The scariest part of Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is when it makes us laugh.
A tightly-coiled procedural made with such dryness that it seems, in parts, documentarian — resembling a reenactment more than a feature film — Talvar is one of those rare films that remains constantly aware of what it is doing and what buttons it is pushing. It is an unflinching film, hard to swallow, and when — somewhere near the end — it breaks down into round-table absurdity, with opposing investigators laughing off each other’s theories, the scene is brutally, irresistibly hilarious. Investigators and senior intelligence officials poke holes, guffaw at the language used, and one team even literally calls the other a joke. It is scythe-sharp writing, and, after being horrified by a narrative this terse, it feels good to finally kick back and snigger as things get funny.
That hilarious scene, and our relieved reaction to it, is symptomatic of who we are and how we now consume even the most nightmarish of facts. It betrays our desperate need to move on, our hunger to be quickly amused, our desire to skip past the facts and find the Kafkaesque vein so we can tut-tut and shake our heads bemusedly.
After news of the real-life Talwar murder case broke seven years ago, we as a nation constantly switched sides, easily aroused by the mainstream media first flinging mud at the victim’s parents, sensationalist news-channel tickers ablaze, and then lulled by the liberal media with their longform think-pieces showing the lack of evidence against these parents. There is a new book out — Aarushi, by Avirook Sen — in support of the parents who remain incarcerated despite inadequate evidence, and Ms Gulzar’s film, while attempting to prismatically show many sides of the unknown, clearly also takes their side. The fact that it takes sides so staunchly is great, both because it works as a war cry against an unjust system, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t pretend to be impartial. Because you, the viewer, know where the film stands, you can make up your mind in agreement or dissent.
What you cannot doubt is doubt itself.
The maid comes by in the morning. There is some fumbling for keys because the servant is missing. Then the girl, fourteen, is found in her bed, slain and bloodied. The cops arrive, agree that the servant has done it, and declare it an open-and-shut case. Except another door opens: the suspected servant is found dead on the roof, cut up in the same way as the girl. What the hell happened?
Ms Gulzar’s film, with a script by Vishal Bhardwaj, tries to answer that very question by following several discordant theories to their rightful conclusions — and so we see what-might-have-been several times over, with parents Ramesh and Nutan Tandon taking turns slaughtering their own child or discovering her dead. We see the servant and his friends, the investigative officer and his attempts at hunting down the truth, the policemen and their lunkheaded laziness. And through it all we watch and we doubt — and we doubt and we doubt — and therein lies the sharpness of Talvar.
It is a cleanly-crafted film. Pankaj Kumar, one of the most fascinating cinematographers on the scene today, here keeps things unshowy and murky, his compositions frequently voyeuristic — enhancing the suggestion that we may suddenly be privy to what is usually outside our jurisdiction, be looking at something we aren’t normally meant to. The background score by Ketan Sodha is effective, even if a touch inspired by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the snatches of song we hear are excellent, especially the haunting final track sung by Rekha Bhardwaj that floats over the end-titles. The art-direction is immaculate; a lot of Talvar’s triumph lies in how little it looks like a film.
Yet a film it certainly is, and for all its dry treatment, it is a sufficiently dramatic one as it goes about hitting the right evocative beats. Things are held in place by a devastatingly good ensemble cast, each of the players bringing something to the table: Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi play the girl’s parents, doing so with heartbreaking normality, Sensharma particularly lovely as she remains, believably, too stunned to react (despite what a certain columnist once screamed); Gajraj Rao is terrific as a pan-chewing cop eager to hurry things along; Sohum Shah is superb as the investigator’s assistant, so eager to please that he bangs a spoon on a pot to give his boss a beat; Atul Kumar, throwing around hardcore Hindi, is spot-on as a cold and canny intelligence man; and Prakash Belawadi, as the outgoing chief of the Department of Investigation, is fantastic as he articulates increasingly nuanced Hindi verses in his AR Rahman accent.
The table itself belongs, however, to one man. Irrfan Khan plays the investigative officer who gets sucked into the case, and the film singles him out as the protagonist, taking us along for the ride as he messily but determinedly unravels his version of the truth. Khan, arguably the finest working actor in Hindi cinema today, is in flawless form as he keeps things consistently wry — be it while interrogating or making a Gulzar reference to his wife. It’s a stunning, stunning performance, and there are these little touches Khan conjures up — like the way he grimaces for a split-second while trying to remember the name of his wife’s pills, as if he were flexing a memory muscle — that are an absolute marvel.
Khan exonerates the parents and the film takes his side, clearly casting him as the righteous hero. And yet, by the time the credits roll, even this man has given up and, really, fallen on his own talvar. The truth tires. Doubt alone triumphs.
Rating: 4.5 stars
First published Rediff, October 2, 2015