“Our Work Was Bound to Cause Discomfort…”: P.A. Carter on his HBO-Premiering Doc Series, Behind Closed Doors
One of the most complicated (and epic, as it feels much larger than the sum of its two parts) documentaries I’ve seen in years, P.A. Carter’s Behind Closed Doors is this summer’s not-to-miss film for true crime devotees. Debuting on HBO July 16th and 17th, Carter’s meticulously-crafted picture begins with the double murder of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar and her family’s servant Hemraj Banjade in the Talwars’s upper-middle-class home — a mystery that immediately unleashed a media circus in the staid Indian town of Noida. But it was the whiplash machinations surrounding the subsequent investigations and interrogations, trials and appeals, that kept the public riveted to this decade-plus-long soap opera. One in which class and privilege, and cultural clashes, played a starring role.
Filmmaker took the opportunity to speak with Carter about his astonishing doc just prior to the film’s airdate.
Filmmaker: So why did you decide to tackle this incredibly byzantine — and endlessly documented — story in the first place?
Carter: At the outset the assumption was that this was a relatively straightforward case in which the parents had been subject to a miscarriage of justice and that the true perpetrators were in the clear. The weight of the coverage we looked at — in particular an influential new book on the case — suggested this. The extraordinarily byzantine nature emerged only as we peeled back the layers — until many of our initial beliefs and certainties were upended, and our imaginations had to be broadened.
Filmmaker: The case received a huge amount of attention in the Indian press, which, like the society itself, is split between upper and lower class, English language versus Hindi. Which inevitably affected coverage. People’s version of “the truth” about what happened depended on the media that they consumed (not unlike here in America, land of Fox News versus MSNBC). So how is the film being perceived in India? Are one or both sides wary?
Carter: The case did receive phenomenal coverage, which both fed off and fed into the complexities of class, caste and language.
I wouldn’t presume to be able to speak for how the film has been perceived in India, which is endlessly complex and fascinating. But our Indian commissioning broadcaster Star was pleased with the show. We hope that we have shed new light on the case and challenged some of the assumptions surrounding it.
Filmmaker: How did you gain the trust of all the various participants that you interviewed? Was everyone anxious to air their side? Reticent to appear on camera?
Carter: I am not sure it was always “trust” in a conventional sense that was the vital ingredient. Sometimes it was, of course. But in a very complex case with layers of relationships and a long history, people had a range of motivations for wanting to speak out.
The great skill of our Indian team and producer was to cultivate the conditions for each individual to conclude that their own objectives would be met by their participation. This was an enormous feat — a triumph of the team’s collective will. Many of our interviewees would never have envisaged participating at the outset.
Filmmaker: Did you feel at all personally threatened during production?
Carter: With such a delicate and live case our work was bound to cause discomfort for some parties. Our India producer was certainly sent some pretty stark warnings that we were straying into highly sensitive territory.
Filmmaker: Going into the project, did you personally lean towards any theories as to why Aarushi and Hemraj were so viciously murdered? And by the end of production, did you feel any closer to solving the mystery?
Carter: It was one of the most intriguing elements of the story as to what had led to these brutal deaths — seemingly completely out of the blue and with no easy explanation. The classical aspect of a closed-door mystery was part of that fascination. By the end of the production, however, it was no longer possible to be agnostic about the events of that night.