and I think I left a piece of my life in it. Until I can regenerate that, I can’t do it again, which is why I’ve just been writing and researching, which is my favourite part of the whole process, other projects. There’s a lot of grimness in those projects, but what I’m getting out of it is feeding me at this stage in my life, and it’s talking about things I want to talk about. I could not go back into another heinous crime for years. One of the stories I’m working on is elephant poaching, which is so horrendous, but at the same time, there are so many wonderful people around that world as well.
That’s why I take time. Otherwise, I would have already had a film that’s done or a series. This came almost two years ago, and I haven’t done anything since then. I’ve just been writing like mad. But I didn’t have the energy right away to go into something else. It just drained me.
That’s also the difference between industrial work and personal work. We know filmmakers who make a film a year or every nine months or make two series a year. I can’t do that. I can make very few things, and I have to keep working to make them as special and personal to me as possible.
Sanyukta Joglekar: What kind of depth did the current protagonist offer with the storyline and was there an alternative protagonist envisioned?
Ritchie Mehta: There was never an alternate protagonist envisioned, because every time I met a police officer while researching, they would all say, ‘I can tell you stuff, but you need to meet Chhaya,’ Everyone kept saying that I needed to meet Chhaya, and, finally, I was lucky enough to meet her. That’s when I realised why all roads led to her because she was the real hero behind this.
Forget about the 370-page verdict. She had thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of things in her head. She knew everything about everything and everybody. So, I knew that this was the way in. It had to be the way in.
I don’t think there’s any version of this story that exists with a male protagonist. I think that’s offensive. It’s offensive to everything I believe in.
Rachita Mathur: When you are out in the market to pitch your show/film, is it the passion about the show or the financer’s creative judgement which comes into play? Also, how do you deal with the waiting period in which people show interest in what you’ve written but are not ready to finance it as it’s not commercially viable or is considered a risky project?
Ritchie Mehta: I went to film school in Toronto, where I was born and raised. And in the first month of a one-year program, all we did was pitching. Every day, all day, we just studied pitching. Then, at the end of that month, we had to pitch our ideas for a short film. Half of the class got to make their short films if they were accepted by the panel, and the other half would have to work on other people’s films. So, the stakes were high, because it would determine the nature of your education for the rest of your life in the film if you’ve got the pitch right or wrong.
Pitching is an art. It’s taken me a long time to figure it out. However, I do know that at this stage, the more you know the project, the more you talk about it. I talk about my stuff all the time to people in my life. I talk about them to either my family or friends or relatives, or at a party; I talk about it to people who don’t care, and I try to see when their eyes glaze over; and after the hundredth time I tell somebody, if my eyes are starting to glaze over, there’s a problem. Because I’m getting bored of the sound of my own voice, talking about this project – if I don’t get bored of it, then there’s something there that’s so intrinsic to who I am and what I want to talk about that I’m not bored about it. And I start to hone that pitch over time. It can be the elevator pitch, the 20-second version, the 45-second version, the one-hour version, but the key to me is, whether it’s real or fictional, is it relevant. If it’s relevant in some way, and you can discuss and claim that relevance, it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.
Most of my original stuff wasn’t real. I made a film Siddharth, which is based on a 10-minute conversation with a rickshaw wallah. Nobody can ever verify the veracity of that conversation. You’re taking my word for it, but everything about that film rings true, to people who watch it, because it came from a truthful place and it’s relevant.
So, I don’t think it matters as long as you find that relevance. That’s the most important aspect. Again, that’s what I kept trying to figure out with this: what is the relevant side of this? This is not the definitive telling of the Nirbhaya case. There’s a whole other story to be told about her and her family and what happened before. There were variations as well. A lot of people would come to me saying, ‘You should spend two episodes with her family beforehand.’ I said, ‘That’s not the take. My take is about this superhero in our midst, Chhaya, who is just a woman walking down the street. That’s the take.’ It’s a very specific take. It could have been the beer bottle crime. It could have been any other crime. But it was about this person.
To me, it’s about finding the relevance and talking about the project amongst people who have nothing to do with the film industry.
Coming to the interim – the purgatory of waiting for an answer – that’s an easy one: you just assume that the answer is no and carry on. That’s what I always do. So, there is no purgatory in my life. I ran out of avenues on Delhi Crime when I was pitching it. Everyone said no. I was amazed when they would say no. I would talk to them and ask them questions often, and they would say, ‘No, we read it. We don’t think that this is in it and this is in it.’ I’m like, ‘That’s on page 30 and that’s on page 50. Did you read it?’ I don’t think they really did.
The fact is, I just assume that the answer is no, leave a meeting, pat myself on the back, ‘I did the best I could,’ and then carry on as if it never happened. I’m always coming up with backup plans. If I run out of avenues, I work on my other projects – I always have three or four going on at the same time. Then at some point, if that project is going to find its way and it is going to find its way if I really wanted to, I’ll have that conversation with Apoorva at a party and find that person who says, ‘I’m going to make this.’ It’ll happen. You’ve got to stick with it, and always make the assumption that the answer is no. Fine if one person says no; they’re not going to stop me.
Rachita, if I wanted to break into your flat, and steal something valuable to you, and that’s all I want to do, there’s no way you can stop me. If that’s the only goal I have, I’ll spend the next two or three years figuring out, and then I’ll do it. You can’t stop me. If I can do that, and you can’t stop me, then I can certainly make a series.
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