On May 16, 2008, in the economically booming city of Noida, near New Delhi, a servant arrived in the early morning at the upper-middle-class house where she was employed and encountered a scene of wild grief and chaos. Her employers, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, had found their 13-year-old daughter, Aarushi, dead in her bedroom. Her head had been bludgeoned and her throat slashed.
What happened next, as shown in P.A. Carter’s twisted and sometimes-mind-boggling documentary, “Behind Closed Doors,” is a tragedy of errors. It begins with a grotesquely inept investigation by the local authorities, in which crowds of bystanders and rabid members of the media were allowed to trample over the crime scene, destroying evidence. The police quickly concocted a theory, and a culprit was named. They claimed that the live-in Talwar housekeeper, Hemraj Banjade, a Nepalese who was supporting a family back home, had murdered her and absconded. Police grabbed Banjade’s son-in-law, Krishna Thadarai, who was an employee at the Talwars’s dental office, and interrogated him about Banjade’s whereabouts.
Unfortunately, the police had failed in their initial search to check the rooftop terrace of the Talwar home. Days later, upon the suggestion of a mysterious private investigator, they broke open the locked door to the terrace to find at the end of a trail of blood the decomposing Banjade, who, like Aarushi, had blunt trauma to the head and his throat cut — so deeply he was almost decapitated.
The police spun another theory: Aarushi had been discovered by her father in delicto with Banjade, whom salacious rumors purported to be her lover, and Rajesh murdered them both as an honor killing. The parents denied the charges, Rajesh was dragged into jail, the media went wild, and India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, similar to the FBI, was called in.
These investigators came up with a radically new version of the case, pinning the blame on Thadarai and two of his friends, claiming that Thadarai was angry at Rajesh for the way he was treated at work and killed Aarushi and Banjade as revenge. They held the three suspects — all from Nepal and denied basic rights — without bail, subjected them to harsh interrogation, and extracted supposed confessions by means of “narco analysis,” a kind of truth serum.
What becomes immediately clear from this case is that in India, perhaps more so than in this country, justice, and the perception of justice, are determined by wealth, class, ethnicity, and political clout. Even the media are divided by class and culture; as one journalist interviewed points out, the English-language press caters to the rich, the Hindi press to the poor, and both rabidly spread distorted versions of the truth.
To reflect this Rashomon effect Carter borrows techniques and stylistic devices from Errol Morris’s landmark documentary “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), including dream-like reenactments, recurrent details, and even a hypnotic, Philip Glass-like score. Adding to the atmosphere are moody, noirish montages of Marlowe-esque detective offices with fly-specked ceiling fans and shots of an abattoir-like morgue that looks like a set from the “Saw” series.
Carter offers no resolution. A decade after the crime there are no definite answer, just more questions. The only truth to emerge is that truth itself is a construct of the conflicting interests of politicians, the entitled, the disenfranchised, the media, the guilty, and the innocent.
Part one of “Behind Closed Doors” debuts on HBO on July 16 at 8 p.m., with part two the following night, July 17, at 8 p.m. The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, and partners’ streaming platforms.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.