A montage of family pictures flashes across the screen within the first few minutes of the new Netflix docu-series, House of Secrets. The people in them look like any other middle-class Indian family – close-knit, happy, and quite ordinary. They could be our neighbours. Or even us.
Yet, in July 2018, 11 members spanning across three generations of this very family were found dead by hanging at their house in Burari, Delhi, sending shock waves throughout the country.
Through a series of testimonials from neighbours, family, and friends to investigating officers, reporters, and psychologists, the three-part docu-series attempts to unravel the mysteries shrouding the horrifying and bone-chilling events of the 2018 deaths.
The Netflix series brings forth the uncomfortable question of how little we know about the people close to us, and the storms they weather alone.
While it is widely known that it was Lalit Bhatia, the younger son of the Bhatia household, who had taken charge and led the family members to their fateful ends on July 1, 2018, the docu-series sheds new light on the plausible causes that led him to it.
“If a person who has undergone trauma is not treated, a certain amount of psychosis sets in,” explains one of the handful of psychologists interviewed over the course of the series.
Fourteen years prior to the fateful night, Lalit was caught in an attack; the trauma from it was so deep that he ceased talking for several years. However, the PTSD caused by the incident was never treated. “Everyone thinks that psychologists are only for the mad, ” says a friend of the family, recalling that Lalit and family hadn’t heeded the suggestion of doctors to consult a psychologist following the fire accident. This is an apt reflection of the Indian society’s approach to mental illness, which is considered a taboo subject, something to be swept under the carpet; the general consensus being that if it is not spoken about, it will eventually go away. But in Lalit’s case, it did not. The life-threatening incident and the subsequent death of his father were the turning points in his life, with the latter triggering the onset of his psychosis.
While the series delves deep into the facts and reportage of the deaths, it only manages to skim the surface of sociological factors that played significant roles in putting the entire Bhatia family under Lalit’s authoritative spell; patriarchy and the role of religion and superstition.
Lalit was a quintessential patriarch who demanded and received a cult-like servitude from the entire Bhatia clan. What we see is a portrait of a large joint family who were kept on such a tight leash, that there was no room for individual thinking or disloyalty. This is perhaps one of the most bizarre aspects of the case; how ten people, from ages 15 to 77, were willing to blindly follow a single man without raising any alarm. It makes one wonder about the kind of power Lalit wielded over his family.
What is even more tragic is that perhaps none of the family members had expected this kind of an end to their lives. The deaths were a result of a religious ritual – the ‘bad puja’ gone wrong. Unfortunately, the series makes no attempt to dwell upon the subject of the use of religion as a tool for coercion and subjugation within families.
Optics is a huge deal in Indian homes. To seem normal to the outside world even at the cost of an individual’s well-being is preached within the household, because “log kya kahenge (what will people say)”. So it comes as little surprise when the multiple friends and family of the Bhatias, interviewed extensively over the duration of the series, admit to not having had the slightest inkling regarding the family’s dysfunctionality.
On the other hand, House of Secrets hits the nail on the head in acknowledging how voyeurism and sensationalism have become the crux of mainstream Indian media in recent years. The dastardly coverage of the Burari deaths was only aimed at selling the tragedy as the bizarre and the mind-boggling, with no attempt to broaden the discourse towards mental health and the need to acknowledge it in the larger society.
For most parts, House of Secrets plays it safe, leaving lots of scope for pushing the boundaries for broader conversations on family dynamics and its influence on mental health. However, it does the job of getting the ball rolling in that direction.
Reniya Naji is a software engineer who aspires to pursue her creative interests through writing. You can reach her on Instagram @reniyanaji