Aarushi: Beyond Reasonable Doubt — Four-part documentary looks anew at 2008 Noida double murder case
On 12 October 2017, the Allahabad acquitted Dr Rajesh and Nupur Talwar in the 2008 Noida double murder case. The couple had been given a life sentence in November 2013 after a special CBI court in Ghaziabad convicted them of the murder of their daughter Aarushi, and their domestic help Hemraj Banjade. Aarushi, 13, and Hemraj, 45, had been found at the Talwars' home over 16-17 May 2008.
In the time since, the 'Aarushi Talwar case' has received realms of press (a lot of it sensational), has inspired two films, a book (comprising journalist Avirook Sen's reportage) and a podcast. Coinciding with the Talwars' release from prison, Storyteller Films has also had an ongoing four-part documentary series, airing on Channel NewsAsia. Titled Aarushi: Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the documentary took over a year-and-a-half to produce and draws on the voices of investigators, lawyers, family and friends, crucial witnesses, and journalists to deconstruct the case.
The producers of the documentary closely tracked the Talwars' appeal in the Allahabad High Court to bring forward a story that has held India — for better or worse — in thrall. With the finale of the documentary scheduled to air on the night of 26 October 2017, Thursday, Firstpost spoke with director Mayurica Biswas about the making of Aarushi: Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Edited excerpts follow:
The Aarushi Talwar case is one that has been extensively covered — by the press, in book form, as a podcast, and at least two films. What prompted you to make this four-part documentary on the case?
I'm a documentary film maker, and have been in this space (of television documentaries) for about 17 years now. The Aarushi-Hemraj case has always intrigued me, both as an observer, and a factual true-crime storyteller. I would have to say that although the case has inspired a movie, a book and several years of print and TV archive, no one has surprisingly made a documentary on it, one that explored all facets of the case.
Also, as we began our research, we discovered that almost everyone — including those involved in the case — stubbornly wore their opinion on their sleeves and were unwilling to study the evidence with an open mind. We felt that people's beliefs about who killed Aarushi and Hemraj was often based on perception, their own life experiences and speculation, but rarely on facts.
Therefore, we strongly felt the need to be neutral, to start from scratch and be open to all sides of the argument. It was a conscious decision to take each piece of evidence to its logical, scientific conclusion. We didn’t know where it would go, where the evidence would take us, but it was important for us to be objective.
Another point that triggered this project was that the audience was now willing to consume long format, multi-part documentaries that took them to the heart of a case. We realised that if were able to dig out and present details hidden in realms of court documents, in a manner that was interesting, TV viewers were willing to absorb it. So, in the spirit of projects like Netflix's Making a Murderer or HBO's Jinx, this documentary series has boldly dealt with the fine print, because that's where the devil is.
So, what's new here? I think it offers objectivity, independent analysis of evidence, and takes into account fresh arguments heard in the Allahabad High Court. Apart from this, we met Hemraj's wife and family in Nepal, because we felt that this part of the story had not got its due.
Could you tell us a little about the process of working on Beyond Reasonable Doubt? How did you begin the process of research, reach out to sources, reconstruct the happenings, and give the documentary its final direction?
We relied extensively on all the court documents presented in the trial court and the High Court, apart from the closure report filed by the CBI, the protest petition filed by the Talwars, and the earlier appeals at the High Court and Supreme Court. We also studied all the 161 statements to the police and the CBI, testimonies of prosecution and defence witnesses in court, forensic reports of all the evidence issued by the state and national forensic labs (CFSL and CDFD), crime scene photographs, post-mortem reports, psychological test reports of all suspects — basically every bit of documentary evidence-on-record. One of the key things that we did not have access to were the police case diaries, which were not on record.
We also extensively spoke to several key characters involved in the case — investigators, lawyers, forensic experts, journalists, observers, and of course family members and friends of the victims and suspects. Apart from this, we also went through print and television media's coverage of the case.
To maintain objectivity, we also got in touch with international crime scene investigators and forensic scientists, such as a blood spatter analyst from Cambridge, a forensic pathologist from London, a former Scotland Yard deception detection analyst, and several others in US and Singapore. They reviewed the evidence-on-record, then generated a report in a completely honorary capacity, and this was then featured in our documentary.
We also tried to reach out to some of the former suspects in Nepal, and this strongly impacts the narrative.
We've been in production for over a year-and-a-half. We began research in April 2016, and were ready to start filming only by October 2016 — so, it took us over six months to just get preliminary research in place. We were also fortunate that the High Court began to hear the Talwars' appeal by September 2016. While this delayed our project timeline, the Appeal brought with a lot of new content, new materials and angles, which we were able to incorporate in the film. Between our creative producer Dipti Chadha and me, we not only combed through tonnes of documents but also made sure that we attended as many hearings as possible, at the Allahabad High Court. This was a fantastic experience, because we got to see some of the best legal minds pitted against each other, discussing every aspect of the case from scratch. It gave us first-hand research on the case.
Some of our key voices include Arun Kumar, former joint director, CBI; Javeed Ahmed, former joint director, CBI; Tanveer Mir Ahmed, the Talwars' lead defence counsel; journalists Shoma Chowdhury, Rajat Kain, Sanjeev Yadav, Bhavatosh Singh; Naresh Yadav — the servant's lawyer, and Aarushi's friend Fiza, apart from the family members of both the victims, and a former suspect.
In a case where the facts were so muddled, thanks to the early bungling of the investigation by the authorities, how difficult was it to get to some version of the truth?
I think the biggest hurdle was access. Several people attached to the case, who had earlier extensively spoken to the media, and had even consented to being a part of our project, had to back out, as they didn't want to talk on camera, while the High Court appeal was being heard. And there was the 'camp-divide'. If someone felt that you didn't believe in their version of events, they would be apprehensive about talking to you. It was very difficult to convince people that we were objective, and wanted to just follow the facts. 'Objectivity' was a rare commodity in this case.
Now, given that this was going to be a project without a narrator, it was important to have access to the key characters whose voices would give us an insider's perspective of how the story unfolded. It was also important to balance voices from both camps, so that every argument was well covered. So, it was a tough fight to the facts or the evidence-on-record.
Having said that, there were a couple of field reporters and lawyers who enabled access for us, and we will be always be grateful to them.
What was your reaction to the HC having acquitted Rajesh and Nupur Talwar? What will their acquittal mean for the documentary?
Having followed the appeal closely, it was clear the judges were very keen to understand every aspect of the case. They would often tell both the defence and the prosecution to 'take their time' to explain a point. For instance, one of the first things that the judges were keen to understand was the layout of the house, and its access points. Then, 'the hand-on-door' theory (basically if the Talwars were locked in or out) was discussed and debated for days. The circumstance of the internet router was another critical point that was argued extensively. And of course, the presence or absence of Hemraj in Aarushi's room that night. This is something that drove our documentary — we decided to focus on the circumstances that we felt would not only add new angles to earlier debates but also impact the verdict.
I was at the Allahabad High Court on the day of the verdict, and — spoiler alert — I'm glad our documentary eventually concurs with the judgment.
Brutal crimes are reported nearly every day in India. Why then does the Aarushi Talwar case seem particularly grim?
Well this is a blind case, and one that depends on circumstantial evidence. Could it have been an open and shut case? I'm not really sure. Legally, there is always scope for multiple interpretations in such cases. But yes, you can't deny that the first 48 hours, which are critical for any investigation, were lost and compromised.
This was one of my toughest projects till date. Although I would say that as an all-women's team, we tried to bring sensitivity to the storytelling. Much as we would like to remain stoic while dealing with a story of this nature, some things truly break your heart, specially if you are a parent. So, yes, as true-crime film makers, we regularly deal with a lot of blood and gore, but this was a case where it was almost impossible to look at Aarushi's photographs or the crime scene photos without being affected by it — it drained us emotionally.
The finale of Aarushi: Beyond Reasonable Doubt airs on Channel NewsAsia, at 8.30 pm on 26 October 2017. All four episodes can also be viewed online here.