Leena Yadav on her critically-acclaimed documentary House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths

Dubai - Filmmaker Leena Yadav on dissecting inconvenient truths and façade of ‘perfect family’ in her critically acclaimed Netflix documentary House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 5:50 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 7:05 PM

Families that eat together, pray together or celebrate together — we are told — stay together. The Chundawats were a picture of this harmony. That was until one day when all the 11 members of the family — including the octogenarian matriarch, two sons, their wives, a widowed daughter and their children — were found dead at their Burari home in Delhi. They had all hanged themselves to death. The CCTV footage showed that no outsider had entered the house, but the members themselves had been preparing for what seemed to be a ritual. Were they actually heeding to the call of a cult? That seemed to be the easy answer — one that was repeatedly dramatised on primetime news — till such time a diary was discovered that offered another picture of the family. House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths reconstructs as well as deconstructs the family that everyone had deemed perfect. Rigorous research, nuanced storytelling and exploration of the case from various prisms (gender, mental health, class, media representation) have already earned the Netflix documentary high praise from all quarters. In an interview with wknd., co-director Leena Yadav talks about peeling off the layers to unearth the real tragedy of the Chundawat family.

What about the subject drew you in?

What got my attention was the fact that I didn’t get answers. I just knew that there was a lot that remained hidden. Take, for example, this whole idea of a perfect family. Everybody said they were just perfect. Even when we are praising someone, we say he is an amazing guy but is short-tempered. You need that kind of mild criticism to humanise someone. But this family was just perfect. It just felt like there was something more to the story. Also, I was intrigued by this whole thing about us giving people greater respect when they are dead; suddenly, they become even more perfect.

The great aspect of the documentary is how it explores various possibilities. Viewers often tend to like definite answers. As a documentarian, did you ever feel overly pressured to find pieces of the missing puzzle?

I wanted to know so many more things and wanted to investigate every angle. I did not want to come up with 50,000 answers. I wanted to deal with what we already knew — and delve further into it. Once you get to know the story of the family and what really happened, that itself gave a lot to dissect. It led us to some very interesting journeys, which have made their way into the documentary.

You draw an intimate portrait of a family. Is the story of the Burari deaths also an indictment of the Indian middle class?

Totally. As an artiste, it is important for me to take the judgment out of storytelling. So, even if someone is the villain of the story, I’d like to understand his mind. I related to so many things in this story. For example, the lengths to which we go to put up a front. Growing up, I would think everyone else had it easy because they looked happy, while I had it tough. That’s the extent to which we put up appearances. That’s why, when I see the most perfect projection of people, I know there’s more inside. Our inner and outer worlds are much more demarcated than people living in other parts of the world. We wear a very different face on the outside. That is something we need to break. In India, people find it so difficult to talk about mental health. We have probably learnt to say mental health is important, but do we really practise it in our own households? Are we able to tell each other that you need therapy?

What kind of role does class play in conversations on mental health?

In India, we cannot generalise on anything. I have seen upper class, educated people being just as uncomfortable talking about it. We cannot have a blanket rule for anything.

Lalit comes across as an impenetrable figure. Even people who have known him only offer snatches of what he could have been like. But he is your principal protagonist. How difficult was it for you to get into his mind?

This was something we realised during the process of doing interviews. He comes across as someone who actually no one knew completely. They only had pieces of him. Analysing what his journey could have been gave us various perspectives. The accidents he’d had went totally unaddressed. The first thing we tend to do in our families is not talk about uncomfortable things. Even in Lalit’s case, his friend says, “Mummyji said no one will talk about the accidents because it bothers Lalit.” When we interviewed the family in Indore, I questioned my sensitivity so many times because those were difficult to do. It’s like telling someone, I know you have a wound, can I scratch it? That’s what we were doing. And because there was a cult angle given to the story, people actually asked them, “Oh, your family used to follow a cult?” This shut them further. The family in Indore thanked us because they thought it was a huge burden off their chest.

Which character were you most fascinated with?

We wanted to know each person as well as we possibly could. You think that a girl who was so bright in terms of studies and had a great job, why would she buy into this? In the obvious sense, Lalit is a fascinating character. And in absentia, Bhopal Singh (the dead patriarch of the family). When I first read about the case, I wanted to know who are the people who did this to themselves. One of the first journalists to talk about them was Hemani Bhandari.

Anyone who’s watched the documentary or followed the case is left with the question — why did the children or the young girls never speak up or share this with anyone outside the household. What’s your sense of it?

This was my first question. I did not buy 14-year-olds not telling anyone. It’s not easy to convince children to not share something because they have so much access. But then, one discovered that they were born into this. This was the norm for them.

It must have been difficult for you to get people to open up and talk about the case.

A lot of them had already been bruised by the media. So for them, camera also had that connotation. It was difficult, but as a policy, we never forced anyone. If someone told us they didn’t want to have this conversation, we respected that. People came in with a lot of apprehensions. Also, we do not have a documentary culture, so many of them thought I wanted them to enact things for me. Once you start talking, you are able to build trust.

The documentary is also an indictment of the media. To what extent was the narrative shaped by primetime dramatisation?

It was something else. I did catch bits of it. But when I saw archives, there were talk shows with all kinds of religious leaders. It was being played as a drama with enactments. How can you enact this case? We didn’t recreate anything except those diaries because what is already known is enough. Even the crime scene, we used it judiciously. If you see the archival footage of that, it was spun into some sort of tantra-mantra. Religion is not one of the key stories here. Not a single analytical piece was written on this. If this was done then, it would have been so much more powerful than us making the documentary.

The documentary has been well-received. Do you think it could usher in an era of a different kind of non-fiction?

It’s very rare that everything you intended has hit on the head, and sparked conversations. I received messages from people who have already implemented change in their lives after watching this. And that is huge. Yes, it is going to spark off documentary-making culture. One of the people in the documentary called me and said that she was in a bus stop in a really small village, and was immediately recognised as the woman who was part of House of Secrets. They had all seen it. When someone said it was a great film, another person corrected them, “It’s a documentary, not a film.” That’s huge.


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