True Crime Tuesdays: House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths
Helen Archer | On 26, Oct 2021
House of Secrets turns its eye on a case that gripped India just a few years ago. On July 1st 2018, the neighbourhood of Burari in northern Delhi woke up to a horrifying discovery. Ten members of a popular local family were found hanging from an overhead grille in their own home. They had been tethered by colourful scarves, with their hands and feet bound, tape covering their eyes and mouths, and cotton wool stuffed in their ears. An eleventh body – that of the grandmother, 80-year-old Narayani Devi – was found dead in her bedroom, slumped by the foot of her bed. Three generations – from Narayani Devi down to her two 15-year-old grandsons – were wiped out overnight.
Very quickly, word spread throughout the district, as locals and the media swarmed the neighbourhood. A macabre video of the family strung up had been taken before the police arrived and was doing the rounds on social media. Was this mass suicide, murder or a family annihilation? Although baffled at first, police soon found diaries in the house that would shed some light on the fate of the family. But questions still remain.
Sadly, this three-part series – which is, strangely, simultaneously too short and too long – fails to answer them. Although director Leena Yadav initially sets the story up as a mystery, it’s “solved” by the second episode, so that the whodunnit element becomes both redundant and somewhat distasteful. The first episode deals with the discovery of the bodies and the initial shock of everyone investigating. While the two-minute video taken of the bodies is never shown in its entirety, disturbing snippets are screened, of feet dragging on the ground and hands tied behind backs, before the family were cut down and taken to the mortuary.
Throughout the series, there is repetition, but it’s mainly evident in the first episode. Home video footage is shown of the engagement party of 33-year-old Priyanka (another of Narayani Devi’s grandchildren who died with the rest of her household), which was held just a fortnight previously. They seem, from the outside, like a normal happy family, enthusiastically dancing in celebration. It’s certainly gut-wrenching and bewildering to see that footage juxtaposed with the images of the same people hanging from the ceiling, still and lifeless.
There are interviews with friends and family, as well as police and pathologists, psychologists, journalists and, for some reason, a hypnotherapist. The secrecy with which the family operated proved a stumbling block for investigators, just as it seems to for the filmmakers – and, although there are stories here of the kindness and generosity of the younger members of the family, the senior ones remain opaque and, in some cases, barely mentioned. The background of self-appointed patriarch Lalit is discussed in Episode 3, with experts attempting to unravel the operations of his mind, although their analyses are edited into little more than soundbites and therefore remain superficial. The raw grief etched onto the faces of the family’s loved ones is affecting, but they can shed no light on the motivations of a family life that, behind closed doors, proved self-contained and discreet.
Although the series criticises the way the deaths were responded to by society as a whole, it falls into many of the same traps it attempts to critique. Various interviewees highlight the importance of talking about mental health openly and yet, other than post-mortem guesses as to the state of mind of the family, and dubious retrospective psychiatric diagnoses of Lalit, the topic is otherwise skated over. Criticisms of the media’s sensationalism, voyeurism, and lack of nuance fall flat with each snippet of the video of the dead bodies that the filmmakers see fit to include. The lack of backstory for most of the family members leaves the viewer confused, with just photos for us to individually identify them. But the real questions remain unanswered, because there is no one left to answer them. The only people who really knew what was going on in that house didn’t speak about it when they were alive. Speculation is the only option, and this series proves to add up to not much more than a grotesque and disturbing curio.
House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.