Talvar the movie is not an easy watch — infact it is difficult viewing and that’s because of all the aspects of the Indian society that it puts under the glare for all to see.
Talvar is a movie that makes you hang your head in shame — that is if you are Indian or remotely Indian (Non Resident Indian (NRI), Person of Indian Origin (PIO) or whatever permutations the Indian government has for overseas Indians). But it still makes you respect any society that is willing to hold a mirror up to itself and ask its people to take a good, hard look at its reflection. Any society that does that cannot but earn your respect.
In Hindi, talvar is a curved sword or sabre found in the Indian subcontinent. It’s actually a reference to the sword carried by the figure of Lady Justice — an apt metaphor for an avenging justice system. “People sometimes forget the sword’s there,” investigating officer Ashwin Kumar (played by Irrfan Khan) is told by his superior. “And in the past 60 years, it’s become rusty.”
This least Bollywood type film is a classic whodunit. Directed by Meghna Gulzar, daughter of the great lyricist and poet Gulzar and actress Raakhee, the movie is shot in an almost documentary style and adopts the Roshomon effect – a style promoted by Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. It’s a style employed by filmmakers to highlight how unreliable and subjective human perception can be, and in this instance casts doubts over the conviction of the Talwars — parents of the real life victim Aarushi Talwar. A 2008 double murder case, it was one of the most talked-about and followed cases in recent times, both in the media and the public in India. The movie shows three different versions of the incident: those of the cops’, the (Central Department of Investigation) CDIs’ and the parents’. The real life case is often referred to as the 2008 Noida double murder case.
It’s a difficult movie to watch. Disturbing and real. It’s India at its rawest — corrupt bureaucrats, bungling cops, old boy’s networks of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers (an assumption, it may not be the case) battling for that place of pride in the Indian civil service — except service is the last thing on their minds. The movie is a damning indictment of the Indian judicial system, media and police forensics.
Irrfan Khan, essays the role of Officer Ashwin Kumar of CDI (the film’s version of Central Bureau of Investigation) who steps into the scene when the double murder case is handed over to the agency. Khan is a well-known Hindi actor who has also appeared in British and Hollywood flicks. Known to be a natural and class ‘A’ actor, he has been awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour for his contribution to the field of arts. He is joined by Sohum Shah, who plays his assistant, ACP Vedant Mishra. The two start off as close friends as much as colleagues, until the pressure and emotions of the case split them apart. Neeraj Kabi and Konkona Sen play the roles of Ramesh and Nutan Tandon, parents of the 14-year-old Shruti (Ayesha Parveen) who was found dead in her own bedroom. Their servant Khempal’s body was also found the same day.
Where the movie enters the realm of documentary making is really in the narrative in addition to real-life sets. Few, if any scenes appear staged with pristine looking street scenes, as some Bollywood movies are wont to portray. The skill lies in the hands of the screenplay writer Vishal Bhardwaj.
The script highlights several socio-political issues which are woven seamlessly in his narrative. The uninterested police officer who is more inclined toward getting his next promotion than examining a crime scene; investigation officers who are eager to get their friends on board for a new case on their hands; the middle class, gossip-hungry neighbours and the voyeuristic indulgences of police officers and their penchant for attributing sex scandals (wife swapping) quite easily — the writer mixes a lot more than just the murder case and investigations at hand, he looks at urban middle class values and a society ruled by media outbursts and a justice system not immune to corruption and their own scandals. Bhardwaj also makes for a classic case against the hiring of male servants, as is the case in many a middle income household in India.
In the process the media comes in for a thrashing. The portrayal of media’s sensationalism and desperation for eyeballs is en pointe. There is even a scene where a reporter is at ‘ground zero’, Shruti’s house, and a man keeps hitting the bed in the background in an effort to recreate the crime scene. Even news clearly has to enter the realm of entertainment for it to gain any eyeballs these days. Quite clearly much of Fox News style of reporting has bled into the news scene in India.
No one is safe from scrutiny in this film. There are no angels and demons, no black and white, only shades of grey and those who try to do the best they can in a heavily flawed society and justice system. The culmination of the film in this regard feels almost like an anti-climax, with no real resolution to any of the issues brought up in the film. To this day, we do not know and probably never will who killed Shruti and Khempal. However, this does not feel like the point of the film. It never set out to tell us who killed the girl, but to show the audience how politics and corruption and get in the way of justice.
In the end, justice, in this case in the form of the sword, is delivered. Not to the murderer or murderers, but to everything that came as a fallout from this case. The talvar is taken to the incompetent policemen who botched the case, to the CDI who were more concerned with a fast wrap up of the case, and most of all to the scavenging nature of the media. It is a film that needs to be seen if you have any doubt about the state of affairs in India.