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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Talvar, Review: Whodunit? Doesn’t matter!

Talvar, Review: Whodunit? Doesn’t matter!

Like the 1950 Japanese cult film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa and often rated as one of the greatest films ever made, remade n number of times in India, Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (sword) presents three contradictory accounts of a nation-rocking real life double murder, which variously portray the prime accused as guilty or innocent. It fictionalises names and dates, amalgamates some characters into a single entity and does not take a clear stand. Naturally, there is no climactic revelation, and the whodunit remains just that. Can you walk out of a picture-hall after the end credits have finished rolling, having watched a tale of gory murder, investigated by ace detectives, based on a true story in which the ‘guilty’ are languishing in jail for the last two years, still wondering who the real killers are, and still feel cinematically rewarded? In this case, quite so.

On the night of 15-16 March, Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), a 14-year girl is found dead at her home in Sameer Vihar, of NOIDA area, by her parents Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma), and their servant Khempal is found to be missing. The local police, led by pan-chewing bhajan-listening, mobile-talking Inspector Dhaniram (Gajraj Rao) are incompetent, and do not know the basics of criminal investigation. Initially, they suspect Khempal and question the servant’s close friend and the Tandons' assistant, Kanhaiya. Kanhaiya tells the police that Shruti's parents might have committed the murder after finding her in a compromising position with Khempal, that Rajesh was having an extra-marital affair and that the Tandon couple were also part of a wife-swapping group. The police then declare the murders as ‘honour killing’, not unknown in India. On 25 March, the NOIDA police arrest Ramesh Tandon for the two murders, but the case is handed over for further investigation to the Central Department of Investigation (CDI), a re-christening of India’s official Central Bureau of Investigation, CBI, to avoid censor trouble. CDI Chief Swamy (Prakash Belwadi) puts Ashwin on the case.

The CDI team is led by detective Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) and Inspector Vedant (Soham Shah). They discover Khempal's decomposed body on the terrace of the building, in which the Tandons live. Kumar believes the parents to be innocent, and methodically builds a case against the father's resentful assistant. His team uses narco tests, attempting to prove that the assistant and his two accomplices committed the murders. On 22 June 2008, he officially exonerates the parents, and Ramesh Tandon is released from jail. Along the way, we are given glimpses of the trial separation of Kumar's marriage with Reema (Tabu), for strange reasons. Apparently, they have no reason to separate, but no reason to stay together either. Both also admit to having had extra-marital affairs.

Just as Ashwin Kumar is about to conclude his investigation, his senior officer retires and a new CDI chief takes over. Inspector Vedant, in his greed to get a promotion, starts working against Kumar. This leads to an altercation between the two officers, resulting in Kumar's suspension. On 9 July 2008, CDI hands over the case to a new probe team, led by a man named Paul (Atul Kumar) which refocuses the investigation on the parents as the suspects.

Written and co-produced by Vishal Bharadwaj, himself an accomplished writer-director-music composer-producer, Talvar marks the fulfillment of a promise he made to Meghna after seeing the segment she directed (Pooranmasi)  in the ten-story compilation feature, Dus Kahaniyan. Bharadwaj must be complimented on both counts: for the painstaking research and in-depth writing and the choice of the director, not known for making anything like this film before. What is further heartening is that Vishal, son of the late lyricist Ram Bhardwaj, peppers the dialogue with both Hindi and Urdu nuggets! He has had a long and close association with Meghna’s father, poet-lyricist-director Gulzar, and his use of words like ‘tasallee-baqhsh’ (Urdu for ‘giving satisfaction’/’satisfying’) is indeed satisfying. And you cannot help chuckling repeatedly when the high level meeting discusses terms denoting sexual aspects of the case, translated in chaste Hindi from the colloquial English.

Having been born and brought up in the belt which is the locale of the film, he gives each of his characters a lingo and accent that seem to be utterly inherent and spontaneous. However, the two scenes in the Nepali food stall seem contrived, the track about Ashwin’s marriage and the insider references to Gulzar’s film Ijaazat and its famous song, ‘Mera kuchh saamaan’ are indulgent, albeit gracefully done, and there are a few gaps in the time line, akin to jump cuts. Interestingly, Gulzar has been separated from Meghna’s mother Raakhee for decades, and the Ashwin-Reema relationship could have elements of that arose from there. Granted that Lady Justice is always pictures as holding a sword, and the makers claim that the title owes itself to this image, there is little in the film to suggest that justice, least of all tit-for-tat violent justice was ever done. It is inescapable that the moniker is a pun on the surname Talwar, which the dentist couple and their daughter are known by. There is not much else you can fault the script for.

Irrfan Khan, while retaining his characteristic style of speaking, and simmering nonchalance, turns in another gripping performance. Billed as a cameo Tabu, once again matches him shot for shot, line for line. Ayesha Parveen makes a comely teenager. Neeraj Kabi (The Ship of Theseus, Gandhi of the Month) is a study in desolation, struggling to speak. Konkona Sen Sharma, an actress of undeniable talent and expressive eyes, has matured further, and often rises above the mechanical rhythm of dialogue delivery. Sohum Shah (also seen in The Ship of Theseus), Gajraj Rao, Atul Kumar and Prakash Belwadi get all the footage they deserve and each has completely credible persona. Not often does a supporting cast deliver so much so well.

Meghna Gulzar is the only child of Gulzar and his actress-wife, Raakhee. A poet and a former journalist, she assisted Saeed Mirza and her father, and directed her first feature, Filhaal, in 2002. She is also the author of a book titled Because He Is... about Gulzar. Talvar is bound to give her career a razor-edge and egg her on to try more of non-definable cinematic genres. She told a press gathering that the film is an entertainer and not a documentary. One can go with that definition of her line of treatment. One can also see what she meant when she said, “Though I have tried to be neutral in my approach, nobody can be totally objective, and viewers might still be able to discern my take on the identity of the killers.” Righto. Put differently, who would you believe? Irrfan Khan, or Atul Kumar, or Gajraj Rao?

Cinematography by Pankaj Kumar sticks to earthy tones. Editor A. Sreekar Prasad must have had a tough time sifting and culling stuff from so much of high-voltage, and potentially libellous, material, and also placing and pacing the point of view ‘flashbacks’, though he acquits himself very well in the end.

With such reality around, who needs ‘shows’? With such killer facts, who needs fiction?

Okay, let’s not get dismissive. Pure entertainment and escapism have their distinct places in cinema too. Murder, power politics and botched criminal investigations may not be entertaining. They sure can be rivetting and captivating.

Rating: ***1/2


Fact file, from news reports

Back in May 2008, 14-year old Aarushi Talwar was found murdered at her home in the NOIDA area of Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India, bordering Delhi. The family's missing 45-year old servant Hemraj Banjade was initially suspected of the murder and hunted, until his dead body was discovered on the terrace of the building on the following day. The police first suspected Aarushi's parents, father Rajesh and mother Nupur, both dentists, for the murders. They theorised that Rajesh had murdered the two, after finding them in an "objectionable" position, or because Rajesh's alleged extra-marital affair had led to his blackmail by Hemraj, and a confrontation with Aarushi. Nupur was accused of complicity and helping the cover-up.

The case was then handed over to a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team, led by Arun Kumar, who exonerated the parents, and identified another group of suspects, based on narco (lie detector) tests. The new suspects included a compounder, who worked at the Talwar clinic, and two domestic servants, who worked in the neighbourhood and were friends of their own domestic help. However, these suspects were not charged, due to insufficient evidence. After Arun Kumar's tenure at CBI ended, the case was transferred to a new CBI team. The new team's investigating officer, AGL Kaul believed the parents to be guilty, but his superiors, Nilabh Kishore and Javed Ahmed, considered the evidence to be insufficient.

In its 2010 closure report, the new CBI team identified Rajesh Talwar as the sole suspect, but recommended closing the case, due to critical gaps in the evidence. However, a court rejected the recommendation, and initiated proceedings against the Talwars. Rajesh Talwar was attacked with a meat cleaver as he made an appearance in court, in January 2011. In November 2013, the parents were convicted, based on circumstantial evidence, and remain imprisoned, while their appeal is pending before the Allahabad High Court, which is still hearing appeals lodged 30 years ago.

The verdict was based on circumstantial evidence, as key forensic evidence had been lost during two flawed investigations, and was termed "haphazard, absurd and defamatory, worsened by the administrative dystopia of Uttar Pradesh,” wrote British writer Patrick French, who was a patient of Rajesh Talwar.

As was only to be expected, there were sensational media leaks and the fact murders quickly became the country's most-talked-about crime. Journalist Avirook Sen published a book earlier this year, named Aarushi, after the young victim, in which he claims that the conviction of the couple may have been a gross miscarriage of justice. Sen conducted some 100 interviews with investigators, lawyers, witnesses, family and the school-girl's friends, attended the trial and had his material vetted by lawyers.

In prison, Rajesh has been provided with a dentist's chair and modern dental equipment, which he uses to treat fellow prison inmates. His wife, who has been placed in a ward with women convicted in dowry murder cases, joins him for a few hours every day.

Sen says the investigation itself was “shambolic”. The teenager's new camera was sent to a lab which did not have the facility to retrieve deleted pictures. An investigator said there was "no procedure of collecting" vaginal swabs for examination in Uttar Pradesh, where more than 200 million people live. A constable who lifted fingerprints and took pictures at the crime scene appeared to have suddenly lost his memory when cross-examined by the defence lawyers in the court four years later. Sealed envelopes containing forensic evidence were found to have been tampered with.

He further reveals that a policeman told the court that he has no sense of smell and that he had found Hemraj's body in the terrace of the Talwar residence in "mint condition"  (in reality, this was a swollen body, decomposing for 36 hours  in the 47 ̊ sweltering heat of the North Indian summer) before it was discovered. The couple's house-maid, a key prosecution witness, openly told the judge that she had been coached. Investigators relied heavily on lie-detector, brain-mapping and narco-analysis tests that are not admissible as evidence in court.

Vijay Shanker, a former head of the CBI, who retired two years after the agency took over the investigation, told Sen, “What are we talking about? We are talking about the dignity of the dead. We are talking about the criminal justice system. We are not talking about a P.D. James novel."


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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