Talvar, directed by Meghna Gulzar and based on the Noida Double Murder case begins in media res. A case sensationalized beyond recognition by the media and a trial that beamed into everyone’s living room gives Vishal Bhardwaj, the writer and Gulzar no reason to establish anything firsthand. We are in a CDI (Central Department of Investigation) function and officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan) is asked to take up the case – that the police have botched up already – by his director and immediate head. He’s not so much as asked but pleaded to. We see that he’s a recluse, away from the heart of the function, playing games on his mobile phone. But what we really see is a man who doesn’t care two hoots about bureaucracy, due process or red tape (He isn’t unethical but if there is a loophole in the law he’ll make use of it. Check that scene with narco-tests and a mobile phone). In the end his higher-ups literally drop the case into his car. Kumar for his part reminds them that the date is April 1.
The murder itself is presented in different perspectives, speculated and imagined, a method fashioned on film by a certain Akira Kurosawa. The procedural takes its own time and Talvar unravels at a languid pace even as the intensity levels never drop. We slowly realize that the pace also reflects the protracted form of justice system in India accompanied by the sloppy police work that follows immediately after the murder. But the writing here also provides breathing space for Vishal Bhardwaj’s dry wit. To test the noise levels between rooms we have an officer singing his heart out almost forgetting that he is on the job. There is Kumar himself who cannot let go of an earworm from a song the servants were listening to just before the actual events. We see police officers and their CDI friends, CDI officers and their prosecutor friends. There are police inspectors quick to judge those belonging to the upper class and officers putting career and ego above the case in hand.
Gulzar devotes a lot of time to Kumar’s personal life and his ongoing legal separation from his wife Reema (Tabu). This is first puzzling because it’s a strand in the narrative that is off. It’s well done – as is most of Talvar – but it’s something that runs in parallel and we slowly realize that is after all the point. Kumar casually mentions to her about the film Ijaazat (directed by Meghna’s father Gulzar, of course) and quotes the song Mera Kuchh Samaan. You think it is only literal because he is moving out of her house and then, much like the deeper meaning in the song, Kumar’s attachment with the case emerges. He’s been cast off from the case over what, by charitable disposition, can be termed as egregious misuse of command. A new officer is brought in who is no doubt going to throw away Kumar’s painstakingly assembled work, his samaan. While we do get to see a more personal part of Kumar’s life we also see the prism through which everyone else looks at the case. The police inspector first at the scene who is often distracted by his mobile phone and is the worst example you could find in Indian bureaucracy. The officer he reports to is quick to jump into the “this is an open and shut case” bandwagon and looks for reasons or evidence only later. A huge part of the miscarriage in the case happens due to people assuming the outcome and working their way backwards. The officer to whom the case is reassigned after Kumar has a penchant for the same. The difference is he has his own reasons. The CDI director remarks how Kumar got attached to the case but discounts or is plain unaware of how every individual approaches the case with their own prejudice, their own assumptions of certain people’s actions and motivations. The new officer is pulled away from his two month leave. He has a son who has to be with him at all times because he is the only caretaker. Here we have an officer who is impatient to wrap up the case as quickly as possible and a father attached to his son. The idea of an affluent father surgically orchestrating the murder of his own daughter entices him and he works from there. This is why Talvar, as it should, tells more about the people involved in the case than it does about the murder itself.
Talvar is a powerful film not just for the things it does but also for the things it chooses not to do. As much as a media circus this case was we are left with only occasional glimpses of media people, a single panelist casting doubts on Nutan’s conduct and a hilariously exaggerated recounting of the case by a TV channel. The tone is dispassionate throughout and not a single moment is spent sympathizing with any of its characters. Yes, its treatment of Kumar’s sleuthing comes across as more sincere while the other investigation has a disingenuous tinge to it but that only compliments their respective approaches. This distinction is most pronounced in Talvar’s best scene towards the end that possibly takes its cues from 12 Angry Men. Behind closed doors, the two investigation teams that worked on the case present their findings to the CDI head. Theories are debunked. Prejudices are squashed. Explanations and excuses are given in equal measure. Kumar and his ex-chief laugh a sizable part of it off because, on their part, that’s the only sane thing left to do. Irrfan and Prakash Belwadi are brilliant here as they are all through the film. The conversation is natural, the funny sounds, the pauses, the scoffs, the casual dismissals, the jokes and the understandable inability take a significant part of it seriously. The scene packs a whole range for both of them to sink their teeth into. The early parts of the film evoked that line from Ijaazat. Talvar makes another reference to lyrics of a song from a bygone era, as it ends. They are Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines for Gumrah – Woh afsana jise anjam tak lana na ho mumkin, use ek khoobsurat mod dekar chhodna achcha. If one cannot find a logical conclusion, it is best to end the case on an honorable note. In India where reality and fiction blur at alarming levels at every level of society we don’t have to go beyond googling that line. A judge actually used that Ludhianvi line before giving out the verdict in the Bofors case. Enough said.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)