Talvar review: A must see whodunnit based on Aarushi-Hemraj murders
Hats off to Gulzar and Bharadwaj for their digging and making a documentary thriller, a genre that is largely unexplored in Indian mainstream cinema.
The 2008 Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj double murder case has been back in the news this year. First there was the film Rahasya, which was inspired by the case and released earlier this year. Then Avirook Sen’s book, Aarushi, came out and now we have Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, a thinly-disguised retelling of how the murders were investigated.
Truth in this case really is stranger than fiction. Within days of the murders, the UP cops had stated that they had solved the case. According to them, 14-year old Aarushi and the family's domestic help Hemraj, were caught in a “compromising” position by her parents, who then bludgeoned Aarushi and Hemraj to death, slit their throats and then dressed up the murder scene at home. This theory was overturned by the first CBI team that was in-charge of the investigation. This team believed Hemraj’s three friends had committed the murders. When a second CBI was put on the case, it overturned this theory and concluded that the parents had indeed done it.
To be fair to the CBI’s indecisiveness, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence to prove either theory (and for this we can thank the UP police who compromised the crime scene when they were called in right after Aarushi’s body was discovered). At present, Aarushi’s parents are in Dasna jail because a lower court found them guilty of murdering their daughter and their domestic help. Their appeal is coming up for hearing in the Allahabad High Court next month.
There has been a lot of media coverage and speculation surrounding the Aarushi-Hemraj murders and it’s evident that director Meghna Gulzar did her research before making Talvar. The film has a gritty documentary feel to it. I’ve read most of the English news reports that appeared in mainstream media during and after the case. I’ve also read Sen’s book. However, Vishal Bharadwaj, who has written Talvar's script, did more research, which is why there are details of this gory case that are being revealed for the first time in this film. According to Bharadwaj and Gulzar, no characters or information in Talvar is fictitious. Sometimes, to make the film tighter, a few people have been blended into one character.
Talvar boasts of a brilliant lineup of actors. Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi – who looks startlingly like Rajesh Talwar — play the parents, Nutan and Ramesh Tandon. Irrfan plays Ashwin Kumar, who heads the first CBI team that investigated the case and gives the parents a clean chit. Sohum Shah, last seen in Ship Of Theseus, puts in an excellent performance as Vedant Choudhary, Kumar’s wingman who later stabs him in the back. Tabu makes a special appearance as Kumar’s wife, which is one of the unnecessary sections of the film. Unfortunately, Gulzar struggles to draw powerful performances from Sen Sharma and Kabi, which is a shame since they are powerful actors. Tabu is clearly there to add star value, but ends up being redundant.
The film presents us with different versions of how the Tandons' daughter’s murder took place. In one, the parents are the culprits. In another, “servants” are the culprits. In a third version, a critical detail is added and this proves to be a big twist in the tale. The idea is, of course, to present the viewer with differing versions that are equally persuasive.
Yet, I felt there was a subtle value judgement at play in the two versions. The version that pins the blame on domestic help shows the killers as remorseless while the parents are devastated and innocent. This may well be the case, but it’s worth noting that this Rashomon-esque storytelling is designed to cast the parents in sympathetic light.
In the version that shows the parents as culprits, what is highlighted is how ludicrous it would be to think the parents could have committed the murders. Their actions seem almost farcical and darkly comic, like when Sen Sharma instructs Kabi to hurry up as they have to start crying in front of the maid. As a result, you cannot help but lean towards the theory that the parents are innocent. The point of the multiple versions seems to be to evoke sympathy for the Tandons (and consequently the real-life Talwars), either directly or subtly.
Of the many characters in the film, the Tandons are the most vanilla. They are never angry or display any negative qualities. Again, this could well be true, but the net effect of this characterisation is that you don’t really end up relating to them. They don’t seem entirely human. Sen Sharma and Kabi play their roles like cardboard cutouts.
The person you do feel for and who commands the screen whenever he’s on is Irrfan. Ashwin Kumar is best etched of all the characters in Talvar. You get a backstory, know his pastimes, where he eats his meals, his weaknesses; the works. Similarly, the second investigator Paul (Atul Kumar) is also well written. You understand – even if you don’t appreciate – the motivations of Irrfan’s co-investigator, Vedant. The ones you wholly relate to in Talvar are CBI's teams. They're the ones who move Talvar forward and this leads to one of the film's problems: it's awkwardly paced. Post-interval, the film is suddenly action-packed in contrast to the first half, which drags.
Talvar focuses entirely on the investigation and not the trial. Which is why it's understandable that Gulzar and Bharadwaj don't mention how Nupur Talwar changed her testimony about where she'd left Aarushi's room keys on that fateful night. The film constantly shows (as far as I recall) the key dangling from the keyhole of the daughter's bedroom whereas in reality, Nupur Talwar said the key was at the door only later in the investigations. It was a crucial change in her testimony and the change was one of the mitigating factors for the Talwars' guilty verdict. To ignore it in a film that's otherwise so meticulous is odd.
However, the absolute botching up of evidence by the UP police team has been well-documented, and watching it will make you shudder. It’s interesting to see how Ashwin Kumar figures out there were people other than the Tandon family and Hemraj in the house that night. It’s equally fascinating to see how the investigators realise Hemraj was alive till he reached the terrace.
The little twisting of protocol that helps investigators reach their findings gives you an insight into the workings of the CBI. Friendships, loyalties, jealousies amongst CBI's investigating teams and directors can throw an investigation off keel and totally derail it, it seems. There is also an attempt to explain why the second CBI team overturned the first team’s findings, although this isn’t adequately explained. The last meeting between the two CBI teams, following which the closure report was filed, is quite an eye-opener and has never been reported or discussed before.
It’s after a long time that I’ve seen a film that has spent so much time and effort on research. Hats off to Gulzar and Bharadwaj for their digging and making a documentary thriller, a genre that is largely unexplored in Indian mainstream cinema. To make a film like this with a cast that has no commercially viable star, you really need to believe in the story you are telling.
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