Aarushi Talwar's murder was a tragic story of our times: Talvar director Meghna Gulzar

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

Oct,13 2017 14:29 17 IST

In September 2015, the Meghna Gulzar-directed and Vishal Bhardwaj-written Talvar premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. A month later, it released in Indian theatres as well. The project had made headlines when it was announced; it was the second film to be made on the infamous 2008 Noida double murder case — in which 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, and her family’s domestic help Hemraj Banjade, 45, were slain.

In January 2015, Rahasya (directed by Manish Gupta and starring Kay Kay Menon, Tisca Chopra, Ashish Vidyarthi, Mita Vashisht) had released, and had been criticised by Aarushi’s parents — Nupur and Rajesh Talwar — for how it portrayed their family. Talvar, which told the story of the crime from varying perspectives, was different.

Public opinion had been sharply allayed against the Talwars until that point. Talvar, written by Vishal Bhardwaj on the basis of his extensive research, was among the rare accounts — in addition to Avirook Sen’s exhaustive news reports  — to eschew sensationalism in favour of an objective analysis of the facts.

A day after the Allahabad High Court acquitted Nupur and Rajesh Talwar of the double homicide, Meghna Gulzar has been receiving numerous calls, many of them congratulating her for what the Talvar team had made possible — making the public aware that the widely-publicised version of the case may not necessarily be the truth.

Still from Talvar (2015)

Still from Talvar (2015)

“I always believed there wasn't enough conclusive evidence to put these two people in jail, and I’ve been saying that for the past three years,” Meghna told Firstpost. “I don't know who killed Aarushi and Hemraj. I am not saying there is enough evidence to convict the other suspects in the case. But I do know that there wasn’t enough evidence to give Rajesh and Nupur Talwar a life sentence for murdering their daughter. I believed this when the news broke out, I believed it through the making of Talvar — although I didn’t let that affect its making.”

Meghna said she didn’t think of her film’s story as controversial story. Instead, she saw it as a testimony of our times.

“I didn’t think it was a controversial subject — it was the press that made it controversial. I looked at it as a tragedy, as a tragic story of our times, our society,” she said. “It spoke about our familial institutions, law and order, our judiciary, the media, and about us, as people. We all discussed this story around our dining tables. We all did it, we are all responsible. We bought the story of the wife-swapping and the ‘relationship’ between Aarushi and Hemraj. We did it because there was this counter narrative available to us. And that’s not going to go away… to me, that was the larger takeaway.”

Meghna told us that her objectivity while making Talvar was hard won. Depending on Bhardwaj’s screenplay was one way of ensuring it. The other was to look at the principals of the case as characters in the movie, rather than real people. “I had to work hard on it. It didn't come organically. It was mentally more exhausting to work on the film than it was physically — and we had a very tough shoot, filming in 49 degrees during the summer.”

Here’s what Meghna told Firstpost about the making of Talvar, her response to the Talwars' acquittal, and the ethical implications of making a film on a real life tragedy:

On her reaction to the verdict:

My first and most instinctive reaction on hearing the verdict was one of relief, because you know, you’ve told a story, you know the facts, you know that something has happened that is not quite right; but you really can’t do much more than tell the story and hope for things to get better. I always prayed that the film that we all worked so hard to make would serve a higher purpose. And the verdict today just proved that the truth prevails — as that is what that really matters.

On Talvar influencing public opinion in favour of Nupur and Rajesh Talwar:

I know public opinion did change after people saw Talvar. I am aware of that and I am extremely humbled and grateful for it. When we first launched our film's trailer and were interacting with the press, the questions we got were: 'Why did you make this film?', 'We already know everything there is to know. What is it that you could possibly tell us that’s new?' So we've answered those questions.

Meghna Gulzar, director of Talvar

Meghna Gulzar, director of Talvar

Yes, we knew that what we were saying wasn’t new, it was just that we were laying it out there — which was different, which would put everything in perspective. The information that came out of this case was so unequal — everything was not shouted out at the same decibel level. There were very many key facts that were hidden or not remembered. And that's what Talvar did — it laid everything out very simply.  The credit for that goes to Vishal [Bhardwaj] sir’s writing which made everybody understand the real and complicated technicalities of this case.

The information that came out of this case was so unequal.

So yes public opinion shifted. But that the judiciary would overturn a lower court's order — I don't think any of us expected that. We may have hoped for it, but we didn’t have enough confidence or arrogance to think our film would do this.

On ethical predicaments:

I didn't have any. The beauty of this whole collaboration was that everybody was on the same page. One, we didn't want to sensationalise the case. Two, we did not want to tilt the perception in any particular way. We wanted to tell the story like an investigation procedural and keep it completely clinical and objective. Which was why we followed the approach of having two perspectives — again, Vishal sir’s idea. The reason for this was, we were in a no position to say that this party is wrong or right, or this investigation is flawed or correct. All we could see was that there were lapses.

At the end of it, we asked: 'Is there any concrete or conclusive evidence to put these two people behind bars?’ No, there wasn't. So what could we do? We could tell both the sides of the story and let people come to their own conclusion — because there really was no evidence that would (establish any party’s guilt) beyond reasonable doubt. There was conjecture, there were allegations of evidence tampering on both sides, there were narco tests that were inadmissible for whatever technical reasons. There was nothing to validate a sentence of life imprisonment on two people for a murder they may or may not have committed.

We didn't want to sensationalise the case.

Therefore, no moral implications arose because we were telling both sides of the story. The challenge was to keep oneself completely objective and not let emotions come in the way (of that).

Everything in the film was based on information available on public domain. Everything that we included in Talvar, was verified. The most leeway we took was in the names of characters and places, or amalgamated three different people into one character. The other liberty we took was with Irrfan’s character, who has his personal trajectory in the film. The person he’s based on isn’t going through a divorce and has a happy family life. Arun Kumar sir (on whom Irrfan’s role was based) used to tell us, 'Yeh mera kya kar diya tum logo ne?' Those are the only leaps that we took. As far as the facts of the case are concerned, there is nothing that was tampered with or coloured by our perceptions.

On unanswered questions:

All I could say through Talvar was, please consider again whether or not these two people deserve to be in jail. That’s all I did. The larger takeaway towards the end of the film was — has justice been met? That was the question, which has now been answered. As for who killed Aarushi and Hemraj, we don't have an answer even today. The courts don't have it, the investigating agencies don't have it, the police doesn't have it. How can I have it?