That truth can often be stranger than fiction is the point director Meghna Gulzar wants to drive home in Talvar, her gripping, then baffling, and ultimately disturbing account of the Aarushi Talwar murder case of 2008.
So what really happened that night at the home of a middle-class dentist couple in a quiet Noida colony? Meghna’s film – fashioned as a police procedural – digs deep to address the questions behind the gruesome double murders of the Talwars’ 14-year-old daughter Aarushi and their domestic help Hemraj (the victims’ identities thinly disguised here as Shruti Tandon and Khempal). This is standard CSI stuff, except that Vishal Bhardwaj’s sharp screenplay unravels Rashomon style, with different people offering different versions of that night’s events.
Yet the film tilts clearly to the side of the parents, Ramesh and Nutan Tandon (Neeraj Kabi and Konkona Sensharma). Like Avirook Sen’s recent book Arushi, the film too suggests a miscarriage of justice – that the real-life Talwars have been tried by the media, and sent to jail following a botched-up investigation that first implicated servants, then backtracked to blame the parents despite no concrete evidence against them.
Details are key in a film of this nature, and Bhardwaj’s script is the real hero here, based on rock-solid research. You’re drawn into this compelling narrative, watching from the start how the UP cops bungled up the crime scene, destroyed vital evidence, came up with unproven theories of sexual relations between the victims, and portrayed the parents as partner-swapping swingers who committed the crime in the heat of the moment.
Into this scenario steps Ashwin Kumar (played by Irrfan Khan channeling CBI officer Arun Kumar), who takes the case reluctantly, but methodically sets out searching for evidence and other possible culprits. Just when you think he’s nailed it, having secured a witness on top of incriminating narco-analysis tests, his investigation is upended by dirty office politics and corruption, and he’s promptly replaced on the case. The best scene in Talvar, arriving late in the third act, involves two sides of investigators arguing their versions and contemptuously discarding the other’s theories. It’s a firecracker of a scene that comes alive on the strength of some powerful dialogue and terrific performances.
To be fair, the acting is consistently top-notch across the board. Ashwin Kumar’s trusted deputy Vedant is played with minimal showboating by Ship of Theseus star Sohum Shah. Meanwhile, Atul Kumar nails it as the eloquent and frankly buffoonish rival investigating officer Paul. Cast in a tiny role as Ashwin’s estranged but empathetic wife, Tabu is expectedly subtle, but this track feels misplaced in an otherwise riveting whodunit. And Konkona Sensharma expertly brings pathos and ambiguity depending on what’s required in the moment.
It’s Irrfan Khan, of course, who is the glue that holds this film together. The actor builds his character brick by brick, delivering an intricate, nuanced performance that’s hard to fault. From watching sardonically as the junior cops play the blame game, to barely looking up from his phone, occupied in a game as Ramesh Tandon weeps inconsolably during his testimony, this is acting of the highest order.
Alternately wry, witty, persuasive and shocking, Talvar evokes feelings of fear, anger and shame as you consider the likelihood that a pair of innocent parents are serving life terms for a crime they may have had no hand in. Deliberately unsentimental and melodrama-free, the film goes about its business in docudrama fashion, exposing a flawed legal system, a judgmental society, and an impatient media.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. This is essential viewing, if only to understand the world we live in.