‘Truth was stranger than fiction’: The makers of the true-crime series ‘Dancing On The Grave’

The Amazon Prime Video docuseries, directed by Patrick Graham, is based on the infamous 1991 Shakereh Khaleeli murder case in Bengaluru

April 21, 2023 06:46 pm | Updated 06:46 pm IST

Shakereh Khaleeli’s photo from the Dancing On The Grave docuseries

Shakereh Khaleeli’s photo from the Dancing On The Grave docuseries | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

One of the news blurbs of the Shakereh Khaleeli murder case reads, almost like the summary of a pulpy thriller, ‘Man buried his wife alive in her backyard so that he could get her property.’ This one line is indicative enough of the crime’s sensationalistic potential. 

But there is more to it. Shakereh was the granddaughter of the Diwan of Mysore. She divorced her first husband, Akbar Mirza Khaleeli (with whom she had four daughters), and went against social norms to marry Murali Manohar Mishra, (later renamed himself as Swami Shradhananda), who is the man referred to in the news blurb mentioned above.

Shakereh’s murder in 1991 at her house in Richmond Town, Bengaluru, is considered among the most heinous and infamous crimes in India’s criminal history.

No wonder it has spawned a true crime docuseries — Dancing On The Grave, which will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video from April 21. 

“Though it took place in Bangalore, the story has a interest across India,” says Chandni A Dabas, the series producer. “Shakereh Khaleeli’s first husband was an IFS officer. So, a lot of bureaucrats and people in the forces remember this story very well. I am from Delhi. And even today, many people I know talk about it.”

She and her team were looking for someone who could tell this story cinematically with adequate sensitivity. That is when they zeroed in on the British filmmaker Patrick Graham, whose works include Ghoul, Betaal, and Leila — Netflix thrillers, all three. He was hooked to the story. So he took up the challenge of working in a non-fiction show. So, he came on board.

The director and producer of Dancing On The Grave talk about the intricacies involved in making a true-crime show and more over a video call from Mumbai and Delhi, respectively.


What made you pursue the Shakereh Khaleeli murder case in particular?

Chandni: When we start a documentary project, one of the first things we ask ourselves is, “What archives do we have?” This story had the most astonishing footage from the ‘90s. It was such a universal story in some ways. Even though it happened so many years ago, we still found it riveting.

Patrick: When I first read the story, I remember being shocked. It was visceral. Every turn of the page had a new twist. It really stayed with me. And that prompted me to tell this story.

Since this is a docuseries, you cannot envision its output as well as you can in a film or fictional series. So, how different was it for you, Patrick, to make a documentary?

Patrick: Ultimately, you are still telling a story with different building blocks for it. As you pointed out, you can’t plan everything. You use interviews that you compile along the way — they inform the story and the narrative flow. It’s been a fascinating process for me as a first-time documentary filmmaker.

Did you have to recreate Bangalore of the early nineties? If yes, how challenging was that?

Patrick: Yeah, it was almost like shooting a period film. For instance, we had to recreate the interiors and the exteriors of Shakereh’s early ‘90s house (where she was murdered), police stations, courtrooms, etc. We even hired some vintage cars for some portions. It was a full-fledged recreation of the ‘90s. We had a wonderful art team and production designer who did all those things for us. 

Chandni: We were lucky to have so much footage from that time. So we could reference and research to recreate a lot of this. For instance, nobody is allowed inside the house where the murder took place. So, with the help of the footage, we were able to reconstruct the entire house in Bombay.

Patrick, what challenges did you face while working in a non-fiction format for the first time?

Patrick: The main challenge was just getting used to another way of building a story. If you are writing fiction, you can pretty much put anything you want on the page. Here, we were writing from the stories that people told us. We must have done at least 50 interviews, out of which we filmed 20. Once you have the interviews, then, you have to figure out how best to tell the story visually. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle. I had a wonderful co-writer to help me. And, of course, a lot of the story construction happens on the edit table as well. We had good editors. Overall, it was a really invigorating intellectual exercise for me.

As a writer for fictional shows, you are used to creating drama. With a true crime documentary, however, you cannot sensationalise it too much. How did you tackle this dilemma?

Patrick: We ensured we had as many perspectives as possible to tell the story because we wanted to do justice to the actual incident. In my previous shows, I had to create suspense and maintain it throughout. But with Dancing On The Grave, the actual incident itself had all the suspense. It was the case of the truth being stranger than fiction. You can’t write this stuff. It’s incredible. This story doesn’t need many embellishments. I just hope we’ve done the story justice. Also, we were mindful of the survivors of the story. People who are still alive, are still affected by it. It was a horrific tragedy.

Finally, what is the role of a true-crime show?

Chandni: Some of the most interesting stories are in the crime world. Therefore, we engage with them often. But I think it’s important to contextualise intelligently. In true crime, through one story, you’re able to look at many facets of the world around you. Second, we need to send a message saying “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Patrick: Stories come from the human need to sit around and gossip. And stories always teach us something. True crime stories serve as warnings: what we must avoid and what we should look out for.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.