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Friday, October 22, 2021

House of Secrets The Burari Deaths review: Netflix docu-series gives goosebumps but fails to ask the right questions

House of Secrets review: From incorporating the many conspiracy theories, to revealing the actual truth, the docu-series unravels like a work of fiction, backed by a solid screenplay. But its execution is hampered by the short-sightedness of its creators.

Written by Ektaa Malik | New Delhi |
Updated: October 12, 2021 8:56:32 am
House of Secrets: The Burari DeathsHouse of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is streaming on Netflix.

An entire family of 11 found dead in a single night. The lone survivor is a dog, who is found tied on the terrace. No foul play suspected.

Now, this sounds like the perfect pitch for a ‘whodunnit-series’ that could stream and trend on any one of the zillion OTT platforms that dot our cyberspace. Add a maverick cop to the mix, and we sure have a hit on our hands.

This alas is no work of fiction. It is a real-life incident that shook India in 2018, as the Chundawat family’s mass suicide and the suburb of Burari found its place in the screaming headlines. A seemingly, normal, well-functioning family had died by hanging themselves from an iron grill in their very own home. The incident is the subject of a three-part docu-series on Netflix titled ‘House of Secrets The Burari Deaths’, directed by Leena Yadav, who earlier gave us feature films like Parched and Rajma Chawal.

Right from the trailer, the docu-series emphasises on the sheer ‘absurdity’ and the ‘shock’ value of the incident. The fact is further stressed by the testimonies of experts, crime reporters and law enforcement officials, who are the prime sources on record for the docu-series. We hear phrases like ‘this was different’, ‘there was something off’ by almost everyone who was interviewed. Yadav, who obviously comes from a narrative storytelling background, uses all these tools to build up that narrative and succeeds in somewhat hooking the audience early on, even though most of us know the basic facts about the incident.

With the use of archival media footage, some recreated sequences and testimonies by experts, Yadav makes us feel that we were there in the bylanes of Burari. There is a scary build-up, and even though the docu-series never once shows actual footage or images of the dead family, the impact is quite chilling nonetheless. From incorporating the many conspiracy theories that floated around the case at that point, to revealing the actual truth, the docu-series unravels like a work of fiction, backed by a well-written screenplay. Even though most of us know that the youngest son of the family, Lalit, was the one who initiated the mass suicide attempt, the actual big reveal gives one goosebumps. The docu-series is well-executed and well made, and scores on the technical aspects of storytelling. But where it fails is raising the appropriate questions, especially in the aftermath of the big reveal.

Hand-written notes in 11 diaries and notebooks revealed that Lalit used to be ‘possessed by the spirit’ of his dead father, and during the said ‘possession’ he would impart certain dos and don’ts for his family. Those words became the word of law for the Chundawat family, so much so that no one dared to question the ‘messenger’. It’s according to that word of law that the family attempted a ‘badd puja’ — a religious ceremony invoking a banyan tree, that led to the death of the entire family. Friends and neighbours of the family, who have been extensively interviewed in the due course of the docu-series, had no knowledge of these religious angles and the ‘family dynamics’ of the Chundawats. A family friend reflects, “Koi bachcha hi bata deta (if only a child of the family had shared this with us)’’. Imagine the hold that Lalit had on the family that even the youngest child in the family, who was 15, never felt the need to confide in anyone that his father was frequently ‘possessed’. And this is not a family who is at the fringes of society. They are in the very heart of it — are upwardly mobile with a social media presence and they rehearse for a wedding sangeet with a professional choreographer in tow.

There are nods to mental health and how Lalit’s ‘psychosis’ led to this tragedy. But one must not forget the deep patriarchal hold that he had on the family, which he further strengthened and legitimised by the invocation of a religious angle. One cannot just dismiss the tragedy by saying that ‘Lalit was mentally disturbed’ or some variation of the theme. The tragedy should have heralded questions and discussions surrounding the hidden dysfunctionality of ‘seemingly, normal families’. The docu-series falls into the same trap. It only narrates the how and why, but it doesn’t take the narrative further. It doesn’t ask the questions — why do we automatically accept and obey an order just because it’s stamped with a religious lens? Or that why we as a society are instinctually driven to hide the said ‘abnormalities’ in our households? It’s the same instinct that makes us hide a divorced sibling, especially if it’s a woman, or a relative who is suffering from a mental health disorder. The docu-series makes the requisite nods — to mental health, to the ‘secrecy’ aspect of Indian families, and deep hold of superstition and it also vilifies the media. But all of them reek of tokenism and nothing more.

Streaming platforms were meant for content like House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, where creators could push their limits and tell stories in different formats. The docu-series is a step in the right direction, though its execution is hampered by the short-sightedness of its creators. That said, one might have a couple of sleepless nights after watching it, and be riddled by the urge to always look up as you enter a room, recreating the mis-en-scene from the Burari crime scene.

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