Making a Killing in Mumbai: meet India’s Sarah Lund

The writer and star of Radio 4's Undercover Mumbai talk about the inspiration for their lead character and how modern Mumbai is like Dickensian London

Singular, determined female police officers searching for justice in crime drama seem to have become overwhelmingly popular recently. From the Scandi stylings of Sarah Lund in The Killing and Saga Noren in The Bridge to the home-grown Scott and Bailey and Vera Stanhope, it seems the legacy of trailblazers such as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) and Cagney and Lacey is flourishing.

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Now you can add to that list Inspector Alia Khan. She’s the lead character in Undercover Mumbai, a six-part Radio 4 crime thriller set in contemporary Mumbai. During the course of investigations into cases ranging frrom child protection and missing persons to murder and abuse, she has to battle endemic corruption and the sexist, patronising attitudes of her colleagues.

As with the majority of fictional detectives, Khan leads a troubled life, both professional and personal: she has run-ins with her bosses and a difficult family situation. If this sounds similar to a certain Danish policewoman in particular, that’s no coincidence.

Writer Ayeesha Menon, who previously scripted the acclaimed Dickens adaptation The Mumbai Chuzzlewits and the award-winning Q&A (from the Slumdog Millionaire source novel), readily admits, “Of course I have been inspired by The Killing. It’s really interesting to see all these women in different countries and how it changes in each one.”

Actress Prerna Chawla, who plays Alia Khan, also declares that Nordic noir was a source of inspiration:

“It was easier for me to draw similarities between Alia and female detectives from Western fiction rather than the real policewomen in India. I didn’t personally know of any strong female detectives in Indian fiction, literature or film/television so I relied on what I did watch and know.”

Though both writer and actress looked west for their inspiration, Menon still sees her creation as unique, mainly due to the strong patriarchal system that exists in India.

“I don’t think it’s such a huge dilemma being a woman cop in England, I suppose because you’re moving beyond male and female here, but in India it’s a huge problem. They’re still talking about what cops are wearing and what they’re allowed to do, like going out in Jeeps at night.

“It’s a really, really difficult world for women in that situation, especially if you’re a certain class, no one will take you seriously, and you have to be tough as nails to get on with what you’re doing.”

While it seems that the cream of British and European crime dramas have proven to be inspirational, there was inspiration closer to home in the form of one of India’s most famous police officers.

Menon explains, “There’s this police officer Kiran Bedi who’s quite famous in India and she was an inspiration to me because she just doesn’t give a damn what people think, she just goes ahead and does what she needs to do. Most of the men are frightened of her because of that. I didn’t make my character as fierce as that but I found it so intriguing because she has that drive.”

And it seems that Bedi was also a good source for Chawla when thinking about how to play the role of a female police officer in such a male-dominated field. Talking aout her process, she said:

“I did read up on Kiran Bedi (a popular figure in the Indian police force and the highest ranking woman officer we have known here) and Suman Nalwa (an Additional DCP with Delhi Police who has been trying to do some good work for the safety of women) to try and base her strength on. I also watched whatever interviews and clips I could find and decided on a slightly masculine quality that I would assume a woman would need to have to survive in the otherwise male dominated profession.”

Menon does say that though Alia Khan faces a tough time from her colleagues at work, in some respects the fictional female cop has it better than her real-life counterparts.

“I’ve spoken to people connected to the police force in India and they say that she’s lucky to get these cases because most times the women cops just get rapes. It’s the most obvious thing.”

If you were expecting a cop drama exploring the state of contemporary India to deal with the horrific prevalence of rape in the country, then you’d be surprised to hear that not one of Khan’s cases is a rape.

There is a reason for this, as Menon points out, “I deliberately didn’t go there, because people told me that’s all the women cops do.”

So to make Inspector Khan stand out as something special, she couldn’t really be dealing with rape cases all day long. That’s not to say that there are no storylines dealing with the harsh treatment of females, in fact most of them deal with the degradation of women in one way or another.

It’s something that Menon, who’s lived in the UK since 2008, heard about first hand when she visited Mumbai to conduct research.

“I talked to these girls from villages who came to work as servants at my friends’ houses. It was strange, none of them knew their ages for some reason. They’re sent off to be servants and they don’t see their families for years.”

Actress Chawla, who lives in the same Bandra district of Mumbai where the drama is set, concurs that the portrayal of corruption and sexist attitudes in the drama strikes a chord:

“The newspaper is always brimming with political corruption and misogyny!”

One storyline that may resonate with fans of The Killing and that runs throughout the drama is that of a politician’s nephew, a big Bollywood star, a rich kid, who’s also mixed up in some shady business which ultimately culminates in a political scandal that has an impact on Khan’s life.

But aside from any similarities to characters and stories from The Killing, there is one large influence on the drama that Menon had previously explored in her adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit to the streets of Mumbai.

The setting of the drama in Bandra, a previously sleepy suburb that has become a boom town thanks to improved transportation links to the mainland and the influx of rich Bollywood actors, provides a neat parallel to the booming Industrial Revolution milieu of Dickens’ novels.

As Menon explains, Bandra just seemed perfect, “It’s quite posh, but it also has the biggest slums just on the outskirts, so it’s a nice place to put drama because it’s got everything.”

But some of the terrible stories upon which the drama is based, such as so many unwanted babies being abandoned that orphanges are now placing cardboard boxes on the streets so that women don’t have to worry about the shame of being seen leaving a baby at the orphange door, seem to have such resonance with the 19th century that it’s hard to resist the comparison with Dickens. Something that Menon accepts and bemoans.

“Writing about how Dickensian India is, it’s like another level of Dickensian. It’s like you can’t escape from it, it’s just there. You realise there are so many parallels between those worlds. Which is worrying, because we’re talking about Victorian times and this is what India is like now!”

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Undercover Mumbai begins on Radio 4 at 10:45am on Monday 9 September, with a repeat at 7:45pm