“In all my years of coming to TIFF, this is the longest line I’ve been in,” said Pal Bhathal, a real estate agent from Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. Indeed, the queue for the world premiere of Talvar at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night snaked around several blocks downtown. Bhathal’s wife Simi had become aware of the Aarushi Talwar murder case on an earlier visit to India and had been following it for years, one of the reasons she was at the premiere for this fictionalized account of the infamous homicide of the teenager and her family’s domestic help in 2008.
Jim Eustice, an aspiring screenwriter from Washington, DC, who was in town for TIFF, had put Talvar, titled Guilty at the festival, on his shortlist after being intrigued by the synopsis. “I’m also a big fan of Irrfan Khan’s,” he added.
That was a familiar refrain, as several viewers said they had picked the movie out of the nearly 400 films showing at TIFF because they had liked the actor’s work in earlier films, with The Lunchbox being a particular favourite.
And he did not disappoint as Ashwin Kumar, an investigating officer played in his typically understated style. In the film, the Talwars have been renamed Ramesh and Nutan Tandon; Aarushi becomes Shruti and the servant Hemraj is Khempal.
Talvar presents the case from various perspectives, including three different investigations – the first, a ham-handed effort by the local police, who confidently declare it was an honor killing by the father, while also questioning the victim’s and her parents’ “character”; the second by Ashwin Kumar, which places the blame on the compounder at Tandon’s clinic and another employee; and the third, which disregards Kumar’s findings and again holds the parents culpable.
The indifference and incompetence of the policemen who think nothing of cracking jokes to the bereaved family, or posing for photographs at the crime scene while ignoring even elementary rules about preserving and collecting evidence; the innuendo that gathers weight with each unsubstantiated nugget of information from the compounder; and the aggressive, reckless approach of the media bent on squeezing every ounce of sensation from the story, are all portrayed skillfully through a combination of good writing and acting. Gajraj Rao as the bungling inspector Dhaniram is especially memorable.
Once the case is handed over to a central agency, CDI in this film, Kumar and his assistant are appalled by the blunders and omissions in the investigation. The pace never flags as they build up an alternate case with the help of lie-detector and narco tests. Irrfan’s Kumar is given more depth with the help of a cameo from Tabu.
Talvar also focuses on the tussles and conflicts within the investigation itself, all of which have a material impact on the direction it takes and eventually on Kumar’s life. The approach of the officials at various levels would be enough to shift anyone from faith in the system to deep skepticism, and these aspects are never sugarcoated.
The film itself has a newsy, documentary feel at time, adding a sense of urgency and reality. There are no unnecessary histrionics, including from Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi as the persecuted parents. Talvar does not depict the trial, which was criticized as flawed, and which ultimately convicted the parents. The viewer gets a sense of what it would have been like when the magistrate orders the trial, imperiously dismissing the CDI’s closure report.
The film got a rousing response from the audience in Toronto and the questions kept coming at a Q&A session with director Meghna Gulzar, writer Vishal Bhardwaj and Irrfan after the screening.
Festival-goer Helen Wilson said the film sparked such an interest in the characters that she wanted to go home and read more about the case. “How could the police bungle the investigation so much?” she asked. Pat Thomson said she was struck by the fact that there were no women on the investigating team but it took a woman to bring the story to film.
Irrfan, who had watched the finished product for the first time, said at the after-party that he was as thrilled with it as the audience. After the screening, he said working on Talvar had touched his heart and mind.
Meghna Gulzar was very encouraged by the response, especially since it was a foreign audience. “They laughed at the right places and cringed at the right places,” she said in an interview at the after-party. Ahead of its commercial release on October 2, she said, “If it just unfurls the questions that are probably lying buried somewhere at the back of the mind, for me that will be a victory for the film.”
For Meghna and Bhardwaj, Talvar was also a journalistic endeavour, as they carried out their own research and met with several people connected with the case. “He could not write unless he knew the material and there’s no way you can direct a film like this unless you know your material,” Meghna explained.
For her, the research also became necessary because she found the media coverage wanting. “When it first broke, the stories that came, one believed them. But when different stories started coming, then you started taking the headlines with a pinch of salt. And then when another wave of stories started coming, you really wanted to look at everything out there and come to your own conclusion rather than just blindly believing who was shouting the loudest.”
With an appeal from Aarushi Talwar’s convicted parents pending, the case still awaits closure. This well-crafted, gripping film that deliberately raises more questions than it answers, will certainly keep the conversations going.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently in Toronto covering the international film festival, TIFF 2015)