There’s much to unsettle you while watching The Karma Killings, Netflix’s new documentary on the Nithari murders of 2006. There’s a father who admits to pimping his daughter for money—only to find out that she has been raped and killed. There’s a woman who can’t seem to believe that her husband, who had always been affectionate to her, is a serial killer and suffers from necrophilia. There’s a father who keeps looking for his missing daughter. And a son who keeps claiming his father is innocent of conspiracy to murder, rape and abduction.
The Karma Killings has been made by Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni. Over three years, Devineni visited the crime scene in Noida, the Ghaziabad law courts, met with the police, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and lawyers and most importantly with the two accused, Moninder Singh Pandher and his help Surinder Koli. Koli is in prison, convicted of capital murder. Pandher has been found guilty of conspiracy to murder and is out on bail.
For many of us who live in Delhi – and even in India – this crime was something out of a Stephen King film or an Edgar Allen Poe book. Just that it was real and taking place in our neck of the woods, in one of the many bungalows you pass by in Delhi. Devineni’s film introduces you to Surinder Koli who used to work in Moninder Singh Pandher’s house. Pandher used to visit Delhi frequently, when he used to stay at his home in Noida and would regularly ask Koli to hire “call girls” for him. The house was left under Koli’s care the remainder of the time. Children and young women soon started going missing in a very small radius around the house. These were children and women who were economically backward – an auto-driver’s daughter, a kirana store owner’s daughter, a maid.
And Devineni shows us what we all know—that in India if you aren’t well connected, no one cares if you go missing or not. The cops won’t even give you the time of day. It’s only when the crimes catch the attention of a police officer that Koli and Pandher are caught. We meet many of the main characters in this crime. The father of 14-year-old Rimpa Halder, who drives an auto. Sanjay Dubey, the Tehelka reporter who investigated the case. Khalid Khan, the lawyer for the families of those who went missing. Arun Kumar, then CBI director.
Devineni has claimed in a BBC interview that he was influenced by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – in which Capote had presented the killers in a compassionate light. And you see that same compassion here, when Devineni is interviewing Pandher’s son talking about his father and how tough life has been for the family. According to the Tehelka reporter and the lawyer, the CBI ignored Pandher’s confession, which is why he received a lighter sentence. According to his son, Pandher signed the confession under duress. It could well be that Pandher is innocent and didn’t have any knowledge of his employee committing these murders under his roof. But the very obvious representation of “poor Moninder Pandher” as a shattered man, walking out of his quite comfortable bungalow in Chandigarh and smiling benignly into the camera is disconcerting to say the least.
And the juxtaposition of an auto driver from Bengal driving his auto and talking about his missing child and how no one helps the poor, and Pandher’s son talking about how no one helped his father while sitting in a chair next to a stuffed leopard and a stuffed tiger—is almost laughable, if it wasn’t so heart-wrenching.
That Devineni has done detailed research for this film is apparent. And it’s an effective reminder of the horrors that man is capable of. And of how indifferent the system is to those who aren’t well-connected. But the one quality that this film doesn’t have, is objectivity.
If you’re watching it, which I think you should, also take 40 minutes out and watch Captive For 18 Years: The Jaycee Lee Dugard Story on Netflix. It’s about how 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped by Philip Garrido and his wife and kept captive in a maze of sheds in their garden for 18 years. Garrido raped Dugard, fathering two daughters by her. She was rescued after 18 years and reunited with her mother.
It’s a chilling documentary, and not once do you meet Jaycee Lee after her rescue. It’s a simple narration of a brutal crime. But one which gives you hope that sometimes the guilty are punished and that missing children can be found alive – even after 18 years. It also shows you how a documentary can be made without emotion and without taking sides.