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House of Secrets Review: Resurrection of uncomfortable truths

Dubai - House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is a short docu-series on a mass tragedy that engulfed one family in India more than three years ago. Was it murder? Or suicide? The verdict got blurred in the aftermath as the case fell off the public radar. We now get to see what really happened — in chilling, meticulous details


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 3:42 PM


Anita Anand, clinical hypnotherapist

Ambarish Satwik, doctor

Barkha Dutt, journalist

Manoj Kumar, SHO (2016-2019) of Burari police station

Naresh Bhatia, sub-inspector (2017-2020)

of Burari police station

Mukesh Sengar, senior special correspondent, NDTV

Created and directed by:

Leena Yadav and Anubhav Chopra

In mid-2018, India was rocked by a “sensational” incident: a horrific tragedy involving an 11-member family, the Bhatias, living in Burari, on the northern fringes of Delhi, that was sensationalised by the media to such an extent that it stopped being taken seriously by most thinking classes — after the initial flurry of interest. It came to pass, therefore, that soon after the incident was tagged a ‘mass suicide’ — after an investigation — people chose to not have conversations around it like they usually do with other matters that have elements of the bizarre and the surreal.

Director Leena Yadav in cohort with Anubhav Chopra revisit Burari, the ‘house of secrets’, where 11 members of the Bhatia family lived in a lower middle-class colony even though they were financially fairly well off. They ranged from an 80-year-old to 15-year-old kids, three generations under one roof, seemingly close-knit, happy and “regular”. So it was a mystery why, one day, 10 bodies were found hanging, close to each other, all their hands and legs tied in a similar manner as though it was a well-thought-out, elaborate plan; the 11th body, the grandmother’s, was found nearby as well, she had been strangled to death — but it turns out, all of them (including the strangled elderly lady) had been willing participants to a ritual.

What exactly happened? Murder was ruled out. Suicide was the natural alternative, but the series follows a real-life trail that proves it wasn’t self-harm anyone of them believed they were inflicting… it was a ritual in a trance, that held out promises for a better life.

There is no reenactment of the characters; instead, the filmmakers use documented footage from the case and interviews of police officers, investigating agents, friends, (extended) family members, neighbours, colleagues, alongside views of experts: clinical scientists, doctors, journalists, social anthropologists and so on.

There are a few things that emerge without the series really taking a stand — and I have to say “not taking a stand” has made House of Secrets even more powerful: material is presented clinically and forensically for the audience to get better acquainted with the case, and then draw their own conclusions.

The first is that the investigation is not botched up. There is a somewhat ham-handed approach adopted by the Delhi Police (at least what seems to be ham-handed for those of us reared on a diet on crisp, but fictional, workings of London agencies and New York police departments), but they, in tandem with higher “levels”, manage to get to the bottom of the matter. It is not a murder, it’s not even a suicide because death was not to be the outcome. It was a ritual that felled a group of trans-generational believers.

Secondly, it’s about the agency of patriarchy in a family that has young people working in “multinational companies”. No one questions, not even the obviously ‘woke’ members. When Lalit professes he’s leading them through the path of righteousness for their own good, no one bats an eyelid because he’s the ‘father figure’, the man (apparently) “chosen” by the deceased father figure to be the messenger.

And thirdly, it’s about the bubble of delusions. What happened in the Bhatia family is perhaps what happens in cults. You imagine. You hear voices. Because you are egged on to believe. The cult leader may be the only one who has mental health issues that is not taken heed of because no one assumes there is something medically wrong. What he lends to his following is the infectiousness of it all, and piggybacking on that, they form a secret pact, from which the rest of the rational world is cut off.


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