Talvar: Two Sides Of a Razor’s Edge

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Suppose you are a writer. Suppose you want to write a script on a murder case that shook the nation’s imagination, comfort, and questioned the very defined rules for middle class folks. Suppose the case you write on is still in courts. And suppose in all of this, the nation’s citizens have already passed their verdict. Suppose you were a lesser writer, you’d have quickly descried the hopelessness of it all and gone for a subject that would involve foreign locales and exotic dancers. Not writer Vishal Bharadwaj.

He writes a script that’s as sharp as a Samurai sword, and with director Meghana Gulzar, takes you through the case that is the Aarushi murder case. (How easy it is for us, the curious and hungry-for-gossip-fodder people, to affix a gruesome murder case with the name of the victim, not pausing for a moment to consider the stab- in- the- gut wound the vicitm’s family would feel, anytime anybody mentions the case.) In “Talvar”, the victims are Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), daughter of dentist Ramesh Tandon (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan Tandon (Konkona Sen), and as it turns out, the initial suspect, Khempal.

As the Delhi police, headlined by Inspector Dhaniram (Gajaraj Rao), come stumbling into the crime scene and spectacularly botch up the investigation,  they’re also fed salacious details by another servant, Kanhaiyya (Sumit Gulati).  To cover up their maundering and clueless work, the police are quick to finger Ramesh Tandon as the killer. All this is discovered by CDI (read CBI) officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan), as he goes through the files (literally pushed into his face by his boss, Swamy, played by Prakash Belawadi).  Meghana Gulzar takes you through this investigative journey of horrifying discovery through Ashwin Kumar’s eyes, as he realizes how the case and the subsequent charges were  filed to cover up the police’s goof-ups and because the underlying bias that colored the inspector’s  vision, also painted the charge-sheet.

As Ashwin Kumar, aided by ACP Vedant Mishra (Sohum Shah),  meticulously begins to piece what might have happened the night of the murders, and also tries reconstructing the crime scene, he is convinced that Ramesh Tandon is innocent, and it is one of the servants who is the killer. He ingeniously listens in to narcoanalysis sessions of the servants, and pieces together what seems to be a water-tight case against the real killer. But his boss, Swamy, inadvertently trips things up, when in a tipsy-moment of gloating, he announces at his farewell party (and in front of his ambitious successor, JD Kumar played by Shishir Sharma) that he’s wrapped up the Tandon case. And here’s where egos and office politics come in, as JD Kumar, wanting to show who’s boss, gets in another investigator, Paul (Atul Kumar) to demolish whatever Ashwin’s constructed.  Paul takes the investigation into the opposite, popular opinion that is premised on the father’s guilt. The wheel of investigation is reinvented, recolored, and recalibrated, while Ashwin, frustrated and broken, goes back into his estranged wife (Tabu’s ) arms.

Irrfan sparkles as he investigates
Irrfan sparkles as he investigates

“Talvar” is a harrowing watch, as it digs up the metaphorical bodies of the victims and the horror that the family underwent in real life.  Director Meghana is unflinching, as she takes you by the collar and makes you question how we, as individuals, and as a society behave when such news is thrown in front of us. How the media, ever in search of a scandalous story, pays no heed to the truth or people’s feelings.  How the media and we, sitting in front of the TV play police, judge, and executioner. How no detail is enough to feed the gossip-hungry public, how the police can piece together random clues, weave in their own biases, and point the needle of suspicion to whatever direction and person it is convenient, just to wrap up a case and dust their hands in self-elation. The movie also forces you to think of how a random act of ego-pumping can ruin lives, and that, nobody gives a damn about those lives.

Konkona and Neeraj are heartbreakingly good
Konkona and Neeraj are heartbreakingly good

If “Talvar” is a winner because of its writer-director team, it is also unforgettable for its superb cast, beginning with the ensemble of the servants. Konkona Sen  is amazing as the shocked-beyond-belief mother, also forced to see her husband incarcerated for her daughter’s murder. She’s brilliant in the scene where she learns of her husband’s alleged crime, even as she’s waiting for him outside the investigating room.  Neeraj Kabi, as the father, is equally super, unable to convey his shock or feelings. And when he does, in front of Ashwin, he is gut-wrenchingly good.  Gajaraj Rao as the paan-chewing bungling police officer is top-class, as he forms opinion after opinion and presents them as results. Sohum Shah as Ashwin’s aide is extremely effective, and later sparkles as he switches sides . Atul Kumar is a class-act as the officer who replaces Ashwin, and builds a case that screams au contraire to Ashwin’s findings. Prakash Belawadi and Shishir Sharma as the CDI heads are superb, lending believable heft to their roles.

If there’s a nit, it’s Ashwin Kumar’s plotline with his wife, Reema Kumar. But even as I write this, the nit dissolves, because how can watching Tabu ever be a nit? Which brings us to the sparkler of this movie – Irrfan Khan.  Every scene, every moment that he’s up there, “Talvar” belongs to irrfan.  His is an act of scenery chewing, and he does it with ease and an aura of believability that’s hard to come by. Check him out in the scene where he discovers the lack of forensic examination at the crime scene. When he sees a handprint on the terrace, his reaction is frustratingly hilarious.  Or in the interrogation sequences, where he’s half-mocking, half-angry, and completely earnest, wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery.  When he’s thrown out of the case, Irrfan shatters the scene with his acting and a paper weight with such a natural movement, it’s breathtaking.

Irrfan chews the scene, as he's frustrated by the police bungling
Irrfan chews the scene, as he’s frustrated by the police bungling

And of course, he’s brilliant in the scene, which to me, is the highlight of the movie and a superb lesson in movie-making. This is where both sides of the investigation are brought into a room by the law minister to decide what the charge-sheet ought to say. This scene is a mosaic of happenings, as you see Irrfan and Belawadi pitch against Atul Kumar and Shishir Sharma. You’re relieved in this scene because it fools you into believing it was okay for us to gossip and throw charges as we deemed fit. The truth was not our responsibility. You’ll laugh in this scene, because it’s such a relief you’re not to blame for your interest in the rumor- spawned details. And this scene crackles, charged as it is with clues, arguments, counter-arguments, dry humour, and poetry.  And here too, Irrfan is a treat to watch, as he rubbishes the case put up by the opposite side, as he indulges in poetry, and kills the scene with his sardonic smile and expressions in stupefaction and disbelief.  This scene is close to ten minutes, a pivot that shows both sides of the story, and without any background score.

In other places, the background score by Ketan Sodha is superbly effective, getting into the drama and suspense without you realizing it. The songs,composed by Vishal Bharadwaj, are haunting baton pieces that relay the story.  And Meghana does doff her hat to her father in a tribute to his superb “Ijaazat”.

[Major Digression Alert]

And I have to digress here to convey the sense of injustice I feel about “Ijaazat”. Ask anyone what they remember or know about “Ijaazat” and it’s highly probable that they’ll come up with “Mera kuch saaman” , that’s come to be its de facto motif. But, while Gulzar and singer Asha Bhosle are tagged and remembered for and by this song, and won National Awards for this gem, the man who gave this song its soul, its reachability, its hummability, its splendidly clean orchestration, its moving tune – Rahul Dev Burman – was not deemed fit to be awarded (fortunately, Vanraj Bhatia won it for Tamas, but. ) One wonders how public memory can short-circuit conveniently to accord filtered hosannas .

[End Of Digression]

“Talvar”, then, questions our collective beliefs of what we decide what the truth is – and that decision is made for us by the media, by the 9 P.M. debates in newsrooms, and by society biggies who have their own columns and blogs.  But what’s frightening about justice is this – depending on which end of the sword you’re facing, you could be guilty until proven innocent.

Watch the official trailer of “Talvar” here:

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