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Talvar: Closure, first. Propaganda, next. Justice, later

Last updated on: October 05, 2015 13:01 IST

'The propaganda aspect of the movie -- despite it stemming purely from the writer's deepest convictions -- is a clincher for it is highly unlikely that you'll walk out of a screening of Talvar saying, "I loved the movie, but I still think the parents are guilty".'

'If you are swept away by the power of the movie, it's also sure to swing your perception in a certain direction,' says Sreehari Nair.

Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi in a scene from Talvar.

IMAGE: Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi in a scene from Talvar

 

When Rajesh and Nupur Talwar appeared in interviews, when they took their time to work out counters to the murder charges leveled against them, you could almost feel like they were suppressing an urge to smile sardonically.

In an interview with journalist Saeed Naqvi however, as the conversation veered towards Nupur's maiden name -- which happens to be the extremely Maharashtrian surname 'Chitnis,' a revelation to which Mr Naqvi remarked, 'Oh Leena Chitnis!' -- both Nupur and Rajesh broke into an involuntary smile.

To the Talwars, the point in the conversation involved memory and serendipity and 'connections,' and for once it wasn't about their daughter who was murdered brutally. For the first time probably, it was 'ok' for the Talwars to smile publicly. Guilty or not, that must have come as a big relief to the couple.

This was 2011. Three years had passed since the Aarushi Talwar case first broke out, and we hadn't yet given Rajesh and Nupur Talwar 'their right' to react the way they wanted to.

In addition to pronouncing our verdict, we'd also become keen observers of their each action. So every time the couple stood composed in extremely tight situations, we thought there was something really 'abnormal' about them.

Our gaze was helping us make judgments and as our gaze took over, we'd naturally discounted one key aspect: Sitting at our laptops, we could not possibly know what exactly happened at the Talwar residence on the night of May 15, 2008.

Now in Talvar, director Meghna Gulzar and writer Vishal Bhardwaj try to present reconstructions of that hellish night with an insider account of the probes that followed the twin murders of Aarushi and Talwars' domestic help Hemraj. It is a very well-made movie and one that undoubtedly works like propaganda. The suggestion being made very clearly here: That the incriminated parents were handed out a really rough deal by the police, the media and the general public.

The propaganda aspect of the movie -- despite it stemming purely from the writer's deepest convictions -- is a clincher for it is highly unlikely that you'll walk out of a screening of Talvar saying, 'I loved the movie, but I still think the parents are guilty.'

If you are swept away by the power of the movie, it's also sure to swing your perception in a certain direction.

Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi in a scene from Talvar.

IMAGE: Konkona Sensharma and Neeraj Kabi in a scene from Talvar

 

When the parents in the movie make their way to prison and they turn back and look into the camera for a good 10 seconds, it's implied that they are staring directly at us. 'You did us in,' their stares seem to suggest.

Remember how images of the Talwar couple with their calm disposition -- his hair and beard neatly done, and her eyes steady -- had played a huge part in us believing their complicity in the crimes? Like it was the case with their smiles, we were instructed by our neuroses that parents of gruesomely murdered children ought to behave a certain way.

Vishal Bhardwaj and Meghna Gulzar know this fact too well and they offset any viewer reactions of this sort by depicting Neeraj Kabi and Konkona Sen (the parents here) to be in a state of perennial shock, their hair disheveled throughout the movie and with a general sense of displaced-ness about their actions.

If the public only got a view of the assumed coldness of the actual Talwars, Bhardwaj and Gulzar try to give us the parents' first, uncoached reactions; reactions of astonishment that later gave way to the composure we saw on television channels.

There may be a fleeting sense of confusion and frenzy that runs through the movie, but the characters in Talvar don't really talk over each other. This is so that we get the exact 'points' being made every single time, and together with the blunt photography and the near-naturalistic sounds, it expresses a sense of macabre contained within the very mundane.

I don't know about the other attributes it's been showered with, but what Talvar really is, is a smart movie -- one that believes in something wholeheartedly and then uses cinematic aspects astutely to drive its point home.

In that sense, it may even be viewed as calculated and the movie's towering achievement is that it conceals these calculations by mounting a sense of genuine horror -- a horror of police incompetency, prejudice and our general, journalistic desire to find an 'angle' into any story.

A lot is also being said about Talvar's Rashomon-esque aspects, but I believe the connection to Kurosawa's masterwork is purely cosmetic. The parallels drawn seem to forget that Rashomon wasn't just about multiple characters offering multiple versions of the same story; it was also about those versions contradicting and overlapping with each other to the extent that it made arriving at an 'objective truth' close to impossible. Each narrator in Rashomon wanted to emerge as 'a person of honour' and that according to Kurosawa, obliterated the truth.

In Talvar, however, there are essentially just two narratives -- that of the parents committing the crimes and the servants committing the same. The servants' versions don't contradict each other, and they are presented as bits that fit end-to-end to complete the entire story of the night (the actual narco-analysis had, however, revealed contradictions even in the servants' story, which has clearly been overlooked here for homogeniswation).

The parents' version on the other hand, is presented as a figment of the police's imagination and of people acting against their type.

For Bhardwaj and Gulzar, the very difficulty of arriving at an objective truth is not the issue as much as telling you how one version flows so seamlessly and the other borders on implausible. In Rashomon, Kurosawa was trying to tap into a certain aspect of human behaviour. In Talvar, Bhardwaj and Gulzar very effectively use Kurosawa's technique, but consciously stay clear of the truth that informed the technique.

Irrfan, the scene-stealer in Talvar.

IMAGE: 'Irrfan -- who with his every performance seems like he's widening the gap between him and most of his contemporaries -- is the one who calibrates the movie and gives it, its core humanity,' says Sreehari Nair.

 

The performances and particularly the casting, work wonderfully to enforce the writer's convictions. Prakash Belawadi, Tabu, Konkona Sen and Neeraj Kabi are all brilliant performers, but most importantly they are masters at playing a certain type of character -- 'the poets of disillusionment' type.

And we have the poet laureate of this tribe of disillusioned -- Irrfan Khan -- heading the proceedings here, playing the investigating officer whose findings had initially helped exonerate the parents. Irrfan -- who with his every performance seems like he's widening the gap between him and most of his contemporaries -- is the one who calibrates the movie and gives it, its core humanity.

Whether it's those conjugate touches like taking his eyeglasses off to read and putting them back on when he doesn't have to; or slowing the proceedings down just so that we get the precise tension in a particular scene; or those typical Irrfan tics like rendering his reactions back to himself through half-finished sentences; the actor is in otherworldly form here. On a strictly etiquette level, it would have always taken a special performer to drink alcohol from a steel glass and convince us that he really needs to down the hatch.

In Talvar, as Ashwin Kumar, every time Irrfan appears on screen, we strongly feel like justice will be served. And when he dozes off towards the end, it wears our hopes down as well.

To lend credence to the disillusioned lot, Gulzar and Bhardwaj casts performers who can play the self-styled worldly-wise kinds really well -- Gajraj Rao as the policeman who makes a complete hash of the probe, Sohum Shah as the idealist/opportunist, Shishir Sharma as the CBI director who very honestly suspects that Irrfan's Kumar might just be suffering from delusions of grandeur, and Atul Kumar as the replacement investigative offer Paul who when he is cornered, smiles his sharpest smile.

The brief to this set of actors seems simple: Keep your performances as on-the-surface as possible, so that Irrfan and company can munch on the more layered parts.

The worldly-wise and the disillusioned are made to sit across the table in a terrific 10 minute plus sequence -- the film's centerpiece -- when Bhardwaj's writing peaks as it attempts to expose the unfairness that marked the trial. This scene is to Talvar roughly what 'The Odessa Steps' sequence was to the greatest propaganda film of all time -- Battleship Potemkin.

The premeditated editing of the Steps sequence is here replaced by some really sharp writing; one in which there's wistful poetry, logical countering and stream-of-consciousness-like dialogues all sounding weirdly conversational, and like that scene in Potemkin, it is both powerful and populist at the same time.

Whether or not Talvar gets termed a great movie, hinges largely on whether the actual truths relating to the case, ever get to see the light of the day. The supposedly poetic parts of the movie, where we see questions being raised about the state of the Indian judiciary (with the Insaaf number in the background) were for me the force-fits; the weakest parts of the movie. Here we are lamenting the judiciary. And how are we making our case? Through a movie that is anything but objective.

That being said, the strongest sections of Talvar are ones that factor in the role of a peeping outsider in a crime of this nature. The movie strongly suggests that justice, when worked out under intense public gaze and scrutiny, becomes a case of achieving 'finality' than it being delivered fittingly.

There is often an unsaid rule about movies: If you are making a big-budget movie, make sure the story has a definite conclusion for the audience to feel satisfied. The danger of real-life stories becoming a subject of mass consumption is that, as in the case of our movie stories, we'd rather watch them end 'definitely' than let them end 'justly.'

What Talvar succeeds in doing is present to you with great efficiency the inner workings of a murder trial that was handled shoddily right from the start and coloured by pre-set beliefs.

It makes you shudder at the thought that even you -- the sharp sleuth who has been investigating this case from the confines of your computer room -- can tomorrow find yourself entangled in something like this.

If the parents are indeed innocent, there could not have been a better testament of the injustice that was meted out to them. On the other hand, if they Are guilty, the movie confirms that there is still enough seduction in cinema to insulate you from your standpoints and make you as deluded as the artist himself.

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Sreehari Nair
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