Shakereh Khaleeli was “rich and beautiful” and came from one of the most aristocratic families in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. But in 1991, the wealthy heiress went missing and it seemed like she had vanished into thin air.
For three years, her second husband – Murali Manohar Mishra, better known as Swami Shraddhananda – made up fantastic stories about her whereabouts.
In 1994, her remains were dug out from under the courtyard of their swanky home in the city of Bengaluru (then Bangalore). Shakereh had been drugged, packed in a wooden casket and – it was later revealed – buried alive.
In 2003, the trial court convicted Shraddhananda for murder and gave him the death penalty, which the high court later confirmed. The courts accepted that he had pursued and married Shakereh for her wealth and properties worth billions of rupees.
During his appeal, the Supreme Court called it a case of “a man’s vile greed coupled with devil’s cunning”, but commuted his sentence to life in prison “without remission”. Last week, the top court refused to entertain his plea for parole.
The sensational crime that shook India 30 years ago is the subject of a new web show being streamed on Amazon Prime Video called Dancing on the Grave – named so because of the dance parties Shraddhananda reportedly held in the courtyard where his wife lay buried.
Its producer Chandni Ahlawat Dabas of India Today Originals Production says there were “whats, whys and hows” around this crime that still seemed unbelievable.
“Despite being 30 years old, we felt that this was a crime that needed to be shared because it’s such a mystery even today,” she adds.
The series on the murder – and the murderer – fails to answer all the questions, but it’s a riveting watch and has generated a lot of attention in India.
The first two episodes of the four-part series delve into Shakereh’s life.
The granddaughter of Sir Mirza Ismail – who served as the Dewan of the princely states of Mysore, Bangalore, Jaipur and Hyderabad and is credited with building several landmark buildings and monuments – she was married to the dashing diplomat Akbar Khaleeli and was mother to four girls.
Family members describe her as “a charming, larger-than-life character” who was “fond of vintage cars, very social, very loving and loveable”.
But in mid-1980s, she met Shraddhananda and her life took a sharp turn.
BBC Hindi’s Imran Qureshi, who at the time worked for the Times of India newspaper in Bangalore and features in the docuseries, says “the murder shocked people primarily because of the manner in which she was killed – the fact that she was buried alive”.
The crime also “became the talk of the town because Shakereh had married a man like Shraddhananda after divorcing her first husband”, he adds.
In press clippings from the time, Shraddhananda was described as a school dropout from a poor family, a “fake holy man” and an “errand boy” who endeared himself to Shakereh by “helping resolve some property matters” for her and “exploiting her desire to have a son by claiming magical powers”.
Reports say their relationship began to unravel soon after their marriage in 1986 and that the two quarrelled frequently, mostly over money matters, leading to Shraddhananda plotting to execute his wife in such a grisly manner.
But despite the fact that he was found guilty by a total of eight judges from India’s trial court, the high court and the Supreme Court, his lawyer insists that the evidence against him at best is circumstantial – and in the web series, we hear from Shraddhananda himself who still denies his crime.
Some have questioned the show for giving a platform to a convicted murderer, but Patrick Graham, Mumbai-based British filmmaker who co-wrote and directed Dancing on the Grave, defends the decision to give Shraddhananda’s story so much play.
“I think it’s very important that we hear his side of the story, more so because we never heard from him in the past 30 years. Moreover, he gave us invaluable insights into Shakereh’s character,” he told the BBC.
Graham says the team went into the jail because they wanted to find out how someone like Shakereh could be swayed by a man like Shraddhananda.
“But we were also swayed by him initially into believing that there were layers to the story, though none of us had any doubts about his crime by the time we finished with him.”
He says they went in, “wary of coming across as bullies to this very small, frail, old man. But as we found out more about the story, and as we interacted more with him, we felt like he had an agenda, he was playing us, that he was spinning a yarn”.
“The more time we spent with him, the more it became clear to us that his feelings were not genuine, and towards the end we tried to have a more robust conversation with him,” says Graham.
And that, he says, resulted in “a rant” from Shraddhananda, with him “insisting that he was innocent, that he was being treated badly”.
In most true crime series, Graham says, a criminal is made out to be “a genius”.
“But I was very clear that I didn’t want to do that. Of course Shraddhananda had a few gifts, one of them was to make people believe him,” he says.
But in the end, he could not make the Indian courts believe in his innocence.
Source : BBC