In ‘Talvar’, the 14-year-old girl killed in her bed in the dead of night, is called Shruti Tandon. But we know that it is the thinly-disguised story of Arushi Talwar, whose murder still remains the foulest of them all: her parents Rajesh and Nupur, both doctors with a flourishing practice, were convicted and sent to jail.
The double murder of Arushi and the Talwars’ live-in male servant Hemraj shook us all. Because it involved people like us : respectably middle-class, solidly professional, living with other middle-class professionals. Children from that sort of background go to good schools and graduate from good colleges, not found with their throat slit, opening up a Pandora’s box of swirling salacious rumours about sexual proclivities (theirs’ as well as their parents’). Widespread outrage and shock rippled outward, and it still laps around us, because, really, how can any parent kill their child?
That is what Shruti’s father (Neeraj Kabi) cries out, in ‘Talvar’. And that anguished cry and the mother’s (Konkona Sen Sharma) too-stunned-for-tears face leave us deeply conflicted, deeply uncomfortable. ‘Talvar’ is a difficult film to watch because we know all along that we are not in some fictitious la-la land; we are in Noida, where the killings took place, and the events that unfold have a distinct ring of reality. The film– part police procedural, part dark, twisted crime drama– is as real as a constructed-for-the-camera document can be, with its portrayal of the professional rivalries between the investigating teams, and insatiable media persons.
And that’s mainly to do with the just-right note caught by Vishal Bharadwaj’s writing, which starts a little shakily, and then finds it groove—mostly matter-of-fact in the face of apparent depravity and keeping away from needless prurience and stays there right though the end : though there is no attempt made to hide the film’s sympathies, which lie with the parents, ‘Talvar’ takes in the contrarians as well. The high point is a round-table gathering of the investigators, one bunch who is convinced that it was the other employees who did it; another, which come in later, determined to run down the former, is convinced of the parents’ guilt.
‘Talvar’ maintains the gritty tightrope with a virtuoso act by Irrfan Khan as CDI (standing in for CBI) officer Ashwin Kumar, who comes into the ‘case’ with some amount of reluctance and healthy skepticism. His second-in-command is Sohum Shah, again very believable in the way he switches to the side which has more profit.
A fine supporting cast, especially the fresh-faced Sumit Gulati as the Tandons’ employee, who makes all kinds of allegations which are swallowed wholesale by the Noida police in the person of the paan-chewing cop’ (Gajraj Rao, playing it with gusto) helps us believe. This includes Belwadi’s twinkle-eyed officer on the verge of retirement, who hands over the case to a man (Atul Kumar, very good) who takes it in a diametrically opposite direction into, many believe, a horrible, deliberate miscarriage of justice.
It’s when ‘Talvar’ swings over into exaggeration-for-populism territory that you start fidgeting. Was it the fear of being too grim that it shows us a wholly unbelievable scene involving the physical bullying of a local cop? Though both Neeraj and Konkona channel the unbearable pain of losing a child in such unspeakable conditions well enough, they are drawn sketchily. I wanted more: who were they as people and parents, what did they think, how did they do? And although Tabu is usually always a treat, her addition to the cast, as Irrfan’s estranged wife, seems superfluous to the proceedings.
There was no indication that Meghna Gulzar, who’s made a couple of terrible films before this, would come up with something that sears, that make us question our precepts about fealty and loyalty, about crime and punishment. ‘Talvar’, which rhymes so closely with ‘Talwar’, is a brave film that devastates, and despite its flaws, makes for a compelling watch.
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Neeraj Kabi, Konkona Sensharma, Sohum Shah, Gajraj Rao, Atul Kumar, Sumit Gulati, Prakash Belwadi, Tabu
Director: Meghna Gulzar