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house of secrets

The House of Secrets

11 members of a family hanging from the rooftop with colourful dupattas, hands and feet tied with string in the by lanes of Burari in July 2018. Was it mass murder or mass suicide?

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The House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths (Season 1)

Genre: Documentary Series (Netflix)

Directors: Leena Yadav & Anubhav Chopra

11 members of a family hanging from the rooftop with colourful dupattas, hands and feet tied with string, gagged, ears stuffed with cotton. This is the stuff of nightmares. Or the narrative of a gruesome fiction. And yet that was what happened in the by lanes of Burari in July 2018. Was it mass murder or mass suicide? No one seemed to know. Neither the investigators, nor the neighbours, nor the relatives. Slowly the horrendous tale unravelled. The mass suicide was a part of the badd puja (banyan tree puja) initiated by Lalit, who was possessed by his father’s spirit.  The media sensationalized this incident with gruesome pictures of the hanging corpses splashed across papers/magazines and TV channels.

So, when I first saw the trailer of this docuseries on Netflix, the feeling of horror and shock was re-ignited as was a sense of anger at the media that had dived into the incident like hungry vultures looking for savouries to rachet up their TRPs. I clicked shut the Television immediately, irate and restless. But before I did, the name of the Director caught my eye. Leena Yadav. I did a double take. She was the director of Parched (2015) and Rajma Chawal (2018), movies I had liked and appreciated for their sensitivity and nuanced approach to unusual subjects. Maybe there was something more than just a rehash of a sensational incident. With a great deal of hesitation, I switched the Television on to watch the series. 

The docuseries are well-crafted and clearly come from the stables of a master hand. Thankfully, there is no sensationalism. In fact, the director has refrained from using the horrifying images of the suicide. The first episode deals with the day the bodies were discovered and presents the incident through the eyes of the neighbours and investigators. The second episode takes a peek into the Diaries written by the family members and gives the viewers a clue about the mastermind behind the suicides, a mentally unstable Lalit who uses religious fetters to dominate his family. What sets the docuseries apart from the run of the mill documentaries is that the story is told by stringing together the perspectives of psychologists, psychiatrists, investigators, neighbours and relatives. It also directs our attention to the ills of a society where mental health is a taboo subject, where religion comes with blinkers and blind faith, where rationality dies a sorry death at the hands of superstition. All these uncomfortable subjects are raised by the director because she believes that "the secrecy with which it (Burari deaths) happened shows the lack of interconnectedness in the society. So, the society actually needs to have these conversations even if they are unsettling because telling the stories of these people is in itself giving a closure both for them and us."

The reason for making the docuseries is clearly not shallow sensationalism but a desire to make people understand that stigmatized subjects need to be discussed, however unsettling the process may be. Leena Yadav needs to be applauded for opening up a Pandora’s box of taboo subjects. The docuseries, however, are  not for the fainthearted. 

(Listen to the podcast​)

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