The Indian justice system is riddled with numerous stories of botched-up investigations, an ever-increasing pile of unsolved cases and blatant miscarriages of justice. However, few cases in recent memory captured the fervour and imagination of the nation like the 2008 Noida double homicide. It is a classic whodunit mystery, its elements ripe for an appearance on the silver screen. To this day, no one can conclusively say what really happened that fateful night, making it the perfect potboiler mystery. And yet, the strength of Talvar (‘Guilty’) lies in the meticulously measured script by Vishal Bhardwaj. The end product is a carefully crafted slow burner that uses Rashômon‘s structural device not only to ask its audience to actively engage with the absurdity and/or validity of the various speculative theories surrounding the mystery, but also as a potent emotional weapon.
The Tandons wake up one morning to find their daughter Shruti dead in her room, her throat brutally slashed. The police soon arrive at the scene and the immediate suspicion lands on the domestic help of the Tandons, Khempal. However, Khempal’s body is also found on the terrace of the building, with his throat slashed in a similar manner. The premise is simple: there were only four people in the house. Two of them are dead. Did the Tandons commit the murders? Was it a case of an honour killing? Perhaps there was someone else at the house that night? Central Defence Investigation officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) attempts to piece together the truth amidst a roaring media trial, wild speculative theories, unreliable testimonies and a thoroughly incompetent investigation by the initial team that arrived on the scene. All this, while employing some questionable methods of his own. There are three different investigation teams. All three of them make some vital mistakes which makes them arrive at different conclusions. Which version do you believe?
Director Meghna Gulzar has done a fantastic job in keeping a sense of balance and perspective throughout the film. Quite cleverly, Gulzar uses the elements of the whodunit mystery to weave a damning social critique that implicate’s the audience with its narrative assumptions. If Court was largely concerned about those who interpret the law – the Indian judiciary and due legal process – Talvar is all about those who enforce the law: the police and other security agencies who are crippled by political realities, personal ambition and an inescapable feudal structure. However, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s film, Talvar uses bleak humour to enhance its message. This is a film that makes you laugh at many instances, that is, until you realise what you were laughing at.
The effectiveness of the narrative is amplified by an assortment of strong and colourful characters, blissfully unaware that they are the perpetrators of this Kafka-esque nightmare. For example, the inspector-in-charge that first arrives on the scene is more concerned about his phone that keeps ringing every five seconds than conducting a proper investigation. Then there are the constables who are busy posing for journalists once arriving at the crime scene. In a hilarious scene – upon meeting with the inspector-in-charge – Irrfan Khan systematically de-constructs the inspector’s supposed investigation which he claims ‘solved the case’. It’s wonderfully acted and executed scene that re-enforces Gulzar’s point: the people who are part of the system have become desensitised to the objective realities of it. This is Kafka at its most cruel – it’s only a nightmare for those who have become self-aware. For the rest, that’s just how the system works.
The elements of the sensationalist media trial are also very deftly handled, ala David Fincher’s Gone Girl. If you think Fox News goes overboard with sensational and trivial reporting, then you haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the Indian media landscape. In an extended sequence, a reporter enters the Tandon’s apartment with a camera crew bellowing speculative theories about how the parents brutally murdered their only daughter, while the Tandons watch all this unfold in front of their eyes. It’s a scene that is played-up for laughs, only to sucker punch you in the gut once the extent of the emotional trauma dawns on you.
It is evident that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the parents’ narrative. They are presented as the voice of reason and humanity in opposition to the regressive buffoonery of the police force. It’s a contrast that muddies the facts in favour of an emotional disposition but in doing so makes the film more resonant and gives it a clear narrative focus. Inherent class structures are also in play. The parents are upper middle class, which helps anchor their social status as progressive. Contrast this with the members of the police force, who are easily swayed by speculative theories of ‘wife swapping’ and other social taboos surrounding the Tandons that in turn contribute to a presumption of guilt against them. By skewing the narrative in the parents’ favour, the film carries a strong undercurrent of exposing regressive, uneducated and backward thought structures that prove to be socially harmful.
Bhardwaj manages to pack so many intricacies in the script and yet, guide the sensibilities of the audience in a subtle way. After Haider last year, he delivers another nuanced but emotionally charged screenplay that keeps you at the edge-of-your-seat. This is an admirable feat. At 132 minutes, the film stands in stark opposition to the escapist style of film-making that mainstream Indian cinema usually dishes out. Bhardwaj is also the composer of the film and his background score, coupled with Gulzar’s couplets he helps inject some subtle humanity into the otherwise cruel and inhuman world that the characters are trapped in.
The script is backed up by stellar performances by the three central protagonists – Irrfan Khan as the investigating officer who re-examines the case, and Neeraj Kabi and Konkana Sen Sharma who play the parents of the deceased Shruti. Khan’s repertoire is in full flight here. His deadpan humour becomes a searing stand against the feudal culture of Indian institutions that seems to have corrupted the sensibilities of those who are part of it. And it’s not that Khan’s character is saintly either. He pushes the boundary between bending the law and breaking it on many instances. Khan is adept at walking this tightrope and his obvious flaws make him more human. This is very important, given that there are so few characters that seem to truly embody humanity in the narrative.
Neeraj Kabi (Ship of Theseus & Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!) gives a remarkably restrained performance as Shruti’s father and the primary suspect in the film. His emotive capacity through non-verbal cues is admirable and is in stark contrast to his flamboyant portrayal in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. You are never quite sure whether the unspoken emotion in Kabi’s eyes is the unbearable grief of a parent who’s just lost their child or the makings of a sociopath. Sharma – who plays the mother and wife – is the more vocal of the two. The contrast between Kabi’s restraint and Sharma’s vocalised anger is beautifully captured on screen and keeps the viewer guessing. It was also nice to see Tabu in a short cameo that leaves an impression.
Pankaj Kumar’s cinematography complements the sombre mood of the film. The dark tonal hues accentuate the narrative’s bleakness. A. Sreekar Prasad’s editing is commendable. Despite a 132 minute runtime, the film doesn’t drag at any instance and the pacing is carefully controlled, shifting between different perspectives without excess or unnecessary melodrama.
Talvar is a remarkable film that uses the whodunit mystery angle to disguise its inherent social commentary. A layered script that asks its audience to engage with the narrative; a deft directorial hand that amplifies the Kafka-esque nightmare; and strong performances by the lead cast make this an absolute gem. This is the new face of Indian cinema and it’s very appealing.
Around the Staff: