Talvar review: Vishal Bharadwaj's retelling of Aarushi-Hemraj murders will leave you heartbroken
In Talvar, writer Vishal Bharadwaj and director Meghna Gulzar take us back to 2008, when the murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj left the nation horrified.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — this maxim is supposed to keep you safe. Confucius believed it, as did MK Gandhi. As guiding principles go, it proves to be an epic fail for the mother and father in Talvar, when they are faced with the corpse of their brutally-murdered daughter, and with the colossal ineptitude of the very police force that should be their protector. The couple saw nothing, heard nothing and all they said was that they were grieving, innocent parents. By the end of Talvar, they're in jail.
This is not a spoiler. As the notice right at the beginning of the film makes clear, Talvar is based on real incidents and characters drawn from the Aarushi-Hemraj murders of 2008. The fate of the accused is well-known and Talvar doesn't rewrite reality. The biggest spoiler isn't what happened in the plot or the new details that Talvar reveals about the politics behind the murder investigation. It's in the grim reality of what it means to be an everyman in India, someone who lives an average, everyday life.
In Talvar, writer Vishal Bharadwaj and director Meghna Gulzar take us back to 2008, when the murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj left the nation horrified. A 14-year-old girl was killed in her own home. The bloated corpse of a trusted, middle-aged domestic help was found on the building's terrace. These two deaths were clearly connected, even though a vast range of factors — including age and social status — separated the victims. Perhaps one of the cruelest ironies is that initially, the UP police declared the Aarushi-Hemraj murders an open-and-shut case. It's been six years and even though there have been three investigations, one trial and one (pending) appeal, the only thing that's shut down in this case is hope.
On an unremarkable summer morning, Noida resident Nutan Tandon (Konkona Sen Sharma) opens the door for her maid. Within minutes, it becomes a day that the Tandons will never forget. Their daughter is lying dead in her bedroom, her throat slit. The only person missing in the flat is Khempal, the family's domestic help and a grief-ravaged Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) is certain that the missing man killed his beloved daughter.
Now come the UP police constables, who are unimpressed by this grotesque sight and impatient to "open and shut" the case. They carelessly trample through the Tandons' apartment, breezily tampering with evidence and dismissing blood-flecked details. To the UP police, it is obvious that the butler — or his desi avatar, the "servant" — did it.
A day later, Khempal's body is found on the Tandons' terrace. The police hadn't seen the terrace when they'd come to see Aarushi's body because the door was locked. They mistook blood on the lock for rust and dismissed the blood smear on the banister.
Considering their ineptitude, one may feel a sense of relief when the investigation is handed over to the Central Department of Investigation, or CDI. The department's star officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan) is initially not interested in the murders, but it's dumped on him because the case needs to be closed quickly.There's growing media interest in this gory, shocking crime. And so begins an investigation that serves up more questions than it answers — not only because the case is complicated, but also because those investigating it have made a colossal mess.
Ashwin justifies his supercop status, but it's not enough in 21st century India. Just when he thinks he's tied up all the loose ends, Ashwin is taken off the case. His replacement is a dangerous buffoon named Paul (Atul Kumar), who shreds Ashwin's work and muddies the case's waters all over again.
By the time Paul's done, there's barely any evidence to analyse, items have been misplaced, suspects have made getaways, witnesses have been blackmailed and insane theories are being tabled as factually possible. Slowly but surely, the only people standing are Nutan and Ramesh, who saw nothing, heard nothing and said very little. But it's enough to destroy their lives and our peace of mind.
If it was possible to separate Talvar from the appalling mismanagement of the actual Aarushi-Hemraj murder investigations, then we could perhaps discuss the film's merits as we do with any other non-documentary film. We could note that the film's pace abruptly shifts to fifth gear after intermission. We could shake our heads disapprovingly at the unnecessary cameo appearance that Tabu makes in Talvar and rue how little powerful actors like Sen Sharma and Kabi have to do in the film. We could point out Sohum Shah and his handlebar moustache, both delivering an excellent performance as Irrfan's sidekick. We could applaud Irrfan for delivering a charismatic performance and note that he's starting to develop his very own stereotype of a smooth, sardonic gent who delivers cutting punchlines. (Let's hope we don't remember Ashwin Kumar while watching Irrfan in Jazbaa next week.) We could include a little cheer for the excellence of Indian theatre practice by pointing out just how brilliant Atul Kumar is as the nauseating Paul.
We could also raise an eyebrow at Talvar's obvious salute to Rashomon and question Gulzar's ability to use the storytelling device of multiple retellings. Talvar shows different versions of the murders and the attempted cover-up, each supporting a different theory of who the killer may have been. The film is taut and competently made, but it quite obviously favours one version over others. As a result, the alternatives feel either like repetition or vaguely caricaturish. Instead of utilising the range that actors like Sen Sharma and Kabi possess to craft distinctly different but credible characters in each variation, Gulzar changes very little in terms of the personalities we see on screen. The effect is less dynamic and more confusing than it could have been.
Bharadwaj's script is solid and the case is eventful enough to hold our attention, but Talvar's direction lacks imagination. Gulzar could have toyed with the audience a lot more than she does in Talvar. However, one must also keep in mind that she has made this film within many constraints — not the least of which are legal since the Aarushi-Hemraj murders are an ongoing case — and considering the tightrope Gulzar must have had to walk, she's done well.
However, all these analyses are ultimately irrelevant when it comes to Talvar. It's more of a much-needed social document than a film. It will leave you shaken and fill you with despair. You will have no peace of mind when you come out of the theatre because the film shows you just how helpless and alone we are, how much power the system has over us and how carelessly power is abused. And that's why you must see Talvar. You must know just how badly the odds are stacked against you. You must know that this could be your story and if it isn't, that's because you're lucky. Not because crime happens in other people's lives or because the police are there to protect you.
Talvar should be mandatory viewing for every police force and investigative agency around the country, who must confront and take responsibility for what their colleagues have done. Aarushi and Hemraj's blood lies on their hands as much as on those of the actual killer. Loyalists of our law enforcement agencies may argue that this case is an exception. One desperately hopes that is indeed the the truth because if this case is the norm, then it's a wonder anyone bothers to report a crime in this country.
It's worth noting that Talvar doesn't show all the mistakes that the UP police and CBI made or the appalling tangles of ineptitude and office politics that actually hamstrung the Aarushi-Hemraj murder investigation. For that, you must read Avirook Sen's Aarushi (keep chocolate, stuffed toys and other feelgood items handy if you do. It's a riveting and depressing book).
We will probably never know who killed Aarushi and Hemraj — not because it was perfectly planned and executed, but because the case was comprehensively mangled while being investigated. And it's not the police or CBI officers who will pay. For them, life goes on, duty calls and the two corpses are just data and files. If the gruesome deaths linger at all in the officers' lives, it's as a topic that can be calmly discussed while sneering, cracking jokes, laughing and scoring points over old colleagues in a conference room.
That's how little lives matter in India.
(Editor's note: This review has been updated from the original to correct the name of the character played by Irrfan Khan)
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