Murder most foul: Talvar stays close to real life and is gripping from start to finish

It’s not easy to make a film on a case that has been scrutinised to shreds. The writer and director pull it off.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
Murder most foul: Talvar stays close to real life and is gripping from start to finish
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The cast and crew of the film Talvar engaged in a question-and-answer session with the audience at a screening hosted by the online news portal, Catch News, on Sunday. The audience had several journalists in attendance, some of who had written about the 2008 Noida double murder case.

To talk about the film, there was Meghna Gulzar (Director), Vishal Bhardwaj (Writer), Irfaan Khan (the “CDI officer” investigating the case), Konkona Sen Sharma (Nutan, the victim’s mother) and Preeti Shahani (Producer).

Talvar is based on the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj double murder that gave prime-time news dozens of hours of programming, and newspapers, reams of newsprint in 2008.

The names of individuals and organisations have been changed in order to avoid any legal complications, I’m guessing, because it cannot be to conceal anyone’s identity. The Talwars are Tandons here. Aarushi becomes Shruti, Rajesh is Ramesh, Nupur becomes Nutan and Hemraj becomes Khempal. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is CDI. Obviously, there were no midnight brainstorming sessions on what the characters’ names should be. Luckily all that thought went into structure and plot. Which is a good thing.

The title of Talvar is cleverly explained: it is not a reference to the family at the centre of the murder, but to the sword Lady Justice wields. In her left hand, she holds the scales of justice, and in her right, a sword that in the words of the CDI Director (read CBI Director) in the film is the police force, which has rusted into decay in the 60 years since Independence. “Us pe zang lag gaya hai” — he informs us in a reflective drunk moment.

It is never easy making a film about a case so famous — most details of the case are in the public domain and every development had been carefully scrutinised by the news media. The writer and director pull it off.

What stands out in the film is how devoid it is of any frills. Not even opening credits. The film title, and bam! You are in the story and stay there till the end. In the filmmakers’ own words, they wanted this story to be about the investigation and the investigation alone. Nothing else. For those who came in late, the Aarushi Talwar–Hemraj double murder was followed by much drama and a clumsy and tragic series of investigations that played out before TV news cameras.  There was an initial investigation by the Noida police who cracked the case within a few days after the murder (2008), but wait — no they didn’t. A CBI team was brought into the investigation, which disagreed with the Noida police’s theory and then a second CBI team, which too came up with a different set of findings. CBI filed a closure report in 2010 that was rejected by the court and finally the Talwar’s were convicted of murdering their daughter and household help (2013). They are doing time at Dasna jail even as their appeal is pending in court.

That’s the five-year timeline squeezed into the just over a two hour-long film. It compresses time and crunches multiple characters into one without taking creative liberties that would make the account inaccurate and it also avoids confusing the viewer with too much detail but does dwell on some technicalities that were key in this case. The thing is that the inconsistent investigations and evidence were all about detail and the trial all about technicalities, so the balancing act of what to keep and what to leave out is not easy.

The legal minds at the screening (including Ram Jethmalani) articulated their dissatisfaction with the detail about court proceedings and claimed that the trial was not reflected accurately. The filmmakers responded by saying it is more about the investigation than about the trial. In fact, the trial is not part of the film at all. It tracks the many investigations.

Vishal Bhardwaj said he was inspired by the Rashomon structure. For those who’re not familiar with it, Akira Kurosawa’s classic is four people’s different accounts of a dacoit’s encounter with a travelling party. In following the structure, Talvar recreates the crime as theorised by various investigating agencies and witnesses. It leaves it to the viewer to make what he or she can of it. Meghna Gulzar says she tried to keep it as “objective” as possible. Tell the various versions, the errors, flaws and let the viewer make up his or her own mind. However, the filmmakers’ own point of view does find its way into how each character and version is dealt with. Where Vishal and Meghna’s sympathy lies is more than obvious.

To retain authenticity, the film has been shot on location in Noida and not a Mumbai studio. What this adds to a film is so clear that one has to wonder why more filmmakers don’t shoot on location and instead build unreal and unconvincing sets. However, where the makers of Talvar have not remained authentic at all is in the film’s depiction of Times Now, which is inaccurately shown as a Hindi channel and even more inaccurately is not the over-the-top hysterical one. The film is produced by the Times Group owned Junglee pictures. Times Now features in the film too, with a not-so-true-to-life Arnab Goswami. The burden of demonstrating how low the news media can sink in sensationalising a murder case is put on a fictitious channel that actually has no resemblance to any one in particular, but to many in general.

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