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‘House of Secrets’: The Right Step Towards Talking Mental Health in India

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Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide and graphic details

‘House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’ is a new Netflix docu-series directed by Leena Yadav. From including the many conspiracy theories to showing the truth, the docu-series reveals itself like a work of fiction, grounded in a solid screenplay. However, as chilling as the docu-series is, it fails to answer some pertinent questions about the patriarchal hold in many households, secretive families, and religious dogma.

The docu-series narrates the horrifying deaths of the Bhatia family living in the Burari neighbourhood of Delhi. An entire family of 11 is found dead, hung by wires and ropes on a mesh, solely survived by the family’s dog. No foul play is suspected as the family is found hanging by cables and ropes.

The public, though, starts questioning: Is this a suicide or a murder?

The hangings of the Bhatias, a seemingly typical, middle-class joint family, shook India and hit national headlines in 2018. The event presented questions and conversations about secretive family dynamics and how these incidents could happen anywhere.

The docu-series is timely as it comes in the background of new conversations about how superstition breaks communities apart. Moreover, the power of superstitions lies in the fears around changing norms.

Recently, a well-educated couple in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district brutally killed their two daughters. The couple believed that their dead daughters would come back to life due to special powers. Similarly, over superstitious beliefs, three people were involved in the murder of their 2-year-old nephew using black magic.

Despite most people in India knowing the basic facts of the case, Yadav is able to get people hooked to the series early on – with many audience members tweeting that they binge-watched it as soon as it came out.

With the help of archival footage, recreated sequences, and interviews with experts, Yadav makes us feel that we were there in Burari. However, it might be extremely disturbing for some viewers as it mentions suicide and graphic imagery.

The triggering scene of showing the ropes hanging and the dangling feet of the family members, barely touching the ground, are disconcerting. Moreover, the photograph of Bhopal Singh, the dead father, and Lalit as a child, at his father’s side, merely an eye of his being seen, is eerie and similar to their situation.

Lalit, the youngest son, became the patriarch of the family after his father’s death. Due to trauma and mental illness, he encountered psychosis in which he thought his dead father’s spirit possessed him. He maintained 11 handwritten diaries where the assumed possessed spirit would summon the instructions of his father.

Those words had to be followed by the Bhatia family, so much so that no one dared to question them. According to that word of law, the family had to do a ‘badd puja’ — a religious ceremony imitating a banyan tree, which led to the entire family’s death.

This is an image from the Netflix show 'House of Secrets' based on the Burari case that took place in Delhi in 2018.
The photograph of Bhopal Singh, the dead father, and Lalit as a child, at his father’s side, merely an eye of his being seen, is eerie. Image Credits: Netflix

It is revealed that none of them were meant to die as the dead father would save them. Therefore, experts have claimed it is neither suicide nor a murder but an accident.

Friends and neighbours of the family, who have been interviewed during the docu-series, did not know about these occult activities and the family dynamics of the Bhatias. A family friend reflects how secretive the family had become and says that only if a child of the family had revealed this to them, they could have been saved.

There are mentions of mental health and how Lalit’s ‘psychosis’ led to this tragedy. The family became a small cult where they shared a similar belief that the spirit of their dead father would help them succeed.

But one must not ignore the deep patriarchal hold that Lalit had on the family, which he further strengthened by a religious angle. So one cannot just say that “Lalit was mentally disturbed”. Instead, the tragedy should have asked questions and ignited discussions about the hidden dysfunctionality of ‘seemingly, normal families.’

Unfortunately, the docu-series falls into the same vicious circle. They bring in psychologists, journalists, and writers to discuss the case. Still, none of them answer the essential questions of why we accept orders from patriarchal figures like Lalit. Or why is it normal for people to hide the ‘abnormalities’ in their houses? It’s the same impulse that makes us hide a relative dealing with a mental health illness.

The docu-series makes the requisite appeal to mental health, to the ‘secrecy’ factor of Indian families, and the deep hold of superstition. It also vilifies the media’s coverage of the case, which sensationalized and blew the facts apart.

However, all of them are tokenistic representations. Like, in a scene, a neighbour of the family merely mentions that Lalit should have sought help from a psychiatrist, making the conversation around mental health just in passing.

 

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The genuinely disturbing revelation of it all is the realization that what happened to them could just have happened to any other family. But, unfortunately, the ingredients for disaster already exist in many families: undeterred obedience to a patriarch, hiding mental illness, secrecy, shame, and increased control over each family member.

One question that begs to be answered is whether if a woman in the family was possessed, would her orders be obeyed, or would she be vilified. The latter seems more plausible.

A man, however, in a position of power within the family was able to actualize his control through his mental illness, galvanizing superstition to legitimize the illness in turn. Unfortunately, this is a common strand of society where mental illness is not dealt with through the proper channels.

Though the series is a step in the correct direction, its creation is hampered by the short-sightedness of its makers. However, one might have sleepless nights after watching it or have the urge to constantly look towards the ceiling in remembrance of the crime scene. (It is strongly recommended not to binge-watch this show at night).

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