I finally got around to watching Talvar after hearing gushing things about it (not least because I subscribe to TOI, and the movie is produced by its sister concern.
The Aarushi Talwar double murder case has been obsessed over in media and in conversations, and will be for a long time to come. This is not without a reason; it appears to be a perfect crime, a crime of passion, one of alleged honor killing, also because the ineptitude of the Noida police has been well documented.
I went in the movie with great expectations, as names like Vishal Bhardwaj, Gulzar, Irrfan and Konkana Sen Sharma have been associated. Plus, the pre-release hype for the movie promised a Rashomon-like experiment, where no one theory was right, and it was a case of perceptions. Sadly, the final product underwhelmed me.
In tackling the Talwar murder, director Meghna Gulzar takes on a challenge that she does not manage to convincingly win. There are a few expert punches, but overall, the director takes on an emotional and commonly held views: that parents can't kill their children, that the police are inept, that office politics trumps the quest for justice.
Talvar doesn't take it's name from the Talwars, but from the talwar that the statue of blind justice carries, that people often overlook. In fact, the family heres are the Tandons, whose daughter Shruti is murdered. I found this name change confusing, since the director and the producer have said in interviews that the story is based on Aarushi Talvar murder case. Why then did they need to change Talvar to Tandon is perplexing. Last minute jitters about litigation?
Instead of the promised Rashomon-like differing perspectives, we get a linear narrative of what happened. The Aarushi case becomes an excuse to highlight a an inept police, an over inquisitive media, nosy neighbors. Understand that Talvar is less about the double murder and more to do with talvar that the statue of Justice holds in her hands. The actual murder and it's aftermath are rushed through, with more emphasis being on the CBI investigation that followed. This is where the movie starts to come apart. Talvar posits a theory that the CBI actually cracked the mystery of who killed Aarushi, but professional rivalry among the officials was the reason it was unable to present a plausible case before the courts. The theory proposed by the movie rests easily on 'the butler did it' argument, only in this case, it is the butler's friends that did it. This is a very simplistic solution to the murder mystery. Aarushi was killed under mysterious circumstances, and the idea proposed by Talvar, though radical and requiring a leap of faith, may not be entirely wrong. But like I said, it requires a certain leap of faith in the director for the viewer to completely disregard what the newspapers have been saying to their readers as well as how the courts inferred the facts of the case. That would require a solid case against the established facts to be presented, which the film fails in doing.
The reason the movie fails is the character development. The Talvars, or in this case the Tandons, are cardboard characters instead of the fleshed out persons that they needed to be. The viewer must empathize with the characters before they agree with their arguments or justifications, but the movie portrays them one dimensionally. The result is a protagonist that fails to connect.
The film makers may argue that the movie is about the investigation but even the characters that do the investigation come across as one dimensional. It starts with the paan chewing inefficient cop who poses for for photos and is forever on the phone. Looking at him the viewer knows that he will bungle up, which he does. The second person to talk about the investigation, the senior police officer is ready to believe in heresay to make the claim about wife swapping; again by-the-numbers.
The movie is supposed to be anchored by the CBI officer who conducted the investigation, the one who nabbed the actual culprit. He is expected to be a well rounded person that can engage the viewer and make them agree with the film's position. What the viewer gets instead is a protagonist in the classic mould of a weary and beaten cop who has seen the ugly side of life and now lives for the small things in life, like sharing liquor with the Chinese food stall owner. Even his marriage is falling apart, making him a complete nomad in the society. He has no ambition in taking up the case, except to get to the truth. His colleagues, however, have their motives in twisting it to meet their ends, and looking at them it becomes obvious. While the protagonist is a loner, his colleagues hunt in packs. Over simplification anyone? An aside: Irrfan as CBI officer Arun Kumar in glasses is the definitive Gulzar touch. There is no doubt about whom to believe.
In taking up the Aarushi Talvar murder mystery, director Meghna Gulzar has shown that she has the guts to tackle a complex subject. She instead deals with it in a manner that panders to our distrust of those who have less than us, but who we can't do without. We tend to blame those working for us for faults that may not be theirs without a second thought and by taking this line, the movie panders to the majority view. It takes certain faith to think that maybe, just maybe, the parents might have been at fault - after all, honor killings are a reality in our society. The inference drawn by the movie seems to be a way of playing to the gallery, be crowd pleasing. The parents are exonerated of any crime, the blame is on the servants. The viewer who paid good money to watch it in the theater feels vindicated in belief that it is the others, less fortunate ones that commit crime.
Which is a cop out.