On 1st July, 2018, neighbors of the Chundawat family went to check on them early in the morning after noticing that their shops had not yet opened. They opened the door and saw ten members of the family hanging in the courtyard of their home, blindfolded with their mouths taped shut and their limbs tied. Another woman was found dead in another room. The story quickly became front page news in India, a case so tragic and inexplicable that it could not help but inspire conspiracies and leering public interest. Was it murder or suicide? What would drive a large and seemingly normal family to such an end, and was there an occult element involved?
Created by Anubhav Chopra and Leena Yadav, the latter of whom has several feature films under her belt, this three-part series is yet another addition to Netflix’s vast library of true crime. As someone who has watched an awful lot of said programmes, often while wincing, I’m perhaps a tad too familiar with the streaming service’s assembly line of murder, mayhem, and memes. Their formula and visual foundations are so painfully overused that they’ve reached the point of parody. I have to wonder if every director making a true crime film or series for Netflix is handed a style guide beforehand, one they’re contractually obliged to follow. Even outside of American productions, the format is rigidly followed, as seen in House of Secrets. Yes, there are drone shots and glossy landscapes and close-ups of photographs designed to seem more unnerving than they probably were in a regular context. This also means that, yes, we do see a lot of crime scene photos. Such lurid moments are dishearteningly expected in the genre but I’ve yet to find an example where such exploitation has felt necessary to the narrative. It certainly isn’t here, even if the images themselves aren’t as bloody as some scenes we’ve paid witness to on Netflix.
But House of Secrets is a merciful step up from recent examples like Sons of Sam and The Night Stalker, two miniseries that viewed journalistic ethics as something of a nuisance. Chopra and Yadav are concerned not with solving this case but with showing how, even when presented with compelling evidence, we can never know all the answers. The Chundawat family are described by those who knew them as normal but reserved, friendly and tight knit, if somewhat removed from the community. A pile of diaries found in their home would later reveal that Lalit, the family patriarch, claimed to be possessed by the soul of his late father, and that he was advising them through his body on how to live a good life. These ‘instructions’ soon became controlling, culminating in the ‘ritual’ that saw them die in such a heinous manner.
A lot of the final episode is spent focusing on Lalit, an introverted man who suffered serious physical and psychological hurt from a motorcycle accident that seems to have been left untreated. The diaries paint a picture of this man, someone who everyone described as quiet and unassuming, becoming a mini cult leader within the four walls of his own home. It’s a shame that the series relies on the token scary voiceover to reveal the diary’s details, an unnecessary horror-tinged touch that belies the sensitivity of the rest of the narrative. Insight is given into the potential intersections of mental health, patriarchy, religion, and community that could have influenced the family, but thankfully, Chopra and Yadav are not interested in playing armchair psychology. Counselors and psychologists interviewed for the series even state the importance of not jumping to conclusions. The danger lies in positioning such tragedies as the result of one-off monsters, the bad apple in the bunch. One psychologist even describes the Chundawats as ‘an extreme version of what we are in most families.’
The sheer span of the emotional scars of these deaths can be felt through the three episodes as former friends, neighbors, journalists, and investigators reveal how far-reaching the trauma goes. There are many questions about how such a thing could happen, why anyone would go through with it, and if they could have helped if they’d just paid a little more attention. One former associate even admits that the deaths caused him to stop believing in God.
This isn’t something that can or should be easily forgotten, especially since the media turned it into such a circus. This element, the lurid speculation of the Chundawat deaths by newspapers and television reports alike, is somewhat skimmed over. There are canny moments where we see the sheer scale of the opportunism the case inspired, however, such as a moment where two policemen who were tangentially involved in the investigation seem almost giddy to discuss the details. At one point, one officer stops to take a phone call wherein he tells the person on the other end that he’s busy discussing the case. In another scene, a journalist laughs nervously when asked if he thought the reporting of the story was too salacious, keen to find a way to exonerate himself from such accusations.
As is fitting for a show with the title House of Secrets, many of the details that we naturally crave more of are absent here. Nobody will ever truly know what happened to the Chundawat family and it’s probably for the best that we don’t. Every single one of us is a different person to the rest of the world than we are at home and that contrast is sometimes impossible to explain. For a Netflix show, this is a remarkably nuanced conclusion to come to, given how much this genre thrives on fake needle drops and ethically sticky ‘climaxes.’ This is certainly one of the better true crime series the platform has greenlit. If only they could learn the right lessons from it.
House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is available to watch on Netflix now.
Header Image Source: Raj K Raj // Hindustan Times via Getty Images