‘House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’ explores South Asia’s relationship with mental illnessA stirring archive of the mask of normalcy that comes with mental illness, the grip of blind faith, and patriarchy.
[The story discusses the plot of ‘House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’. Trigger warning: Mention of suicide.]
Netflix’s latest docuseries ‘House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’ took the internet by storm this past October. Both gruesome and tragic, the docuseries delivered the gut-wrenching story behind the Chandawat family (also known as Bhatia family) that shook India to its core, in the summer of 2018.
The three-part docuseries, created by Leena Yadav and Anubhav Chopra, delves into the horror that befell Burari, Delhi when 11 members of the same family were found hanging from a mesh in their living room ceiling, during the wee hours of July 1, 2018. Blindfolded, ears plugged with cotton, mouths taped and hands tied with wires—the only survivor was the family’s pet dog Tommy, who was later discovered, chained on the terrace. This deeply unsettling tale is truly stranger than fiction. As we examine the nitty gritty of the story, we are left with more ‘what ifs’ than answers.
Right off the bat, the producers do a commendable job of featuring interviews of multiple people associated with the family: relatives, friends, close associates, and neighbours. Zeroing in on them provides viewers with intricate details of the story and a nuanced approach in understanding what the Bhatia family was like. To further appreciate the show’s attention to detail, one has to point out that they even interviewed the family’s plumber. The recurring theme behind their interview answers, and the one that underscores just how blindsided they all were by what had transpired, was how they each recalled the Bhatia family as being ‘normal’ people. This becomes the crux of the series, as the creators intend the subject of an eleven-year long history of ‘shared psychosis’ that plagued this ‘normal’ family to initiate dialogues of mental illness in India, or South Asia as a whole—a region highly nescient and resistant towards this topic.
In an investigative style, the show uncovers the power vacuum that culminated in the family upon the death of Bhopal Singh, the husband of Narayan Devi, 80. After the death of Bhopal in 2006, his youngest son Lalit, 45, became ostensibly withdrawn and introverted. Lalit later discloses to his family that he was ‘possessed’ by his father’s spirit, and subsequently assumes the role of the family’s patriarch. Lalit’s grip over the entire family is further bolstered by the fact that he supposedly sounded like his late father—which convinced the entire family that he was indeed ‘possessed’. As the show progresses, we learn that it was Lalit’s untreated trauma from an accident that resulted in, a blatantly ignored, mental condition of psychosis.
Titled ‘11 Diaries’, the second episode of the series is when the show gains momentum, as multiple revelations arise out of eleven diaries which the investigators unravel. The content of the diaries immediately becomes the focal point of the show, as buried secrets and ‘instructions’ that steer the family towards collective delusion, for a period of eleven years, surface. The family was driven with a fierce sense of purpose believed to have been bestowed upon them by Lalit’s dead father, who, after ‘possessing’ Lalit, asserts all of these dictums written on these diaries. Investigators uncover a crucial detail from the handwritten notes in one of these diaries, pertaining to a ‘badh tapasya’— which explained how the family imitated the hanging branches of the banyan tree in order to ‘please God’ and ‘attain salvation’.
What is most noteworthy about the docuseries is how it stresses the untreated psychosis being viewed from a supernatural standpoint by the family. Incendiary media, religious denizens, and a patriarchal family order unequivocally add barriers to achieving clarity in this story. Thus sticking to the mental health aspect was more than necessary, as India is all too familiar with the media circus that ensues when it concerns mental health—and more significantly suicide. The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June 2020 stands testament to that. Instead of addressing the burgeoning mental health crisis afflicting the Indian subcontinent, the sensationalist Indian media were apt in twisting the entire narrative with clickbait titles, smear campaigns, and by drawing vacuous conclusions.
While it’s laudable that the show primarily delivered—and committed to—the story from a psychological angle, there were plenty of avenues that could have been explored more deeply, since the story is hardly one-dimensional. Although doing so could have fed the inflammatory rage machine i.e. the Indian media, it would have portrayed the true complexity of this story, had the producers excavated all the supernatural implications that were concocted after the incident occurred. It's fairly certain that probing into the story from an occult angle would have landed us with more obscurity than clarity; that theme, however, may have been relevant to both the show and its viewers. For instance, the producers chose to ignore the significance of the number “11”; for the Bhatia family, that number accompanied the entire series. From the 11 year period of shared psychosis, 11 pipes protruding from the walls, 11 family members, 11 prongs atop the entrance gate, and precisely 11 diaries, viewers might be more than inclined to assume that perhaps there is more to the story than only mental illness. But echoing my point again, the story is not one-dimensional and obtaining more insight from their community into how they took the psychological viewpoint could have added the much-needed depth to this complicated tale. Did they accept that it was a mental condition? What was their reaction to that revelation? To what extent were they resisting that said diagnosis? And how did they—or did they ever—come to terms with it? While some answers seem transparent, incorporating visceral reactions to these questions seemed more than warranted.
The show also offers scant insight into the lives of each family member, which was quite frankly another let-down. Instead, they play the same reel from some family functions, a wedding, and a birthday party. Perhaps the repetition was a deliberate emphasis on how seemingly jovial and ‘normal’ cloaks they each wore, who knows? However, it doesn’t take long for recurring clips to turn borderline redundant.
Another conflicting element of the show is in its narration. While plenty of audiences have raved about the narration as being one of the substantial ingredients in the show’s delivery, one could argue that it was a bit exaggerated and downright forced. This deliberately ‘creepy’ sounding narration has been doing rounds on social media, with viewers labelling it “nightmarish” or “bone-chilling”—though many beg to differ.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the show lies not in the gory visuals or the ‘creepy’ narration, but by the idea that this could have been the story of any other ‘normal’ family. The premise is all too familiar for us to ignore: a middle-class family, socially mobile, has an online presence, with educated individuals, and yet all the red flags go unnoticed. While the hype around the show is understandable, we must remind ourselves not to become voyeurs of what is, in fact, a tragedy. Because the story reverberated throughout India in such an explosive fashion, it is imperative that we do not gloss over the key takeaway from the show: that we should collectively not become complacent regarding the seemingly ‘normal’ yet insidious and multifaceted nature of mental illness.
All in all, the show—even with some shortcomings—effectively delivered the intended message of South Asia’s relationship with mental illness, blind faith, and patriarchy.