‘Behind Closed Doors’: How a 13-Year-Old Girl’s Murder Ignited Class Warfare
The new HBO docuseries ‘Behind Closed Doors’ re-examines the 2008 murders of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar and domestic worker Hemraj Banjade—a case that divided a nation.
When you have a high-profile murder marked by little forensic evidence, tons of speculation, and no clear-cut suspect or motive, how do you decide who’s guilty or innocent? In the case of the 2008 double homicide of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in Noida, India, the answer to that question frequently came down to what side of the class divide you were on.
Behind Closed Doors, HBO’s gripping new two-part documentary (premiering July 16 and 17), is a true-crime effort cut from a familiar cloth. Employing a standard mix of newly recorded interviews (with just about every important figure involved), archival TV and police material, and dramatic recreations, it tackles a mystery that, below its straightforward surface, proved to be anything but open-and-shut.
On the night of May 15, 2008, 13-year-old Aarushi and her family’s domestic worker Hemraj, 45, were slain in Aarushi’s home, she in her bedroom and he on the roof terrace. Both had suffered blunt-force wounds to the head, and both of their throats were slit. The only other people in the residence at the time were Aarushi’s doctor-parents, Rajesh and Nupur, who said they were asleep when the crime was committed.
The Talwars’ house was locked from the inside the entire night—a fact borne out by their maid Bharati Mandal when she arrived the next morning at 6 a.m.—and there were no signs of forced entry. Upon first finding their daughter, Rajesh and Nupur immediately suspected Hemraj. After his corpse was discovered, however, a cloud of suspicion began to gather over their own heads. Complicating matters was law enforcement’s wholesale failure to protect the crime scene from contamination. In footage shot on the day after this horrific event, Behind Closed Doors depicts friends, neighbors and journalists traipsing through the very areas that might hold the key to figuring out who perpetrated this atrocity. With so many hands and feet smudging everything in sight, the traces of blood found in Aarushi’s room, on the railing leading up to the terrace roof, and on the terrace roof’s door lock wound up being useless.
Director P.A. Carter lays out this police incompetence thoroughly, all while having numerous investigators complain that their efforts were screwed up by a sensationalist media consumed with exploiting every rumor and leaked tidbit for maximum audience share. Clips of cameramen frantically swarming and hounding principal players certainly lend some credence to those claims. Yet Behind Closed Doors far more persuasively contends that the underlying problem here had to do with the police’s clumsy inability to make up their minds about who was responsible for the massacre, which soon came to be wrapped up in larger societal forces.
At first, the police went after Rajesh, declaring (in the first of two monumentally dunderheaded press conferences) that he had committed an honor killing because Aarushi and Hemraj had learned about his extramarital affair—or, perhaps, it was because he found the two of them in a sexually-compromising situation. Then, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over and, following the Talwars’ lead, blamed the slayings on a trio of local domestic workers who were reportedly in the house that night drinking with Hemraj. When that CBI inquiry went nowhere, and actually came to appear biased in favor of the wealthy and respected Talwars, another CBI team assumed control, and returned to the police’s original theory about Rajesh and Nupur—and ultimately got them sentenced to life in prison (though they were later acquitted).
At the heart of Behind Closed Doors is the issue of class. Well-off Indians and the English-language media immediately rallied around the Talwars, while poorer citizens and the Hindi-language media threw their support behind the domestic employees implicated in the crime. For the former camp, the most plausible scenario was that a group of desperate, resentful, uneducated servants had preyed upon their benefactors. For the latter camp, the Talwars had obviously used their power and influence to cover up the crime. Such nefarious efforts supposedly involved deliberately having people over to the house in order to ruin the evidence before cops could properly collect it—as well as swapping out Aarushi’s vaginal swabs, thereby erasing her purported sexual relationship with Hemraj.
Making things even crazier is an Indian practice known as a “narco test” in which individuals are injected with Sodium Pentothal (i.e. “truth serum”) and then, in their half-conscious drugged-out state, questioned by police. Fortunately, this loopy, unreliable interrogation method isn’t admissible in court, although that didn’t stop cops from administering it to Rajesh and Krishna Thadarai (one of the three suspected servants). In close-up video of the latter during one narco test, he places the blame squarely on Rajesh and Nupur—an assertion that, because it’s under such bonkers conditions, holds about as much weight as the rest of the case’s twists. Which is to say, very little.
Behind Closed Doors’ saga is thus one of cluelessness. No one has any idea whether Hemraj had friends over that night. No one is sure in what order Aarushi and Hemraj were killed, or if they were even murdered in the locations where their bodies were found. No one can come up with a powerful reason for anyone to have done something so heinous. Everyone maintains they’re blameless, and is outraged at being accused. And no one can explain any of the inconsistencies or contradictions surrounding the investigation, because the police botch one key element of their job after another, culminating with them not even knowing about, or searching, the Talwars’ garage until the press—apparently trying to drum up a headline on a slow news day—profess that they smell something rotten coming from inside.
Those looking for a smoking gun-style bombshell in Behind Closed Doors will be sorely disappointed, as Carter’s documentary eventually makes no more definitive conclusions than did the police, the news reporters who followed the case, or the judges who handed out verdicts. Instead, it has to accept the far more dismaying fact that some crimes go unsolved, be it because of corruption, manipulation, or sloppiness—even when common sense dictates that one possible answer is far more compelling than the rest.