Meghna Gulzar owns the directorial credit in Talvar, but this is really Vishal Bhardwaj’s baby. He’s the writer – the film is based on the Aarushi Talwar murder case that transfixed the nation even as it left some of us wondering whether a similar tragedy in areas of the country not named Mumbai or Delhi would have commanded so much airtime and attention. Bhardwaj writes the hell out the film, which begins with a perfunctory rendition of the national anthem. It’s lip service. And that’s what the investigation that follows is about – lip service to the idea of truth, justice, fairness, all that jazz that’s supposed to separate us from our four-legged friends. In a way, Talvar is like Court, which showed us how far-removed the practice of law is from the courtroom dramatics we thrill to on screen. Talvar isn’t a movie-style procedural – no nails are going to be bitten. It’s how these things happen in life. Cops aren’t ever-vigilant truth defenders but men who are easily distracted by incessant phone calls, men who can’t even remember the name of the deceased – and it’s a press conference. We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.
The surface details are slightly different (note the names, for instance; just close enough to the real names), but the story is pretty much the same. Fourteen-year old Shruti is found murdered. The parents – Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma, who looks like a 14-year-old herself) – blame their missing servant Khempal. Then he’s found with his throat slit. What happened that night? Is it really “an open-and-shut case,” as a cop calls it? Bhardwaj doesn’t attempt an answer (though he hints that the parents are innocent). He’s more interested in viewing these questions through a Rashomon-type prism – a key scene is reenacted from various points of view. But this isn’t just a stylistic device. It’s deeply integral to the core of the film – for everything is about points of view. A female guest on a panel discussion on TV is convinced Nutan did it, otherwise how could a mother be so emotionless after her little girl has been taken away in a body bag? (And the body bag is pink – such a heartbreakingly little-girl colour.) This woman is judging another woman based on her point of view of how someone should behave in such a situation. It’s terrifying when these (casual) points of view add up, especially when they are coloured by class issues. Inspector Dhaniram (Gajraj Rao, pitch-perfectly embodying the middle class’s worst nightmares about going to the cops) and his cohorts, similarly, judge Shruti’s parents from their points of view. These upper-class people. Sheesh, they’re wife-swappers. Sheesh, they use bad language. Sheesh, their degenerate children have these things called “sleepovers.” Sheesh, they play golf. And then, we’re shown a scene from Nutan’s point of view. She’s still in the car, clutching the urn of ashes. Ramesh asks her to come in, but she says the pandit-ji has told her not to bring the ashes into the house. “I’m not leaving her alone,” she says. The audience, finally, is left with a point of view. Nutan still speaks of Shruti as a ‘her’. Surely this isn’t a murdering mother.
Bhardwaj writes the hell out the film. Have I said this earlier? I’ll say it again. Talvar is a smashing return to form for him, especially from the, um, point of view of those of us who preferred his Maqbool/Blue Umbrella/Omkara days. He’s taken a bit of a detour since then, he’s become something of a mannered formalist with a taste for the absurd. Some of these latter-day traits are very much visible, beginning with this film’s title – that wordplay on the real-life family’s name, which now refers to the sword in Lady Justice’s hands. (Continuing the film’s we-see-what-we-want-to-see theme, how many of you knew there was more to this Lady than just the scales and the blindfold?) There’s some more wordplay (not much, thankfully) in that contrived AFSPA/chutzpah-style – something about green and jealousy, something about Christ and the missionary position. But for the first time, Bhardwaj’s absurdist predilection doesn’t come off as strained, possibly because the events depicted here couldn’t get more absurd. We’re talking about a cop launching into a loud folk song so that his colleagues in the adjacent room can inspect the noise levels of the air-conditioner. We’re talking about a juicy hand print – in blood, no less – that remains unknown to forensic examiners and gets washed away by an absurdly unseasonal shower. The pink buffaloes in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola have nothing on this.
But these bits remain bits, and through most of the film, we see the old Bhardwaj, the unshowy, solid, naturalistic craftsman. Take the scene where we learn about ACP Vedant’s (Sohum Shah, who looks like Farhan Akhtar’s long-lost sibling) betrayal. Till then, we are given the idea that Vedant and Ashwin ( Irrfan Khan), the Central Department of Investigation (CDI) officer, are some sort of Jai-Veeru, brothers in arms bent on cracking the case. Then we get a tiny throwaway of a scene where the topic of Vedant’s promotion comes up. And then, the betrayal – and this is when you know how good Bhardwaj is. A lesser writer would have tipped us off in the scene where the promotion is discussed, but we simply see that scene as one of those little asides meant to imbue a character with a few extra shades. Soon after, we learn about the betrayal as Ashwin learns about it. It’s as much a shock to us as it is to him. It’s redundant to say Shah plays this scene beautifully because the entire cast is outstanding – it’s not just about great actors but great faces as well, faces with wear and tear and plucked from life. The maidservant, for instance. Or even the CDI chief Swamy (Prakash Belawadi), who gets the interval scene where he tells his protégé Ashwin that Lady Justice’s sword has become rusty, and it’s time to do something about it. If you’d told me about this scene, I’d have winced – it sounds preachy and dialogue-y and awful. But it’s marvelous on many levels. It’s a call to action snuck into a wistful sigh.
To call Talvar Meghna Gulzar’s best film isn’t saying much. She has just two features to her credit, and both of them were better showcases of her observational powers and dialogue-writing capabilities than direction. I don’t remember too much of Filhaal except a maddening colour scheme (mauve/lavender) and a lovely moment where the husband finds out they’re going to have a baby. “We’re pregnant,” he says. Note the we. That’s the sensitivity Meghna imparted to her second film as well, Just Married, another story about a couple with problems. There’s a couple with problems in Talvar too – and these are the film’s weakest portions. As Ashwin, Irrfan gives a fantastic movie-star performance. In the midst of all these drawn-from-life people, he’s a hero. He’s introduced as the man who cracked the Telgi scam. You half expect someone to extend an autograph book and request a selfie. And like a star, he makes his own rules. He plays games on the phone when he should be listening. He looks at gruesome photographs of murder while gulping down dinner. He cajoles a colleague to let him eavesdrop on an interrogation session. He slaps a cop around (the latter, unsurprisingly is from a lower class). He’s a… stud, and the way he swaggers through the film, like one of those lone-wolf movie cops, he didn’t need to be saddled with a subplot about his separation from his wife (though Bhardwaj takes care to comment on this trial as well, where, according to this judge’s point of view, a couple needs a real reason to separate; they can’t be all upper-class and do whatever they want, whenever they want). At one point, the wife (Tabu) hands him a box with his things, his samaan – a card he once gave her, their wedding album. And he walks out humming Mera kuchh samaan. A Gulzar hat tip? Maybe their relationship was about intangibles, like in the song? Okay. But it gets worse when she calls him later while watching Ijaazat, and guess what song is playing in the background. This cutesy business is tonally off, given that Meghna keeps an emotional distance from the proceedings, the way the new CDI chief urges his men to. Even Vedant’s mention of a fiancée remains just that. A mention.
This emotional distance makes some of the early portions a little dry – we keep thinking ‘competent’ rather than ‘inspired.’ When we see Zodiac (where David Fincher slowed time down to reflect the sluggish pace of the investigation) or Not A Love Story (where Ram Gopal Varma rubbed our face in the passion in that crime of passion), to take two other films based on real-life crime, we sense a strong directorial presence. True, Talvar is Meghna’s best film, but we keep wondering if that isn’t more due to the great writing (and great acting). And it doesn’t help that a lot of the story (along with the way these investigations generally take place) is familiar to us. But slowly, as things get increasingly absurd, the film really takes off. The last half-hour is astonishingly good. It’s just talk, but it pulls together everything we’ve seen so far, all the points of view, in a startlingly hilarious fashion. We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.
- the Aarushi Talwar murder case = see here
- Court = see here
- Rashomon-type prism = see here
- Maqbool = see here
- Blue Umbrella = see here
- Omkara = see here
- AFSPA/chutzpah-style = see here
- Lady Justice = see here
- Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola = see here
- Filhaal = see here
- Just Married = see here
- Mera kuchh samaan = see here
- Zodiac = see here
- Not A Love Story = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.