A Netflix true crime documentary often relies on a template: drone shots, dramatic reconstructions, archival footage, thumping thrills. That style once made nonfiction appealing, but its indiscriminate application over the last several years has made it formulaic and, at its worst, contrived. You won’t find a director’s voice in these films – only the streaming platform’s. Not all true crime pieces – or documentaries in other genres even – need stylised narrative desperation. Indian true crime documentaries on Netflix, with the major exception of Bad Boys Billionaires, have ranged from embarrassing (Crime Stories: India Detectives) to mediocre (A Big Little Murder) to middling (House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths).
Netflix’s latest offering, Mumbai Mafia: Police vs The Underworld, enters a terrain that’s spawned a surfeit of stories: the ‘encounter’ cops and the gangsters. But an international platform like Netflix – hosting a diverse audience – creates another narrative problem: how to tell a story that doesn’t spoon-feed its well-known details, such as the Mumbai underworld to an Indian audience, and yet explains it enough to not alienate the other unfamiliar viewers.
Filmmakers Raaghav Dar and Francis Longhurst don’t have an inventive solution. So their 87-minute documentary takes its time setting up the first act, replete with all the identifiable tropes, where each incident has produced enough fictional films and documentaries: the rise of organised crime in Mumbai, the ‘shootout at Lokhandwala’, the Babri Masjid demolition, the 93 Bombay blasts. Its talking heads try their best, however, to sustain the audience’s interest. A (very) animated Minty Tejpal, a crime reporter in the 90s, cuts a dramatic and entertaining figure (sometimes too dramatic, such as calling the Babri a “Muslim mosque”).
But an obvious lack of moderation makes the initial segment limp. When the movie was still explaining the Bombay riots, it pricked my patience and compelled me to check the progress bar: 40 minutes — almost half the runtime. Till then, it had introduced a few cops – most notably the pivotal Pradeep Sharma – who only touched upon their increasing tussles with the underworld. But soon, Mumbai Mafia turns on its head via two key inclusions: the cops’ unchecked killings, along with their seniors’ approval, media deification, movie portrayals; and their abject lack of moral compass.
The first part – just by the nature of the story itself – is fascinating and disturbing. A city where many cops look more murderous, more amoral, more sociopathic than the gangsters. A city doomed and destined to be ruled by one gun-toting gang or the other. The cops Sharma and Ravindra Angre (who looks so pissed off that ‘Ravindra Angry’ sounds better on him) complicate the story further, almost bragging about their killings. It reminded me of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), where the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide admitted their murders on camera, producing documentary filmmaking’s finest hour: the state-sanctioned horrific human condition. Mumbai Mafia provides crucial context, too: journalist Puja Changoiwala compares the extent of the two massacres – the cops killing around 1,200 people, more than five times the death count in the Bombay bomb blasts.
Dar and Longhurst also explore the other aspects of the story, as their documentary gathers renewed purpose and vitality. They interview an ex-D-company member, Shyam Kishore, treating his transformation and fear – Sharma had scared him so much that he lay low Goa in for years – with dignified empathy. The cop A.A. Khan, who headed the Lokhandwala shootout, calls the encounter killings “morally reprehensible”. Crime reporter S. Hussain Zaidi, who has had the best seat in the stadium for decades, provides fresh perspectives, questioning Sharma’s self-image, calling out his new “ego”-ridden avatar.
The cops complement these commentaries. Just listen to Sharma when asked, “How did you feel on a human level about all this?” He replies: “I ultimately killed a criminal – not some saint.” Sharma then leans back and says, “Naturally, you feel bad, but well…” Mumbai Mafia even manages to produce unexpected dramatic irony, when Sharma, jailed in a fake encounter case, had to literally share space with the “filth” he was purportedly trying to clean. When Angre, also jailed for fake encounters once, is asked if he “feels bad” about the system discarding him, he (almost) shouts: “I don’t feel bad. Only cowards feel bad; I get angry.” The documentary also finds a nice conclusion – tying its theme and story – with the arrest of Abu Salem, showing the crucial difference between justice and retribution.
Yet given its dense subject, Mumbai Mafia ultimately feels slim, soft, and surface-level – a primer as opposed to an investigation. Instead of interviewing (and interrogating) Sharma and Angre in detail, it’s too busy being a slick piece – inundating us with snazzy newspaper and video clips – that only scaffold its story, not build it. Had it investigated the cops’ attitudes and the increased extensions of their frightening powers more – and the larger system that looked away when they ran amuck on the streets – it’d have been much more nuanced and memorable. Would it have been easy? Of course not. Sharma and Angre talking on camera – given their histories (the former was jailed again last year for the pradeep sharma thewire.in arrest) — feels like a mini-coup itself, but impressive art demands time.
Mumbai Mafia, as a result, is a typical ‘snackumentary’ – a snack-type documentary that gives you enough to whet your appetite about the real world, eliding the necessary vigour that such a story demands, helping you feel intelligent without taxing your brains, converting a complex piece into easy house party anecdotes. A filmmaking equivalent of franchise fast food that aims for the easiest pleasures, not hard-fought longevity.