Home >opinion >Finally, an Indian online documentary series worth watching

If you’re from Kolkata, you can’t not know about witches—because India’s best known and self-proclaimed witch, Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, lives there. When I was growing up, I’d read interviews of Chakraverti, who is a Wiccan and makes it a point to say so. Unlike most witches in India, Chakraverti, who comes from what we call a “good" family, has lived a life free of persecution.

As we all know, witches seem to be the talk of town. What with Kangana Ranaut being called a pishachini and she embracing the term. But few in India get to proudly say they’re Wiccan or giggle about being called a witch. Because in rural India and many parts of urban India, being called a witch or being thought of as being possessed by a spirit is a sure-shot ticket to hell on earth. In fact, you’re lucky if you’re not killed for saying so.

With all this talk of the supernatural and the current celebration around witchcraft, the “new-age online documentary series" by Scoopwhoop in association with Newslaundry couldn’t have come at a better time. The series, Chase, launched its first episode on 11 May. The 26-minute episode called Demonic Possession: An Inside Story is about women—and a few men—who are possessed by spirits. And how these spirits and people are dealt with and treated or “exorcised" by their family and immediate society.

The descriptor on Scoopwhoop’s YouTube channel reads: “To be possessed by the spirit of a powerful goddess or a maata is a common phenomenon in most parts of India. This documentary is a journey to get an in-depth view of what exactly happens during a possession. Is it real (sic) spirit? Or a disease? Or is there a larger game involved?"

What I gathered from watching the very snazzy trailer of the series is that each episode will focus on a different topic. And that each episode would be narrated by a different reporter. Of course, the problem with snazzy promos is that sometimes what follows seems like a damp squib. Also, since I was earlier the chief editor of Newslaundry and still write an occasional column for the site, I watched the episode with the trepidation that I may not like it. Thankfully, the episode lived up to the grittiness of the trailer.

This episode has all the horror and ‘exoticism’ that we have grown to associate with witches, bhoot-pret and black magic in India. The episode which is reported by Manisha Pande, who works at Newslaundry, takes us from Mehandipur Balaji temple in Dausa to Harsu Bhram temple on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh border during the Navratras to the Sant Sabir Shah dargah in Chainpur.

Pande won the Laadli Media Award for gender sensitivity this year. And when you see her calm narration, not totally devoid of emotion, but keeping it in check—you appreciate why she won the award. She is not intrusive or judgmental or emotional while speaking to either the exorcists or the women being exorcised.

The episode does not make for pleasant viewing. Everything that we have grown to associate with daayans and witches and people who are paagal thanks to Hindi movies like Raaz, Bhoot and TV shows is actually happening in the real world. You realise the power and fatality of superstition. And why we shouldn’t promote it or make light of it in a country like India. Where people actually believe in icchadhaari naagins, bhatakti aatmas and chudails.

Other than for the last six minutes where an ojha (exorcist) face-off takes place in a panchayat, there is nothing to laugh at or cheer. This is chilling stuff.

A lot of the footage is shot on hidden camera whenever the crew has not been able to shoot with permission. Pande meets a pandit called Raju, who is an MSc in computer science, but who also helps exorcise ghosts with his father. He charges between 50,000 and 1 lakh for an exorcism, but being the good man that he is also takes on pro bono work. It sends a shiver down your spine to see him holding a thick stick in front of a weeping woman’s face, his young face contorted in aggression. A woman who is obviously psychologically unsound is being exorcised by him.

He discusses the three types of ghosts there are—calmly. As if he’s discussing the three types of dosas he likes to order. There are babas, pandits, screaming women, catatonic women with dishevelled hair and clothes askew. Pande and journalist Utpal Pathak speak to one of the women, Asha, who Raju claims has been possessed by a Brahmin ghost and 27 other ghosts or spirits. She seems absolutely fine, cooking at home, waiting for her exorcism to begin in the evening.

Pande speaks to Arti Anand, clinical psychologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, who tries to put some semblance of sense into the madness—so to speak. But the visual of a woman in a purple chiffon saree flailing and contorting is horrific. Especially when you focus your eyes on her husband, who looks on impervious. Holding on to her arm. Raju, the part-time exorcist, speaks of how he uses a cane to wallop sense into the women, much like electric shock therapy. Which I don’t think he knows is frowned upon.

But it’s not all women. When Pande travels to Sant Sabir Shah Dargah in Chainpur, we see men chained to individual stakes in the ground. Their wrists and ankles in iron cuffs. Young. Lying listlessly. Some making faces. They will supposedly be cured within 30 to 90 days.

That these are patients of mental illness, be it schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or even something as basic as Tourette’s syndrome, is obvious. But not to their families and the pandits and ojhas. Who are all set to cure them. We all know that health care is inadequate in India, so to expect adequate mental health care is expecting too much.

There is a relief point during the ojha face-off in a panchayat which involves a runaway chicken, some ganja, two shots of whisky, a whisky-soaked fruit which acts as a Bluetooth to the spirits—and a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. It would be funny, if it wasn’t scary—all those on camera believe what is happening is true. The episode drives home the fact that women in rural and urban India are repressed and not much has changed. Yes, there are men who are treated similarly, but the number is far smaller.

The episode is taut and very well shot. While it is a documentary, there is a slickness to the episode which makes it no less than anything that would come out of an international stable. It reminds me of Deadly Women or The Jinx: Robert Durst. But what’s most impressive is that they deliver a complete episode within a half hour.

Frankly, going by the tripe that is created for online consumption in India, this is a welcome change. It’s also nice to see Scoopwhoop catering to a slightly more serious and mature audience than their usual 20- to 22-year-old demographic. I’m assuming that’s the Newslaundry effect. Watch the episode. I highly recommend it.

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