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Crime Shows Or Social Failure? Do Movies, Web Series Instigate Criminal Minds?

Aftab Poonawala who killed his live-in partner Shraddha and chopped her body into 35 pieces conceded to police that he was influenced by the American crime show Dexter.

Tributes to Shraddha Walkar
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Dexter Morgan is a “very neat monster”, who thoughtfully neutralises his target, dismembers their bodies, wraps them in plastic and disposes it off without anyone’s knowledge. While Aftab Poonawala confessed to have heavily drawn inspiration from the setting of the US crime series, the gory details of the murder increasingly draw us to the old question, “Are criminals born or made?” Perhaps, the answer is both ways. While it stands true that a combination of predisposing biological traits channelled by social circumstances leads to criminal behaviour- up to what extent do movies play a role in impacting an affected human mind?

The question is more complex than meets the bare eyes.

As the police unearth more details of gruesome Shraddha murder that has sent shockwaves across the nation, the media reports are coming up with tantalising representations paving the way for more crime stories in the silver screen.

However, Patrick Graham, a filmmaker and the director of the Netflix series Ghoul and Betaal denies accepting such link between film and crime. While speaking to Outlook he says, “Using violence on TV to mitigate a crime is just an excuse. Whoever commits a crime of any level is a maladjusted, pathetic human being, deeply insecure who has done something pathetic to another human being. It’s just another instance of male violence.”. Graham criticises the prevalent efforts to put the blame on films and adds, “Films have always been made a soft target. It has always acted as an excuse but never a justification.”

Cinema cannot be stopped. Crime thrillers cannot be banned because they have always piqued the curiosity of human minds. In a report by Cosmopolitan, Professor Sarah Niblock, CEO of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, opined that the obsession with true crime and drama comes from the vicarious thrill of experiencing someone else’s problems, without having to go through them ourselves. The report quoted her saying, “It gives us an opportunity to access and negotiate a negative emotion and verbalise it, often for the first time in our lives.”

While it has been argued upon how the representation or overrepresentation of macabre visuals, to make a virtual scene look as real as possible, have an impact on people’s emotions and attitude, Patrick says, “As a filmmaker, I would not want to show violence for the sake of it. I will show what is appropriate and necessary within a scene to stimulate emotions. Violence has been a part of storytelling since time immemorial and people are drawn towards it because we don’t want to experience it as a first-hand experience yet they excite us in the safe space of fiction. And that’s the purpose of it.”

Though being obsessed with both TV dramas and true crime shows may help us to explore our own emotions, it is crucial to not use the feeling to run away from our own painful real-life emotions.

“While the same seems to have happened in the case of Poonawala, but let’s remember that hundreds of people have watched Dexter. Thousands more will watch it and other shows. Have they all or do they all become criminals? No,” Dr Anuja Kapoor, a Criminal Psychologist and Supreme Court advocate tells Outlook.

Commenting on similar lines, Graham says, “Male violence towards women has been prevalent everywhere, much before television was discovered and media came into existence. Films have always been a soft target in face of larger influences like religion, mental illness, gender inequality and so on. In the vast context of incidents, it is never television alone but many reasons that have perpetuated violence since ages.”

Any show with criminal eloquence is not responsible for a person, who, we would call a “psychopath”, says Dr Kapoor, adding that it is always a person-to-person case, how they are perceiving what they are watching.

“Further, a developing criminal mind has deeper roots in genetic than social circumstances. After having assessed criminals from different walks of life, I would say it’s a 50 per cent genetic trait, while 25 per cent relates to what goes inside the pre-frontal cortex and the rest 25 per cent we can leave on the role of society and culture,” says Dr Kapoor.

Following the case of Aftab Poonawala, the media have highlighted that the young man has shown “no signs of remorse,” Dr Kapur reiterates that these are “signs of being a psychopath”. And unfortunately, it cannot be assured whether “rehabilitation” works for an accused of such a degree, she adds.

“It was a well-planned and executed murder. We cannot overlook what background a person comes from, what childhood that person had and how they grow up to feed on unstable minds to deal with their emotional upheaval. And we do not know that. Poonawala showed early signs of being abusive and had no remorse as to what he did,” adds Dr Kapur.

One can find a subtle similarity between Poonawala’s emotional response with that of Jeffrey Dahmer (also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster), who was an American serial killer and sex offender who committed the murder and dismemberment of seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991.

In an interview with Inside Edition in the late 1990s, Dahmer can be seen speaking about the disturbing details of his crime in an extremely level-mannered. With no remorse and absolute awareness of what he did, he admitted that he was “obsessed with what he did” on human beings whom he “saw as objects”.

Coming to 2022, while the current Delhi case lies pole apart, what we can see is a similar pattern of the emotional response of the accused post the killing(s). While Jeffrey had an unsettling childhood, facing abandonment issues, we only wonder what Poonawala might have faced as a child.

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“And what a child faces in their childhood are well-stored in their subconscious to get triggered much later in their life. What the conscious mind faces, a related subconscious is always getting triggered. And here, we cannot undermine the impact of the intense shows about the darkest sides of humanity having some kind of effects,” says Dr Kavita Bhargava, one of India’s leading psychotherapists.

However, what Bhargava emphasises is the social development a person goes through to develop a “critical judgment” of actions, that helps us decide what is “right and wrong”.

“A huge influence on a person’s upbringing depends on the social environment. What a person experiences while growing up is stored in the subconscious mind, which is 6,000 times more powerful than the conscious mind. When the critical judgment filter does not develop in a way we believe is normal, the unstable mind coincides with what one reads or watches and triggers them to trigger aggressiveness,” explains Dr Bhargava.

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Besides, Dr Bhargava reiterates that criminality can also develop from “certain compulsive action”, which we call “obsession”, a pattern that was admitted by criminals like Dahmer as well. And all of these go undiagnosed due to a lack of proper preventive or curative measures from an early age. Films are perhaps, a way, seeking to run away from the unchecked behaviour leading to rowdiness.

On that note, Patrick believes that a further sidelining of films in the pretext of saving society against crime of this degree can absolutely dismantle the “freedom of expression” that otherwise is going through a “dangerous time” in the country.

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“It’s very easy for conservative politicians and media to jump onto the bandwagon of blaming television, films, and media freedom for trivial, lame excuses like this. And that becomes dangerous for creative freedom at a time where the country is witnessing a lot of sensation,” Patrick opines.

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