THE extraordinary story of Aravindan Balakrishnan and his London-based Maoist cult dominated the headlines for months when it emerged that three of his captives had managed to break free from his clutches after decades in captivity.
Following their dramatic escape in 2013, Balakrishnan was later jailed for 23 years after he was found guilty of child cruelty, false imprisonment and rape. A new documentary by award winning Vanessa Engle, which aired on the BBC this week, traces the collective back to its roots in the 1970s and explores how several educated women were attracted to the cult leader’s teachings.
It features interviews with Balakrishnan’s daughter Katy Morgan-Davies, who was born and raised in captivity, and Aisha Wahab, a 72-year-old Malaysian woman who was a member of the group for 40 years.
The Cult Next Door delves into how his followers were brainwashed, abused and controlled by “Comrade Bala” as he was known, who convinced them that he had God-like powers. Balakrishnan, who was born in Kerala, south India, also claimed that he could read their minds too.
The pensioner, who is now 76, invented “Jackie”, a supernatural force which he said could kill or trigger earthquakes if anyone went against his will. For years, they lived in an unsuspecting house in Brixton, south London, and their unconventional activities went unnoticed until one member, Josie Herivel, raised the alarm after calling a charity for help.
In 2006, Engle made a documentary called Lefties which was about the different left-wing groups that operated in Brixton in the 70s and squatted in a street called Villa Road. Although she had heard of the group, little did Engle know that Balakrishnan was running his oppressive cult just one street away.
Engle later discovered she had been filming just yards from where Katie and the other women were being controlled and abused. “That was a slightly chilling thought, that they were shouting distance away when I was making that film,” Engle told Eastern Eye.
“When you know the context of how bizarre a lot of the goings on were in the 1970s, it actually becomes a slightly different story. I felt there was another layer to it; it had its roots in something that a lot of very thoughtful, politically committed people were drawn to, which was the left-wing activism in the 1970s, so the beginnings of it were legitimate. If you don’t understand that, it’s impossible to understand why these really smart women joined.”
Engle said the most challenging aspect of making the film was getting access to Katy, who as a child would talk to the taps in the bathroom and try to make friends with the rats and mice that scuttled into the kitchen because she was so lonely.
As the youngest member, she was deprived of attention and abused by her father. It was only when she was a teenager that she learned Sian Davies, then known as Comrade Sian, was her mother.
Davies was one of Balakrishnan’s followers, and the daughter of a GP from Wales. She fell from a window at the cult’s base on Christmas Eve in 1996 and died several months later in hospital.
Katy was 30 when she fled the cult after being imprisoned in the collective all her life. She was diagnosed with diabetes after her escape and lacked basic skills – she didn’t even know how to cross the road, and was described as having the abilities of a five or six-year-old.
When Engle talks about Katy, she describes her as a child.
“You can tell that she’s slightly other worldly. When she came out of the collective, she couldn’t make eye contact and used to look down all the time. She’s surprising when you meet her because you expect to meet someone more damaged,” Engle explained.
“Although her father was a very strange man to put it mildly, he was a very intelligent man and her mother was Sian, who was a highly educated and very intelligent woman. So from an intelligence point of view, she’s got a very good inheritance.
“Her upbringing was unconventional but she was raised by a group of very thoughtful, highly-politicised people who talked to her about what went on in the world, and then she educated herself. She read many books and developed a very fruitful fantasy life where she would escape into the books.”
Katy now lives independently and is studying; she is also a member of the Labour party. She has had no contact with her father, but hopes one day they can reconcile.
The Cult Next Door will air on BBC2 tonight at 9pm followed by Lefties at 10pm on BBC4.