Saturday, November 20, 2010

Underworld: India's thirst for crime stories

In India, if it bleeds, it leads.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 19, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — In the cluttered North Delhi office of Crime & Detective magazine, editor-in-chief Shailabh Rawat oversees a team of designers who are putting the finishing touches on next month's issue.

As one designer pastes together a lurid photo spread dramatizing a violent crime, Rawat tells him to tweak the "torn" look a bit to leave less white space between the victim and murderer. Then, turning, in Hindi he tells the designer laying out next month's photo story, "Put some more kajol on her eyes. A little more. Enough."

For 25 years, Rawat — India's king of pulp — has been the heart and soul of this country's pioneering, and still top-selling, true crime magazines. Started by publisher Satish Verma in 1984, Crime & Detective now sells in three different versions, the gritty Madhur Kathayen and tamer Mahanagar Kahaniya, in Hindi, and the classic C&D in English.

With titillating skin shots and screamer headlines like, "Shower of love resulted in blood-shed," together the small-press titles — which are ubiquitous on railway platforms and across India's entertainment-starved small towns — sell upwards of 200,000 copies a month.

"Crime is — not in India, but internationally — the most read subject. It's a basic human weakness to read about crimes and such things," said Verma.

A hilarious mash-up of tragedy and farce, Crime & Detective offers an unwitting homage to America's 1940s-era noir and its near namesake, Bernarr Macfadden's True Detective — the pulp classic which helped bring fame to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. Relying on police reports and inputs from stringers in India's remote burgs, the stories are embellished and fictionalized to include a patented formula of sex and murder, then translated into a ludicrous semblance of English that sets the gold standard in "so bad it's good." But the biggest payoff comes from the monthly photo story — a comic strip-style narrative of sex and speech bubbles that relies on struggling Mumbai models and low-cut leopard print.

"We have to target what our readers taste is. In high society there are things that happen that are not open, that happen in closed rooms. About that, the middle class reader wants to know more," Rawat said, speaking Hindi. "Those things that are open, people know about already. Those things that are closed, like gigolos or parties with wife-swapping, we try to make such stories available to our readers so that they can learn about that society, too."

But at what cost to Indian society are these kings of pulp flogging a country's guilty pleasure?

Consider some of the stories of the December issue of Crime & Detective — which highlights the story of 15-year-old Joncarlo Patton, an American tourist from the Pittsburgh area who is now on trial for the alleged murder of his mother, Cindy Iannarelli, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Packed with bodies "simmering like suppressed flames" and punctuated by ads for products like Vita-Ex Gold (UNLEASH YOUR PASSIONS) and Jolly Fat-Go (Extra Tummy, Don't Ignore), the true crime stories manage to titillate and condemn at the same time — enticing conservative readers with boundary-breaking fantasies at the same time that its censuring tone enforces the prevailing social norms.

"Mansi's gang of thieves," for example, tells of a would-be model "with a distaste for service" who joined and then rose to lead a gang of housebreakers to "translate her high-rise dreams into reality." "The poison of suspicion" is the story of an inter-caste love affair that ended in murder when the couple's secret marriage was destroyed by jealousy. And "Seema's glamour mints money" portrays the (inevitable, according to C&D) descent into prostitution that follows when a young woman surrenders to her sexual desires.

"We want to teach them [readers] also, in a way, how to save yourself from all these things," said Verma. "We publish the story when the culprit or the accused is caught, so we want to express that nobody can escape after doing the crime. We do not glorify. We always take the side of the victim."

It's a shifting line — especially as India's fast economic growth engenders sweeping social changes. Over the past 20 years, for instance, the magazine has stopped writing about homosexual affairs as if they were crimes in themselves, says Rawat, even though readers remain obsessively preoccupied with gay murder.

And it's always a tenuous tightrope between truth and fiction, according to Verma, who says that none of his magazines has been forced to pay damages in a defamation case — but a nearly constant string of lawsuits and court appearances is part of the business.

"If the accused after a period gets relief from the court, then they file suit against us," said Verma.

That's right. Though Verma insists that Rawat carry only stories where police cases have been filed — precluding stories from India's mushrooming private detective agencies — Crime & Detective doesn't shy away from writing about crimes in which the alleged perpetrators have yet to be convicted. Facilitated by India's relatively weak libel laws, that's a decision in part motivated by necessity, since Indian court cases often drag on for decades. But this month's edition, which highlights the alleged crime of an American minor, may draw unusual attention.

With an "I never thought I'd be writing to you" type lead-in, "Teenager American tourist's deadly decision" depicts the nearly consummated flirtation between Iannarelli and a Reggie's Camel Camp employee named Jageer Singh as the final straw that pushed Patton to slit his mother's throat — an alleged crime that has yet to be proved. The fictionalization of the narrative precludes any mention of the source for the magazine's claims, and the detailed account of the crime, presented as factual, undercuts the buried acknowledgement that Joncarlo has maintained he is innocent.

Worse, Crime & Detective's signature style is unlikely to go down well with readers associated with the case — in the unlikely event that a copy of the issue comes to their attention. "All the shameful acts of Cynthia that she'd done with the ten member American Tourist Group were enough to anger her son John," a boldface pull-quote reads. "So he decided to eliminate her."

Weak laws or no, them's fightin' words.

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