Subhadra Thakur, 32, has just moved back to Delhi from Singapore, where her husband was posted for work. The mother of a four-year-old, she isn’t scared of the city, even though she lives in much-maligned Noida. This, she says, is because she is always alert, ready for anything Delhi may throw at her, thanks to Sony TV’s Crime Patrol Dastak.
When we talk about a recent case in Mumbai, where a pizza delivery man tried to rape a 25-year-old in her house, Thakur says, empathically, “That will never happen to me because I am a Crime Patrol watcher. I have a double front door to my house. If at all a vendor is at the door and I have to get money from inside, I always shut the door. I am super careful.”
Thakur started watching the show four years ago when she was living in Delhi. When she shifted to Singapore, she didn’t give up that habit and would watch it at 1 am, Singapore time, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a cup of coffee in hand. Her reasons for loving the show are simple—the actors are believable and the re-enactments well-directed. She is also glad she knows that crimes she could never conceive of actually happen. “I’d rather be aware. People say, ‘Why do you want to know?’ Well, that’s like ignoring rape. And will that make it go away? I want to know.”
She was shocked when she saw an episode where a model killed her own parents who treated her badly because she was a girl child; or one where a Mumbai bank manager from Mangalore befriended two waiters from his home town, only to be killed by them for money. “We are used to trusting people from our hometowns. What a tragedy. But all this happens.” Thakur wants her son to watch too, provided it’s not too violent. “I want him to know that he can only go out with me, not a stranger. It will make him alert. I have not become paranoid, but very, very careful.”
She likes the way the show’s host, actor Anoop Soni, offers advice on how a crime could have been avoided at the end of an episode, and it’s always about taking the moral high road. “He says that if one is maybe getting eve-teased, you should report it rightaway. Things like that help.” It has reinstated her faith in the police as well, “because these are cases they have solved so well. [Else], we only get to know about the cases they don’t solve.”
Thakur remembers an episode where a lower middle-class woman is having an affair with an affluent man. She wants him to transfer his Lonavla property to her name. He agrees, but only if her daughter sleeps with him. She agrees, and the daughter has sex with the man, but he still doesn’t show any sign of transferring the land, so they get him drunk and dupe him into signing the papers. But they can’t get the property till he dies, so they kill him. “He was found in an abandoned car with his throat slit and a bag of veggies and a dupatta in the car. The police solved the case with just that little bit of information.” No wonder she says she also watches it for its entertainment value. “It’s like a good crime novel with a sad ending.”
Crime Patrol Dastak has been on air since 2003, and even though it’s just a dramatisation of real life crime cases in India, it has become a staple of many households. Now in its fourth season, the show has a huge audience across the country. There are also several other shows like it now—Life Ok’s Savdhaan India and Police Dial 100, Channel V’s Gumraah and Colors’ Shaitan A Criminal Mind. But Crime Patrol watchers swear by its authenticity and execution, its effort to educate and spread awareness among viewers, and host Anoop Soni’s moralistic spin on the crimes.
My mother, Uma Atray, 55, who can watch the show for hours on end, even re-runs, says the title itself is perfect. “It includes the word ‘dastak’, which means a knock. It’s as if they are forewarning us.” She also says that it keeps her alert at all times, even when she is just taking a walk around her Gurgaon neighbourhood. “We ladies take a walk every evening, and if I see a man standing idle for a long time at the same place, I get suspicious. I change my route. It’s better to be careful than regret it later.” When she travels in Gurgaon, even in a car, she doesn’t wear any gold around her neck and doesn’t carry any credit or debit cards. “Why should I become a target?” But she does feel that children shouldn’t watch the show—because it could have a negative impact on impressionable minds.
That may also be a reason many people don’t appreciate it—but does it also give rise to an unnecessary paranoia? Mumbai resident Sanghamitra Bhowmik, 34, watches the show for information and voyeuristic fulfilment. To her, the most interesting crimes are those committed for love. She recalls an episode where a girl helps her boyfriend kidnap her own brother for money. “Oh my God, the things people do for love!” Bhowmik says. “We think youngsters don’t think of committing crime, but this show gives you a reality check. Various things motivate people and often decent-looking people plot crimes.” She feels that the show is a tamer version of other shows on TV today, and that it has a moralistic view on everything, an aspect she doesn’t really care for.
Marketing manager Sarah Aikara even watched the show in hospital as she recuperated from an accident. She feels it restored her faith in the system. But it also gave her too many negative thoughts. “I don’t like watching Indian soaps, so there is not much [besides] reality shows,” says Aikara. “They create awareness, and it’s sort of like watching the news.” She eventually distanced herself from Crime Patrol Dastak, and would rather read a book in her bedroom than watch the show with her husband. “I want to stop the negativity. When you see a rape, it plays on your mind.”
There are others like Aikara, who over time have turned paranoid from watching the show. My father, Bharat Atray, runs a school in Kharkhoda, a village in Haryana. A girl, barely six, walked into his office and asked to be taken home to her mother as she was sure she was being murdered at that moment. When the mother was summoned to the school, it was revealed that the family was an ardent watcher of Crime Patrol, and the child had seen an episode in which the mother gets murdered while the father is not at home. Even though it was explained to the child that it was just a show, she has been going home twice a day to check if her mother is indeed alive.
Savita Balakrishnan has banned her eight-year-old son Pranav from watching the show anymore. Savita watched it once and found it so gruesome, she couldn’t sleep at night. “I know it’s reality but why should it affect me?” she says. She remembers an episode where a man lets his brother rape his wife, and she was aghast. “What’s the need to dramatise it? Kids can’t see the intricacies. News should be just read in newspapers.”
Host Anoop Soni, a big reason why people (read: women) watch the show—maybe because he is good looking or perhaps they like his no-nonsense advice at the end of the show—says that its makers never thought it would get so popular. “We were not even sure what kind of audience would watch it. We just wanted an honest approach to make people aware,” Soni says. He feels the show also works because it doesn’t deal with hardened criminals but with regular people who become criminals because of greed, lust and frustration, among other human susceptibilities.
“Most of these crimes could have been avoided,” say Soni, “ We analyse how that could have been done and people can use that in their lives.” Soni is often met by young working women at airports who tell him that as they travel alone, they stay alert thanks to his advice on Crime Patrol. “They say things like they text the number of their taxi to their parents or friends so that they feel safe,” Soni says. “We always say that our motive is not to scare you—it’s to make sure you stay careful. It’s not just good for you, but for other people as well. Tomorrow, you may save the life of another [person]. How can that be a bad thing?”