Another true-crime docuseries is making waves on OTT.
Called Dancing on the Grave, the show revisits the high-profile missing-and-murder case of Shakereh Khaleeli in the early nineties. Written and directed by Patrick Graham, who has previously helmed Netflix's Ghoul and Betaal, the latest crime docuseries is produced by India Today Originals.
So, who was Shakereh Khaleeli? What were the hurdles in solving the case? And why did the case make headlines? We explore.
Who Was Shakereh Khaleeli?
Born in Madras (now Chennai), in 1947, Shakereh belonged to an affluent Indian-Persian family. She completed her schooling in Singapore and went on to become a real estate developer. Shakereh was the granddaughter of Mirza Ismail, Dewan of the erstwhile Mysore state.
In 1965, she married her first cousin, Akbar Mirza Khaleeli, at the age of 18. Akbar was a high-profile diplomat, who served as the Indian high commissioner to Iran and Australia. The couple had four daughters together – Rehane Yavar Dhala, Sabah Bakache, Zeebundeh Khaleeli, and Essmath Khaleeli.
According to The Telegraph, due to Akbar's professional demands, he would often have to make out-of-country visits. Their domestic workers Raju and Josephine were witnesses to his long work-related absences. "This used to irk the wife and the couple often quarrelled," the workers shared with CCB inspector C Veeraiah, whose team solved the case in 2005.
While Akbar was in Iran, Shekereh relocated to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) to carry forward her family's real estate business. In 1982, the couple met Swami Shradhananda, alias Murali Manohar Mishra, a self-styled godman.
Three years later, in 1985, when Akbar returned from his stint in Iran, Shakereh asked him for a divorce. When Akbar refused, Shakereh went to a mosque in Madras and pronounced herself single. Later, her daughters relocated to Italy to live with their father.
Shakereh's Second Marriage to Shradhananda
According to a 2005 report by The Telegraph, Shradhananda was the son of a small-time school teacher in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. At a young age, he dropped out of school and ran away from home. Soon, Murali rechristened himself as Swami Shradhananda, claiming to have tantrik powers, and started serving the royal family of Kanpur as their errand boy.
In April 1986, Shakereh shunned her family and social norms to marry Shradhananada, six months after her divorce, claimed special public prosecutor CV Nagesh in the Telegraph report.
The couple settled in Bangalore after their marriage. According to Veeraiah, Shradhananda had traits of sycophancy. He always sat at Shakereh’s feet and would call her 'Amma,' even after their wedding.
"Once, his hands accidentally brushed against Shakereh, and he reportedly went into spasms of guilt. He asked Shakereh to throw him out of the house. The docile conduct continued even after marriage. He remained Shakereh’s errand boy. At 10 every morning, he would bring her tea and the newspaper in bed," Veeraiah told The Telegraph.
Shakereh gave Shradhananda a general power of attorney over her wealth. He was also made joint holder in all of Shakereh's bank accounts and lockers.
Shakereh sold some of her prime land and took off on a world tour with Shradhanand. "Records show they travelled first class and lived in seven-star hotels," prosecutor Nagesh told The Telegraph in 2005.
The news of Shakereh's disappearance first came to light in 1991, when her second daughter, Sabah, was unable to contact and locate her mother. Several inquiries were made about Shakereh's whereabouts from Shradhananda. However, he never provided them with a definite answer and kept saying that Shakereh was on a long holiday.
When Shakereh Went Missing
After Shakereh went missing in 1991, Shradhananda continued to live in their posh bungalow at Bangalore's 81 Richmond Road. The house was also shared by Shakereh's four daughters.
In 1992, Sabah filed a habeas corpus petition at the Ashok Nagar police station in Bangalore. Within months, the neighbours and legal authorities started connecting Shradhananda with the disappearance of his wife.
The case gained media coverage in 1994 after a three-year-long sting operation in which the Karnataka Police managed to get Shradhananda's confession. The former godman admitted that he murdered his wife and led the police to her remains that he had buried under the seven-acre plot of his two-bedroom house.
According to The Telegraph, Shradhananda alleged that Shakereh married him for a son. In his confessional statement, he revealed that he had promised Shakereh a male child through his tantrik powers. He further asserted that his wife did give birth to a stillborn boy.
Why Did Shradhananda Murder Shakereh?
Shradhananda's motive behind Shakereh's murder was her wealth and property.
In his confession, he revealed that he murdered his wife on 28 April 1991, by lacing her tea with sleeping pills. After the sleeping pills did their job, Shradhananda put Shakereh into a six-foot by two-foot wooden box on wheels and nailed a lid on it.
He moved the box into a pit, covered it with sand, and eventually planted a Tulsi plant over it after his courtyard was covered with stone slabs.
Upon investigation, the police found a skeleton with its hands clutching on to a mattress, enclosed in an antique box, indicating that Shakereh was buried alive. As per The Telegraph report, the Karnataka High Court said in their 2005 judgement, "The deceased trusted, loved, and married the accused. He misused her confidence. He buried her alive."
Although Shakereh had died in 1991, on paper she lived for four more years, since her second husband floated a company called Shakereh Shradhananda (SS) Finance Ltd, whose records presented her as an active partner.
Shakereh's murder was also the first case in Indian judicial history where DNA testing was used – and the exhumation process was recorded on video.
Where is Shradhananda Now?
After Shradhananda's arrest, the trial against him began in 1994, and in 2005, he was sentenced to death by hanging.
However, in February 2006, Shradhananda issued a notice to the Karnataka Government on a special leave petition (SLP) questioning the High Court judgement that had confirmed his death sentence. The Supreme Court bench of Justice Ashok Bhan and Justice Tarun Chatterjee stayed the court's judgement. In July 2008, the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi ordered a sentence of life imprisonment for Shradhananda, The Hindu reported.
Shradhananda initially served his sentence in the Bangalore Central Prison and was later moved to the Sagar Central Prison in Madhya Pradesh. Recently, in November 2022, the now-83-year-old Shradhananda appealed to the Supreme Court to release him just like Rajiv Gandhi's assassins were set free.
According to a 2022 Times of India report, Shradhanand's counsel, Varun Thakur, pleaded with a bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices Hima Kohli and JB Pardiwala that the Shradhananda was sentenced to life imprisonment without remission or parole for a single murder. He added that the convict has already spent 29 years in jail without a single day's parole.
"Even those convicted of assassinating former PM Rajiv Gandhi, an incident in which 16 people were killed and 43 injured in 1991, have been released from prison after suffering 30 years' incarceration with parole. This is a classic case of a violation of the right to equality," Thakur said.
Shradhananda is also suffering from several age-related ailments, his counsel advocated.
Dance on the Grave is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.