There was something about the Nithari killings that didn’t sit right with Ram Devineni. In December 2006, when Surinder Koli and his employer Moninder Singh Pandher were arrested in Noida for the rape and murder of at least 19 children and one woman, the 40-something Indian-American filmmaker and comic book creator was visiting his ancestral home in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh. Devineni was captivated by the case that gripped a nation, but it would take him another six years before he could save money from his day job at a multinational corporation and move to India to make The Karma Killings, a documentary that explores the events leading to the discovery of “the house of horrors” in Sector 31, Noida, and the lives of the two men accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable.
Making its debut on Netflix this week, The Karma Killings is divided into chapters that begin with the disappearance of children in Nithari over the course of a year, that foxed the Noida police, till an enquiry for a missing person would blow the case open. In a Skype conversation, Devineni, co-creator of the augmented reality comic books Priya’s Shakti and Priya’s Mirror, talks about the film that found him chasing the truth about the killings. Excerpts:
Why do you call it The Karma Killings?
It’s a catchy title, so I went ahead with it. But on a serious note, the first person I met when I began researching the film was Jabbu, father of one of the missing girls. As you’ll see in the film, he likens himself to Ram and talks about the battle he is fighting against Pandher in almost a mythological, philosophical way. That’s his karma, he says.
Why did you want to make this documentary?
From the very beginning, I had my doubts about the case and the way it was reported by the media. I wanted to find out for myself what the facts were; I wanted to explore the nature of violence that had led to these crimes.
I used to be very violent when I was younger — I was an uncontrollably hyper-aggressive bully and nearly killed another boy. I came from a good family, lived in a good neighbourhood, so the incident made me realise that my rage was my fault alone. There was a “self-imposed” violence that was similar to the Nithari murders — these crimes were committed by people who chose to commit them out of some compulsion.
I was curious and fascinated about these serial killings, and I was kind of obsessed with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and the way he was immersed in the lives of the two murderers and their backstories — I wanted to do something like that.
How did you go about making this film?
I moved to Noida in September 2012 and rented an apartment with my friend, Tushar Prakash, who is also the translator for the film. It was quite close to D-5, where the murders took place, and we lived there till April 2013. The company I worked for thought I was in New York, so I worked on the film during the day, and then finished office work at night.
It was incredibly easy to meet Pandher and Koli. I first met them in October 2012 at the Ghaziabad court where they were being tried; their lawyers allowed me to speak to them. We began to look at every angle of the case through the case files, interviews with the families of the victims, the police, Koli and Pandher’s families as well.
Your film makes a case for Pandher’s innocence.
Koli is one of the smartest men I have ever met. He never denied the murders, but what he would constantly do is point to a detail to throw you off course. In all this time in jail, he has studied the law and familiarised himself on the technicalities that weaken the case against him. I went into the documentary thinking that both of them were guilty but the evidence against Pandher just doesn’t add up. But none of that matters to the families of the victims.
Koli is the one who confessed to the rape, murder and in one case, necrophilia. But because it happened in Pandher’s house, it is hard to imagine that he didn’t know about it. I thought the film would be about tracing the crime, but it has become an exploration of class warfare as well. Koli is poor like them, but the families want Pandher to hang as well. They don’t want the rich guy to get away with it, even if it is a crime he has not committed. I’m convinced he’s innocent of the murders, now the challenge is to convince the rest of India.