By Ishan Marvel:
On 16 May 2008, 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar was found dead in her bedroom at the Talwars’ flat in Noida, while their domestic help, Hemraj’s body was found on the terrace the next day. The matter was dragged through various CBI investigations and court proceedings, and with the help of constant speculations in the media, it held public interest for a long time. Then, in November 2013, Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were awarded life sentences for the double murder and for destruction of evidence. Their bail pleas have since been dismissed, and their appeal is currently pending at Allahabad high court.
This then is what ‘Talvar’ is all about: a double-murder mystery based on true events, and for which, we are searching answers to this day. The film begins with a reference to the Telgi (stamp-paper) scam, thus introducing maverick CDI (or CBI) investigator and manic nokia-snake-player, Ashwin Kumar (played by Irrfan Khan), the heroic anti-hero who knows all the tricks except dealing with bureaucracy and an unhappy marriage. Tabu plays Mrs. Kumar, and as you’d expect, for the few minutes of their screentime together, she matches Irrfan’s ability to make not just his character, but the entire situation feel real. Neeraj Kabi and Konkona Sen Sharma, as the Tandons (or Talwars) too, meet the standards expected of them. A big part of why this film works is because of such naturalistic portrayals, supporting cast included. Special mention to Gajraj Rao as sub-inspector Dhaniram, who with his paunch, paan habit, and bumbling-smart-aleck demeanour played the Delhi cop to perfection.
For humour is another strength of the film; and there, Vishal Bhardwaj’s writing shines through in particular: sample Dhaniram in the middle of the crime scene, constantly interrupted by his hanuman chalisa ringtone, and the way he deals with it; or when ‘Tere Honth Raseelay’ is playing in the taxi on the way back from Haridwar with 14-year-old Shruti Tandon’s (Aarushi Talwar) remains; or when the cops are trying to deconstruct an email by Shruti with the help of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘The 3 Mistakes Of My Life’; or a mundane and extended body-dragging scene—all plausible, unforced, and absurd. Technically, the film is sound. The background score, for the most part, is discreet and integrates well with what’s happening on screen. Camera angles have been used well for colouring perspectives, and the editing too is slick. Although the film would have benefitted from being snipped to under two hours.
Then, a tip of the hat to the director, Meghna Gulzar for pulling off what felt like a neat, and fairly objective depiction of the double murder case. (Reminder: we’re talking of a mainstream Bollywood release here, although I wish that would cease to be an easy qualifier someday.) While it’s obvious that the story—like with Avirook Sen’s book, from what I have heard about it—is from the parents’ side, thorough emphasis is laid on the procedural irregularities, botched investigations, and departmental intrigues; how the crime scene was compromised, and the complete lack of hard evidence or reliable witnesses for either side. “Crime scene ko macchhi-bazaar bana rakha hai,” (The crime scene has been made into a fish market) screams Irrfan. In fact, the one clinching piece of evidence in the Tandons’ favour—the “narco test”—is supposed to be inadmissible in court. (Note: graphic scenes of throat-slitting abound.)
The drama reaches a crescendo in the bureaucratic, and climactic face-off between the two CDI teams, which gives us gems such as “dharampracharak awastha” for ‘missionary position’, and for the pithy web of justice: “Kisi bekasoor ko saza milne se acccha hai ki dus gunhegaar chhooth jaayein (It’s better if 10 guilty go scot-free than an innocent being punished).” For the rest, you’d be left guessing between fact and fiction, much like in the actual case. Otherwise, Ashwin Kumar’s roadside-chowmein-chomping-and-drinking-booze-in-a-steel-glass underdog persona prevails. Also, the media games—in the form of vulture-ish TV reporters and cameramen, and opinionated bystander bytes—remain an amusing presence throughout. Among others, a somewhat subdued Arnab Goswami appears, along with a familiar ‘sansanikhej’ (sensational), high-pitched anchor of a popular crime show.
In the end, I left Delite cinema hall after a last glance up at its psychedelic-colour-changing-dome, wondering about the curious case of Aarushi Talwar, even as her parents serve life sentences at Dasna jail in Ghaziabad. Meanwhile, the proverbial sword of justice, as someone quips in the film, remains rusted.