Quite early in Talvar, a police procedural revolving around the murders of a 14-year-old girl and a domestic help at her house, in Noida, the following question indicates its presence: What do we talk about when we talk about justice? The film is interested in finding out what happens to a fair and honourable idea when it gets stuck among people—inept, careless and flippant—inherently incapable of embodying it. The scenes that prompt such questions involve a local police officer, Dhaniram (Gajraj Rao)— the murder case’s primary investigator, first to arrive at the crime scene— who has entered an uncomfortable, unfamiliar world. A paan-chewing, Hindi-speaking Dhaniram, whose cellphone blares a devotional song every time it rings, sets about solving this case, while simultaneously trying to understand the wide social gap that stares at him. When he asks a question in Hindi to a close friend of the murdered girl’s father, he receives a reply in English, which both confounds and unsettles him; Dhaniram can’t wrap his head around the concept of such urbanities as “sleepover” and “boyfriend” (or, well, a male friend).
When Dhaniram recounts the chain of events to Ramesh Tandon (Neeraj Kabi) that led to him murdering his daughter, he begins thus: “Sharaab toh peete hi ho roz (You anyway drink alcohol everyday).” Dhaniram sees the murder case less as an investigation and more as a class war. So what if the Tandons quaff Ballantine’s, earn well and sustain the enviable privileges of modern life, their depravities bridge the inequities that separate this ordinary, unsophisticated cop from them.
Talvar excels in delineating these tiny but nevertheless crucial details which reshape our perception about the notion of justice – that it is often delivered (or denied) by those who are, at the end of the day, ordinary folk, battling their own fears, biases and frailties. This is the same motif that, quite coincidentally, also informed a very fine Marathi film earlier this year, Court. Although Talvar, unlike Court, doesn’t delve into the inner lives of its principal characters, it continues to set up conflicts that are dictated by different hierarchies. When CDI (Central ‘Department’ of Investigation) Joint Director Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan), suave and eloquent, confronts Dhaniram on the discrepancies in his investigation, the scene bristles with tension that is underscored by their social and professional differences; later in the film, the head of another investigative team accuses Ashwin of framing the poor and helpless servants.
The 2008 Noida double murder case, which gives Talvar its raison d’être, has spawned enough theories, opinions and journalism. In fact, earlier this year, the murders led the way, albeit very loosely, for another Hindi film, Rahasya, starring Kay Kay Menon and Tisca Chopra. In a scenario of such information overload, Talvar would have been a different—and possibly lesser—effort had it not been helmed by its screenwriter, Vishal Bhardwaj, and, his frequent collaborator, the film’s hero, Irrfan Khan. You don’t usually associate the word “hero” with Khan, but in Bhardwaj’s eyes, scores and words, the actor is no less than one, and it’s difficult to find faults with that enthusiasm. Right from Khan’s introductory heady fade-in stroll, set to a vibrant background score, in Haider, where an ambulatory impediment added to his character’s appeal, to his effortless charm and droll dialogues in Talvar, Bhardwaj sees in Khan not just a gifted actor but a star—someone who can drive a scene just on his whims. When a CDI investigative officer posits an outlandish theory to prove his stand, and refute Khan’s Ashwin, Khan, in response, doesn’t launch into an angry reply; instead, he leans back in his chair, and lets out a hint of smile; just enough to make you wonder who really owns that moment: Ashwin Kumar or Irrfan Khan.
Expertly commingling horror with humour, Bhardwaj varies the film’s mood with ease, never taking the easy way out, never settling for a predictable narrative. However, Talvar’s central thrust—a murder mystery unfolding through three different, often contradictory, points of view—works better on paper than on screen, because the third investigation, in essence, isn’t markedly different from the first and, as a result, doesn’t deliver enough narrative tension. But that is, probably, the price fiction pays when it’s squeezed out of facts. Bhardwaj and Meghna Gulzar, Talvar’s director, follow the sequence of the actual murder case with impressive precision, steering clear from reality only in terms of the film’s cosmetic elements—characters’ first and last names, the date and month of murders, the names of the various bureaus.
Talvar, for the most part, is engaged in a tussle with itself, trying to balance the mechanics of the case, which lends it gravitas and importance, with the plight of its characters who, battling one misfortune after the other, are compelling material for any motion picture drama. Bhardwaj chooses real over reel in Talvar, sacrificing moments of potential dramatic tension in lieu of fixing his gaze on the case, a decision that doesn’t necessarily benefit the film at all times. (It’s curious how the opposite worked in Haider—the first half of the film, taking its cues from the nonfiction book Curfewed Nights, worked significantly better than the second half, which was based on Hamlet.)
As a result, Talvar, by Bhardwaj’s standards, is less ambiguous, but that doesn’t reflect poorly on the film. Taking a firm stand on the 2008 Noida double murder case, Talvar believes the Talwars (Rajesh and Nupur, accused of murdering their daughter, Aarushi) were wrongfully convicted, and it’s an admirable stand, because we want our artistes to be “biased”, we want to know their values and hear their voice, we want to see them navigate through the morass of daily life, of disconcerting facts and comforting lies—we want them to find their own truths; we want them to create something that bristles with enough art and soul.
Talvar doesn’t separate itself from us by taking flights of easy cynicism, never places its gaze on a pedestal, and, in a rare moment, when Khan, ousted from his department after having come close to cracking the case, shows up, presumably drunk, at his estranged wife’s house, and says, “Kuch nahin hona hai (Nothing’s going to happen)” quickly followed by “aur nahin hoga mujhse (I can’t go any longer)”, you don’t begrudge that sentiment because it’s earned its gloom and despair.
Originally published at the Wire.