Ten years ago, India witnessed one of the most horrific serial killings in recent times, where 19 children and young women were murdered in a suburb near the capital. The country was riveted for months after body parts were found buried in the backyard and drains around wealthy businessman Moninder Singh Pandher’s home, where he lived with his servant Surinder Koli.
“The Karma Killings”, a documentary directed by Indian-American Ram Devineni, aims to throw fresh light on the case by going back to ground zero in Noida’s Nithari village, and suggests that Pandher could be innocent.
In a chilling confession before a magistrate, Koli admitted to killing, and in some cases cooking and eating body parts of his victims. He has been sentenced to death. Pandher is out on bail but still faces trial in some cases related to the murders.
Devineni said he was influenced by author Truman Capote’s seminal work, “In Cold Blood”, in which Capote chronicles the aftermath of the gruesome murders of a farmer and his family in the town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote and his friend Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (The classic American novel that also deals with the question of whether a man has been accused of a crime he did not commit), spent considerable time in Holcomb - almost four years - talking to locals and investigators before he wrote his book.
“I was convinced that this was the only way to do it. I had to move into the very street that the murders had taken place. In retrospect, I was naïve in thinking that this was the only way to get the story,” Devineni told Reuters in an interview.
Starting in 2012, Devineni began living down the lane from Pandher’s house, spending more than nine months talking to investigators and families of victims.
“Initially, my plan was to make a film from the perspective of the families, but the deeper I delved, and the more I spoke to investigators, the more I began to feel that Pandher might not be guilty of the crimes he was accused of,” the film-maker said.
The 1 hour 22-minute documentary, which is available globally on streaming platform Netflix, builds a case for Pandher, with investigators expressing doubt over his involvement in the crime and his son Karandeep arguing that his father wasn’t even in the house when the murders took place. Families of the victims still feel Pandher is guilty in some way.
The last scene in the documentary shows Pandher taking a walk in a tree-lined street in Chandigarh, where he now lives.
“This film could have taken ten years, because I just had to wait for him to get out. It was just sheer luck that he got out sooner. Because the third act of the film - and this is completely artistic - required him to get out,” said Devineni, who is based in New York.
Pandher is not allowed to give public interviews while his remaining cases are ongoing, but Devineni said his meetings off camera with Pandher and Koli left him convinced that the businessman was innocent.
“I didn’t mean for this film to make a statement. I wanted it to be about the families, but at one point I knew it wasn’t as simple as it looked and from then on, the story told itself.”