Dancing on the Grave is disturbing, yet flawed

Dancing on the Grave is a docu-series on Amazon Prime Video. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

This is an India Today Originals’ docu-series, directed and co-written by Patrick Graham. As per their claims in a media release, “Over 22,000 pages on the case were read in detail, interviews of over 57 people were conducted adding to more than 300 hours, and travel was undertaken across the length and breadth of the country to bring together the unknown facts about the case.”

Basically, the series attempts a “balanced” view wherein a dastardly murder of a beautiful and middle-aged heiress, Shakeereh Khaleeli, granddaughter to Sir Mirza Ismail, Diwan of the erstwhile Mysore State, is examined. The attractive girl married diplomat Akbar Khaleeli at 19, had four beautiful daughters, and a troubled relationship with her husband who was out of the country on assignment for most of their married years.

A self-proclaimed god-man, Swami Shraddhanand, a.k.a Murli Manohar Mishra, was introduced to the family and came to their house to rectify a problem with his spiritual powers. Gradually, Shakeereh and he got close and the former divorced her husband in 1985 and within six months married the god-man. Her four daughters went to Italy where their father was posted.

In 1990, Sabah returned and was in regular touch with her mother. But all communication stopped in 1991. The husband stated that their mother was traveling out of country, but it all seemed suspicious when this went on for a long while, and Sabah finally filed a FIR in 1992. Finally, after a detailed investigation, Shraddhanand confessed to have buried her with assistance from the domestic help in the backyard of her house, a famous Bangalore address. Her body was exhumed and Shraddhanand was sentenced to imprisonment until death. It is said that the god-man held regular parties over the very area that had her body below the earth—hence the title of the series.

However, there is a question mark. Shraddhanand (who is given extensive footage as he in jail now for over 30 years) reveals that a confession was forced out of him by the cops’ torture. He says that Shakeereh was a “lovely” woman and he had no issues with her and she said that he had given her the best days of her life. He further adds that she was already dead when he buried in a wooden box on wheels with the help of staff. And they were willing to stand by him as they knew the truth—that he was terrified that the cops would suspect him and arrest him for her murder once they came to know of her death.

It is simultaneously shown that after the remains were exhumed, scratch marks were found on the box, proving that Shakeereh was alive when buried and had regained consciousness. The angle of a custom-made box also hinted at pre-meditated murder for pecuniary gains. On the other hand, the family anger towards Shakeereh for marrying a man below their class, and especially a Hindu, had also led to litigation, and it is hinted that the family had an interest in getting him out of the way by “framing” him for her disappearance, as property and assets were involved!

The docu-series skirts many issues of key importance. Though we have endless photographs, news coverage, footage of interviews close to Shakeereh as well as crucial investigating cops and dramatized reproductions with actors, we are not told why the servants were not questioned (and if they where, what came across?), or the family quizzed on their anger and litigation against a beloved member.

The swami is also never asked about the box or nail marks and why he held parties at the very spot under which he had buried his wife. The court proceedings are also not detailed either. With so much hours of research and material available, what was preventing the makers of the series from going into the revelation (or otherwise) of such key details?

Shraddhanand’s monotonous way of speaking and resignation (and his kindness to a cat in the jail) looks more like an attempt to whitewash him rather than keeping a balanced view. Shakeereh’s mother comes across as genuine and so does the determined Sabah, but we do not get to hear the views of the other three daughters.

The actors representing the real characters are cast well and perform competently, and the music enhances many a mood. The whole presentation of the crime’s enormity is disturbing indeed—more also for Shraddhanand’s resignation at his sentence and his indifference towards what he has done so brutally.

All in all, more attention was needed towards crucial details, especially as this was a sensational case that made headlines because of its “rarest of rare” (as talked about) quality.

Rating: ***




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