Talvar: A murder from many angles
Sonali Ghosh Sen Delhi
Talvar is a searching, probing and profoundly disturbing film about one of the most sensational crimes of our times but is far from melodrama; it is a cold, hard look at reality
A 14-year-old girl murdered. The body of the servant found on the terrace. The parents arrested, the police call it an ‘honour’ killing. The Aarushi Talwar case in 2008 had everything that the 24x7 TV news channels feed on – innocence and violence, salacious gossip and rumours, savage twists and turns, but most importantly the realisation that murder could find its way from the badlands into an ordinary, middle class household.
Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar recreates this tragedy albeit in a fictional avatar. The Talwars become the Tandons, Aarushi becomes Shruti, the CBI becomes the CDI, but the facts, the place, and the tragic intrusion into a middle class life remain the same.
Talvar could have taken the easy way out of recreating the sensational hoopla that surrounded the murder and painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy. It, however, takes the more difficult route of convincing the audience, through evidence and hard facts, of what could have happened that night. Vishal Bhardwaj’s script strays deliberately from melodrama, looking at the murder from different angles: The point of view of the two investigating teams, the preliminary police investigation and the media. The narrative structure and the cinematography – like the voyeuristic nature of the crime – fluctuates between different screens: the TV, the crime photos, the cameras at a suspect’s interrogation, and the cameras at the controversial narco-analysis confessions. It is this third eye and a fluctuating timeline that help us immerse ourselves in the story and take a seemingly detached view of the way different agendas, different rationale can be presented.
The movie moves at a taut, tense pace with Shruti Tandon being murdered again and again – in flashback, in reconstruction, in reports – and is resurrected again and again with different versions of the truth. You get a keyhole view of the crime as well as the motives, but the truth differs in each version. In the eyewitness account of the maid, a stoic and silent Rajesh Tandon stands looking down at the body of his daughter. In his own, he is sobbing in pain at seeing his dead child. The perspective keeps shifting until the sleuth in us gets confused.
The visual grammar of the movie keeps pace with its screenplay. Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography makes a small flat become a set of mystery where doors, walls, cupboards and handprints are clues, closed rooms are used to intrigue and interrogate, and each gesture, each close-up is mined for suspicion.
The humour is dark, the ineptitude of the various agencies is chilling (the police walk in and out of the Tandons’ flat, trampling evidence and dignity). What is a deeply personal tragedy is swamped in innuendo and coarse jokes, the privileges of a middle class life lost in a Victorian morality as tragedy transforms to farce at the way the department is handling the case. The murder is a miscarriage of justice, but the callous police procedure brings home the fact that, if any of us ever got caught in this maelstrom, this is what we might have to suffer too.
If Talvar does slip at times, it is when it takes its focus away from the murder and focuses more on its about-to-be-divorced, hardboiled cop, Ashwin Kumar (Irfan Khan), who will do anything to get the guilty punished – subvert the law, torture suspects and use fair means or foul to get his evidence in court. It is much to Irfan’s credit and Bhardwaj’s writing that he stops short of making Ashwin Kumar an Amitabh Bachchan caricature, and makes him believable and vulnerable. His short track with his wife, Reema Kumar (Tabu), distracts from rather than adds to the story.
The rest of the ensemble cast, though, does not hit a single false note. Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi, as Nutan and Ramesh Tandon, walk the fine tightrope between guilty and innocent, Sumit Gulati as Kanhaiya is sly and menacing in equal measure, Giriraj Rao brings any inept UP cop to life and Sohum Shah as Ashwin Kumar’s ambitious second-in-command, matches Irfan’s performance.
Talvar is balanced, researched, clever storytelling which achieves what it sets out to do – start a dialogue, a debate, a relook at a sensational murder case and in the process gives us a film that makes the scales of déjà vu fall from our eyes, effectively and effortlessly.