First came the murders. Then followed the headlines.
The year was 2008 and a 14-year-old girl called Aarushi Talwar was found murdered in her bed at home in Noida. Her parents Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, both practicing dentists, were distraught. The police named the Talwar’s missing domestic help as their main suspect – Hemraj Banjade. But when Hemraj’s body was also found on the roof of the Talwar home, sympathy for the parents quickly changed to suspicion. In no time at all, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar would be on trial for the murders of Hemraj and Aarushi.
Even as the Talwars battled the accusations against them in court, another trial was playing out in which they had little chance of mounting a defence. This trial was driven by the media and by the public opinion it shaped. Not a day went by when there wasn’t a sensational headline or TV footage on everything from the Talwars alleged ‘swinging’ lifestyle to the murdered teen’s ‘sexual proclivities’. Even before the court announced its verdict, people had already pronounced their verdict: Guilty.
Amid the hysteria, a few journalistic voices that stood out, for being neutral, incisive, analytical. Sensible, instead of sensationalist. Veteran journalist Avirook Sen’s was among those.
Sen’s columns for the Mumbai Mirror had readers all over India, questioning for the first time, the assumptions they had made about the Aarushi Talwar case. It highlighted the flaws in the investigative process, the leaps made from scanty evidence to ‘establishment’ of guilt. Last year, Sen brought out his coverage of the case in the form of a book . It inspired the critically acclaimed Meghna Gulzar film, Talvar. And it prompted digital content company Arré to commission a podcast on the story, to Hauz Khas-based creative collective Jamun.
On 1 May this year, Jamun’s Udayan Baijal (producer) and Ayesha Sood (director) will air the first episode of this podcast. “Trial By Error: The Aarushi Files” has been scripted and narrated by journalist Nishita Jha, and will have eight episodes in all, each focussing on different aspects of the case.
For Udayan and Ayesha, the project presented a chance to bring together two phenomena they had following closely – the first of course being the Aarushi case, and the second, the Sarah Koenig podcast Serial.
The team was working on a tight deadline – Arré approached Jamun at the end of November 2015, and they had to start work on Trial By Error immediately (the initial air date was February 2016; it was later shifted to May). They had a month to have a pilot episode and a story arc ready. Says Ayesha, “Although I have been following the case since it first broke, it wasn’t with this intention… On one hand it really helped to be ‘in’ on the details for a long time. But on the other hand, I was aware that there were many characters that we needed to talk to, many story points and arcs we needed to hit, and a mountain of research to plough through to present a balanced and honest story.”
Avirook Sen’s book was, as Udayan says, the “backbone” of the podcast. But Udayan, Ayesha and Nishita included a lot of new material in Trial By Error as well. Ayesha says the people the team interviewed spoke “without the mask that a camera encourages”, and that the personal nature of their testimonies added immeasurably to the narrative. Udayan adds that the podcast format itself is very conducive for exploring the story: “The format of a long immersive audio piece makes for a conducive environment to examine things in more depth and from different angles – things that may or may not be already in the public domain. I think podcasts humanise the story and that itself is a new material and a new way of looking at the case,” he told Firstpost.
While for Udayan, the Aarushi case is one that tells us who we are as a people and as a country, for Nishita Jha, working on Trial By Error had a deeper, personal aspect as well. Aarushi had been a close friend of Nishita’s younger sister Fiza. Did Nishita attain closure of some kind in returning to the case as a journalist all these years later?
“Rather than closure, I do feel a sense of catharsis that I am finally able to talk and write about this case,” Nishita says. “Fiza was extremely close to Aarushi, and losing one's best friend to a brutal murder is beyond the scope of what anyone is emotionally equipped to deal with at fourteen. So my priority has always been making sure my sister gets through this in a sane way. It is only now that I am finally able to look at the case in depth, and address it as a journalist.”
Trial By Error, Nishita hopes, will also make the media rethink its approach to covering similar stories in the future.
“At some point, we as journalists need to think about what the urge to 'break news' is doing to the ethics of reporting: verifying sources, weighing in on when it's safe to reveal the identity of witnesses involved with a case most importantly – learning to see where and how power operates and influences a story. Without this, all we have is sensational clickbait,” she says. “I can't say if Avirook's book will influence the case, but I do hope the book and the podcast get people to at least think about the systems we have created a little more critically.”
Trial By Error: The Aarushi Files will air on Arré and the Saavn app from 1 May, 2016