What It Was Like to Go Deep Into a Serial Killer’s Life for a Netflix Film

The team behind VICE Studios’ docu-series “Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi” reflects on their almost two-year long journey, retracing the steps of a serial killer.
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A still from 'Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi'

True crime docu-series Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi currently streaming on Netflix and produced by VICE Studios is the story of serial killer Chandrakant Jha. 

Jha, who was arrested in 2007 and eventually found guilty on three counts of murder, but who is likely to have killed and mutilated a far higher number of people in west Delhi, India from 1998 to 2007, went mostly unnoticed by the cops and the mainstream media for a long time. So, how did the makers of the three-episode series zero in on his story? How did they go about uncovering the nature of his misdeeds, gathering facts, verifying information, and understanding the psyche of a man before deciding to train their lens on his crimes?


“The research and development phase was quite long and detailed. The production was not on the fly. There was a lot that went into it,” said series director Ayesha Sood.

Creative producer Nandita Gupta, who worked on the development of the series, said that the process was almost as interesting as the final product. With the project taking almost two years to complete from start to finish, Gupta spoke of how the bizarre became almost banal for her over the course of the making of the documentary. 

“We can’t tell a story that is sub judice. We also need characters who are alive and willing to speak on camera,” said Gupta. “Chandrakant Jha’s story fell in that sweet spot, and was among the three that VICE shortlisted for development under the Indian Predator series.” After their preliminary research, Gupta and her team were even more convinced that Jha’s case would make for a compelling narrative.

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Investigating officer Sunder Singh Yadav along with Nandita Gupta (right) and Vani Tripathi (left) going through the images clicked by the serial killer himself. Photo courtesy: Nandita Gupta

The next step involved the mammoth task of acquiring the court documents and case files that would lead them to the key people in the story. To complicate matters further, this had to be done in the middle of a pandemic. Nidhi Salian and Apoorva Jaiswal from the Research and Development team, however, managed early on to get hold of key documents. Access to these documents was crucial, as they revealed a goldmine of information that would help in the retelling of Jha’s story.

Unravelling the case

“It was during the first wave of the pandemic that the team pored over almost 10,000 pages of documents from the case files, which gave us a lot of the vital information we needed. Nidhi Salian, the development producer who is also a lawyer by training, was on top of the terms, procedures, and legalese that we would come across everyday. Meanwhile, Srusti Jain, the series producer, was constantly on the lookout for stringers and fixers all over the country. We made endless calls to track down cops, victims, relatives, lawyers, friends, and family members [for the pre-interviews],” said Gupta.


What stood out for the team, who had access to the original letters hand-written by the serial killer as well as photographs of the victims taken by him, was the wealth of detail available on the case. “From the Tom and Jerry sticker on the cartons that held victims’ body parts to the brand of undergarments they wore – the details in the case files were incredible. This also allowed for a lot of richness in the recreated scenes.” 

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The Chandrakant Jha case files where the research team found handwritten letters written by him to the police. Photo courtesy: Nandita Gupta

The evidence, however, was not for the faint-hearted. For several weeks, none of the team members were able to catalogue the photographs of severed body parts that were part of the case files. “Eventually, it was Apoorva Jaiswal, the archive producer, who braved it and did the cataloguing in a step by step manner,” said Gupta. 

This was Jaiswal’s first job as an archive producer. “I had to catalogue which photograph of a body part belonged to which photograph of a dead body, because you can’t show a photograph of [a different] body when you’re talking about a particular murder,” she said. Initially, Jaiswal tried to go through the process quickly, so that she could be done with it but cataloguing would eventually take her close to a month, which led to her becoming desensitised to the photographs. “That was scary because I don’t think it’s something one should be desensitised towards.” 

By the end of the research phase, Jaiswal was having vivid dreams about the case. “The lockdown was on, and because I was working from home and sleeping in the same room that I was researching in, I would dream that there was a serial killer in my room.” Jaiswal added that when she went outside, she began to look at people differently. “You can’t help but think ‘what if one of these people is into the kind of stuff I was reading about?’”

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A sketch of Chandrakant Jha in the documentary

As the team continued their research, it became clear that they needed a forensic mind on board to analyse their findings. This is where clinical forensic psychologist Dr. S.L. Vaya came into the picture. Dr. Vaya, who works as Director, School of Criminology and Behavioural Sciences (SCBS) at Rashtriya Raksha University in Gandhinagar in the state of Gujarat, would go on to become a prominent voice in the documentary. 

To help understand Jha’s motivations and his behaviour, Dr. Vaya made Gupta and her team do various tasks and perform certain exercises. One of those tasks was noting the distance that severed body parts were being flung by Jha with every successive murder. Gupta told VICE, “We also had to look at how much more he had [mutilated] subsequent victims, measure the cooling-off period between murders, [keeping in mind] the time periods he was in prison and out [when the cops still don’t have enough evidence to nail him]. Through all of this, we were trying to understand [his] mind. It is magical when these tabulations, [combined] with theory, began to [reveal] a state of mind – a specific pathology.” An interesting hypothesis emerged through the process: No one is beyond redemption. 

The first time Gupta spoke to Dr. S.L. Vaya, the seasoned psychologist likened a serial killer’s pain to that of the asura Raktabīja. In Hindu mythology, Raktabīja was an asura, or a demon, who had a boon that wherever a drop of his blood fell, another one of him would arise. Dr. Vaya believed that in a similar way, a serial killer’s pain can also multiply with every murder, which increases their need for a release – the need to kill, in their case. According to her, Jha had to continue killing to ease the pain of having killed before. This was not a justification for his crimes but a testament to Dr. Vaya’s belief that he could be healed through rehabilitation and therapy.


Tracing his roots

Travelling to the village of Ghosai in Bihar, India, the place where Jha spent his formative years, was an experience in itself, especially since the team was small. Series producer Jain recalled the time when Sood, the director, wanted to shoot a scene inside a bus, and how they got help from a local fixer. “He took us to this road where a bus bound for Kathmandu was passing by. He jumped in front of [the bus], pulled out a gun, told the driver to stop and for the passengers to empty out, so that we could shoot.” Jain added, “We were in shock! We didn’t even know he had a gun and had to ask him to put it away.”

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Visuals from the village of Ghosai in Bihar, as seen in a still from the movie

That wasn’t the only surprise that lay in store for the team. While the locals were aware of who Jha was, they didn’t think of him as a major player in the world of crime. “He had not committed enough murders, according to them. One or two villagers even told us they would introduce us to people who had committed over a hundred contract killings,” said Gupta. “It makes one think how much of the ‘serial killer’ hype is created, what story is important and to whom.”

Gupta also found the locals to be astute in their observations of human behaviour and was impressed by their theories regarding the likely root cause of Jha’s behaviour. “They are keen observers of life and effortlessly took us through [his] family dysfunctionality and the possible tipping points in his life. They were the only people who could describe his broader modus operandi clearly – and that has made it to the final cut,” said Gupta.


Unearthing crucial evidence

An important breakthrough for the research team was finding Jha’s photo album that had photographs taken by him – a likely catalogue of his victims. As a lot of time had passed since the murders, the team wasn’t hopeful of finding the album, in spite of mentions of it on calls made by them to people from Jha’s village. The likelihood of getting hold of the photographs became a possibility only when the team arrived in Ghosai, where every person who knew of Chandrakant spoke of his photo album. 

Through word of mouth, Gupta found out who was in possession of the album. It was with the family of Murlishah, one of the victims. She requested his brother, Ashok Shah (who also appears in the documentary), to share the photos with the team, which were purportedly with Murlishah’s wife. When she went to collect it, they hadn't yet been found. All the women of the house set about looking for it. Gupta waited with bated breath. Then, from somewhere deep in the dusty recesses of this house, the until-now mythical photo album emerged. Murlishah’s wife was in tears as she handed it over. These were the only photos she had of her late husband, she said. Gupta took the album, promising to return it safely.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were around 15 photographs preserved in the album – there were photos of people tied up, lounging around…” said Gupta. “A few photos even had women and children in the background. Nobody knows who these people are. The photos answered a lot of questions about Chandrakant’s M.O., but threw open even more. I often wonder about those people: Are they alive? How much more do we not know?” 


Sood recalled, “It’s very sobering to come upon evidence like that. It’s even more affecting knowing that they had seen those images, and that they carry the weight of that information – that they have all been impacted by Chandrakant and his crimes, in some way. It was a strange moment of shared tragedy.” 


Shooting for closure

When asked what Sood, the series director, thought of Jha watching the documentary, she replied, “I think he would be very happy. His life’s mission was to be known, to be seen and heard, and our documentary does that.” She added, “I don’t know how to feel about that but, for the most part, I’m hoping the documentary starts the right conversations about where crime comes from.” 

When Gupta, the creative producer, was asked if she would ever like to meet Jha in person, she said “Of course! I feel that I know so much about this person I’ve never met. I think it would have been great for him to be part of the film and give his perspective, and his truth. His opinion is the one that matters most to me.” 

Finally, what drives one to engage with material like this? What does one take away from the entire experience?

“The more non-fiction I do, [the more] fiction becomes more believable,” said Gupta. “Ayesha has presented both the complexity of the social and personal context of Jha’s crimes, as well as the need for reformation. When people watch it, I hope they see the myriad factors that contribute to the making of criminals, including the inequality and injustices that might induce these sleeping triggers.”

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