Cast: Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Prakash Belwadi, Sumit Gulati, Atul Kumar, Gajraj Rao, Ayesha Parveen
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Rating: 3.5 stars
Vishal Bhardwaj is a master satirist. Whether it’s a spooky pink cow, geriatric grave diggers in Kashmir or a botched up murder investigation, he can’t help but cock a snook, crack a twisted joke to make his point. He makes us think while making us giggle. He’s a genius. He has written Talvar for his guru and mentor Gulzar’s daughter Meghna. He’s done her a huge favour. Many years after a career wasted on directing lily-white dullards, she has a crackling whodunnit to her credit. She’s in the reckoning now.
He begins Talvar with a band playing the national anthem, on April 1. It’s an occasion, a party to celebrate the day Central Department of Investigation was created. His point is simple. In the May 2008 double murder case of Aarushi Talwar, 14, and Hemraj Banjade, 45, he’s picked a side. He’s pitched his tent outside the office of India’s premier investigation agency and is calling them names: corrupt, petty, vindictive, criminally incompetent and yet puffed-up on power. He’s done his research. He’s taking them on.
In the style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) — the story of a samurai’s death that had four different versions — Talvar too tells us the story of this double murder, of Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Praveen) and Khempal, from four perspectives. Though all names, even dates have been changed, and some interesting personal items have been added to at least two crucial characters, it’s clear who’s who and what happened, a few creative liberties notwithstanding. The film opens with the first version of the double murder — the bare facts of the FIR. The maid arrives to find the main door locked, parents discover Shruti’s body followed by the arrival of a team of cops led by Inspector Dhaniram (Gajraj Rao).
Dhaniram and his bosses treat the murders and investigation as an inconvenience, a waste of their time. A compost of prejudices, illiteracy and epic incompetence, they miss clues, even a body on the terrace. They theorise rather than probe, basing the motive and sequence of events on gossip and gut, and announce to the world that they have cracked the case. It’s honour killing. Between scenes and commentary in the media suggesting how anchors invent and then manipulate facts to generate hysteria and retain prime time slots, the case is handed over to CDI’s Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) by his boss Ramakant (Prakash Belwari).
The second version is the one told by Shruti’s father, Dr Ramesh Tandon (Neeraj Kabi), to Ashwin. In this version we see, for the first time, perhaps, the parents’ grief, shock. Ashwin and ACP Vedant (Sohum Shah) begin interrogating the facts and theory of the cops — Shruti and Khempal being found in an “objectionable though not compromising position” — based mostly on stories fed to them by Dr Ramesh’s compounder Kanhaiya (Sumit Gulati), and investigating clues that were ignored — who picked up Khempal’s phone, a bloody pillow case that changes the thrust, a bloody handprint that was simply forgotten.
The next version is based on the clues given by Kanhaiya and Rajpal (driver of Dr Ramesh’s family friends) during their narco tests, of what transpired that night when they listened to Nepali songs in Khempal’s room and then ran out of booze. The case is solved. A witness is ready to testify. But Ramakant retires. And the new director, determined to discredit his predecessor’s claim to solving the case, appoints a new team, headed by Paul (Atul Kumar). And his is the fourth version, with a new murder weapon, a new motive, a new sequence of events.
The 2008 double murder case has been investigated and “cracked” several times to contrary outcome and explanation. It has also been reported in the media from two distinct perspectives. There are reporters and editors who firmly believe that the parents did it based on their own and the cops’ “reading” of the crime scene and “gut feeling”, and a few who have scanned and sifted through reams of documents and evidence and heard arguments in court and scream that there isn’t enough evidence to say that.
There’s been shrill, salacious, self-righteous, irresponsible talk about sex, wife-swapping, about the mother not exhibiting the appropriate amount grief, about shock over how parents could sleep while their daughter was being murdered. And then there’s been a thorough perusal of facts. Sound tests. Forensic evidence. The former, louder and tuned to TRPs and public perception, has won. Even in court. The latter, diligent, hardheaded, matter-of-fact and confident about the sobriety of its inquiry, scrutiny of facts and falsifications, has lost. In court. It’s now before us. Again.
Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar tells the story of a murder and its investigation with clarity and intelligence. It does what it sets out to do, effectively and without melodrama. It doesn’t stare at the parents for clues. Instead it focuses on facts. Its screenplay is intelligent, taut, logical, reasoned and asks simple questions to which the answers it finds make you laugh and get very scared. Bhardwaj’s screenplay and Meghna’s direction does many things — together they examine facts, observe power games, chronicle the foolishness and hostility of sarkari men. They also comment throughout on the prejudices, bigotry and idiocy of men whose failings ruin lives.
Though Talvar’s narrative is chronological, simple, it is compelling drama that crackles towards the end, when the two CDI teams confront each other, Ramakant-Ashwin on one side, and Vedant-Paul on the other. This scene is written by Bhardwaj the satirist with a taste for the absurd. The film rises and shines in this scene. Apart from the brilliant dialogue that are knitted with irony, the tango by Prakash Belwari and Irrfan Khan is dazzling. Their chemistry is as crackling as Tabu and Irrfan’s preposterous sexual connect.
The film’s screenplay, clever casting and load-bearing dialogue together tell a disheartening tale of exceptionally callous and inept investigation, class conflict and an egoistic attitude of cops and investigators that flies in the face of the CBI’s motto: Industry, Impartiality, Integrity. Prakash Belwari has taken on the role of the sagacious babu in Bollywood with ease and authority. But he is loosening up. He’s ready for more. Irrfan Khan is Mr Sparkle. He breathes life into scenes without seemingly trying to. He’s given the film’s best dialogue because he can deliver them like no one else can. Case closed.