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Talvar – An Absorbing Non-Manipulative Crime Drama

[intro]A dazzling output by Gulzar’s daughter with a riveting drama that recounts India’s most-sensational double-murder case of Aarushi Talwaar.[/intro]

When was the last time you saw a film where you see no statutory warning ads after the censor board certificate rolls? When was it last you didn’t see title credits run at the outset or anywhere until the end and you want to know the crew and the director behind this crafty movie running?  Meghna Gulzar (daughter of noted lyricist Gulzar) makes a swashbuckling presentation  with a gripping recount of India’s most widely-discussed-and-speculated case of Aarushi Talwar. In 132 minutes, Meghna with an arresting screenplay and an impressive starcast reconstructs a tale that ended in the ultimate middle-class tragedy for the Talwars.

The case of a girl who never made it to her fifteenth birthday itself saw so many dramatic twists of fact that it merits a deep-dive by anybody interested in how the legal system in India works, how evidence is collected and framed, how the police investigate and react to crime before it reaches epic proportions of politicisation in the rarest of the rare cases. In this case, an upper middle-class dentist couple find their lives turned upside down in a posh NOIDA neighbourhood when their fourteen-year-old daughter Aarushi is murdered in the bedroom next to theirs. The immediate suspect is their manservant Hemraj. But within forty-eight hours, Hemraj’s dead body is found atop the terrace of their flat in a state of macabre mutilation. The prime suspect becomes victim no.2. What really happened? What were the motives of murder?

Director Meghna draws us into the most intriguing murder case of modern India in which the media, the witnesses, the UP police, the forensic labs, the doctors who do the narco-test, the government of UP (led by the Mayawati government), the CBI team of investigators led by Ashwini Kumar (played by Irrfan Khan) all played a role in the eventual conviction of the Talwars who were accused of killing their own teenage daughter in an improbable tradition of “honor killing”. The trial lasted over five years with unprecedented turns at every cusp of the investigation before Mayawati government decided to bring in the CBI. Meghna’s treatment is crisp, layered yet poignant without sounding too judgemental. Since the case is no longer sub juice and the couple will now decide to move the country’s apex court against the life sentence imposed on them, the film is surely going to re-generate fresh bouts of controversy on the share of each component of our legal system that made the doctor couple a soft target for multiple accusations – of debauchery, wife-swapping, honor-killing and what not.

Without revealing much of a story whose unravelling is already in public domain and even in the form of a book called “Aarushi” released this year, it must be said that the team of “Talvar” has delivered a knock-out punch with this film that is going to be a nonpareil in presenting intricate crime thrillers in a format that is non-offensive, non-judgemental and clear-minded that even those unfamiliar with the background history of the case can follow. Most important, Meghna has achieved the objective of the film – to entertain, to inform, to sensitive and to provoke you with under-stated pathos without sounding didactic. To a large extent, one feels the screenplay of the film may have got borrowed from the book “Aarushi” but the director doesn’t leave any opportunity within a taut screenplay to evoke moments of laughter, satire or a commentary on the state of affairs – of the police system, of the 9pm media debates or the affairs of a modern couple who are hopelessly out of sync with what’s going in the world of their teenager. Irrfan Khan provides the best relief in the film with flying remarks passed in the most innocuous manner. He shows that he can pull off any performance by giving the tilt of his uber-cool approach with a touch of humor –he should continue doing that because it is the most-understated strength of all – to be serious and flippant at the same time. As a CBI director who can worm out the most-guarded secrets with cunning , he looks like a Robert Downey Jr. without the swagger of a Sherlock Holmes. As the Talwars, Neeraj Kabi and Konkana Sen Sharma score impressively true to the homilies depicted in the millions of diatribes written against them in print and social media. Neeraj Kabi’s demeanor is consistent throughout the film and stuns you whether he is the real father of the girl. Konkana, coming after ages, is still at the top of the game of conveying emotions without an effort. The entire gamut of investigating officers from the CDI (cleverly renamed after CBI) – Sohum Shah, Prakash Belwadi (that flashy brilliance last seen in Madras Café) pull their punches in a climax that shows an epic clash of intellectual fireworks as the government asks two crack teams of CBI who came up with divergent conclusions on the case to arrive on a denouement consensus. Most others like the pan-chewing cop (Gajaraja Rao) and the guys who played the suspected culprits have lived up to their roles well conveying a million subtextual messages.

After seeing films like Drusyam, one cannot help wonder at the technical and cinematic brilliance of Talvar. Meghna hits a bull’s eye and sure gets good  talents to collaborate – A.Srikar Prasad (Editor Emeritus in Mani Ratnam films), Pankaj Kumar (cinematography), Vishal Bharadwaj (producer and music director). Unlike other films which handle crime stories with either excessive heroism or inauthenticity, Meghna deals with the right balance of investigative curiosity (and shows multiple reconstructive replays of the same episode through different eyes) and the mature treatment of how the paraphernalia that drives our justice system can get perverse – and it can continue to do so if we are impervious to it (e.g Sheena Borra case). The film ends without an apology to anyone but when it ends and the title credits roll, you walk away with many mixed feelings of how we want to bring our children, how we want to deal with a society and legal system that has fault lines that may or may not get rectified in our lifetime and a thought for the couple involved in the most enigmatic double-murder case of recent times. Go and watch it, as parents and children if you can for a film that doesn’t seem like a documentary at all.

Rating: 4/5

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