Contrary to what you might think, the talvar of Meghna Gulzar’s film isn’t the family at the centre of that most sensationalized and scrutinized of modern Indian crime cases: Aarushi Talwar, murdered along with the domestic help, Hemraj, days before her 14th birthday, and her parents, Nupur and Rajesh, convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence for the crime. Instead, it’s a reference to the talvar (sword) carried by the figure of Lady Justice—an apt, if on-the-nose, metaphor for an avenging justice system. “People sometimes forget the sword’s there,” investigating officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) is told by his superior. “And in the past 60 years, it’s become rusty.”
In the film, Aarushi is Shruti, Hemraj is Khempal, the Talwars are the Tandons, and the CBI is the CDI. But the facts of the case—all those rusty swords of police incompetence and CBI politics—are unaltered. The film begins with Nutan Tandon (Konkona Sen Sharma) opening the door for the maid in the morning, and a short while later discovering her daughter’s dead body and shrieking for her husband. The same scene, only with key moments changed, will play out on two later occasions, as will other events from the night of the killing. As the local police proceeds with its shockingly lax investigation, and CDI officer Kumar with his subsequent, methodical one, we get to compare the accounts of Nutan and Ramesh Tandon (Neeraj Kabi) with those of the murdered Khempal’s two friends. By the end, it’s difficult to be certain of anything we’ve seen.
Simmering just below the surface, and occasionally bubbling over, is the issue of class and all its attendant resentments and prejudices. The paan-spitting police inspector is more than ready to believe rumours of upper-crust debauchery, and to spin these into a charge of murder. By contrast, the more refined Kumar never really believes the well-heeled Talwars could murder their own daughter, but is happy to slap a possible witness around in order to support his conviction that one of Khempal’s friends did it. (This is pretty much the film’s position as well.) In a lesser true crime film—No One Killed Jessica, for example—such issues would be drilled into the viewer’s consciousness. But Gulzar presents them quickly and quietly, trusting the viewer to understand their implications.
Such displays of trust are rare—the tendency to explain, to underline, mars even our better films. But Talvar is free from such patronising behaviour, and because there isn’t a ton of unnecessary exposition, the film proceeds at a fair clip, pausing only to take in the Tandons’ grief (briefly enough that it doesn’t feel exploitative) and update us on Kumar’s ongoing separation from his wife. Vishal Bhardwaj’s script also offers up an unexpected amount of humour; Kumar telling a junior officer, “All that’s missing is background music,” when the man suggests a solution seems to speak to the dry, forensic nature of the film itself.
There’s not a false note in any of the performances, but especially memorable are Sohum Shah and Prakash Belawadi, alternately inscrutable and acidly funny as Kumar’s subordinate and boss, and Irrfan Khan, who creates a character both worldly and world-weary (the scene where he turns up at his estranged wife’s doorstep at night is very moving). Though this is a very impressive return for Gulzar, whose last full feature was Just Married in 2007, and who marshals her resources very efficiently here, it’s fair to say that the real standout is Bhardwaj’s screenplay. By turns witty and thoughtful, devastating and emotional, it’s up there with Masaan and Dum Laga Ke Haisha and the one or two other stirringly well-written films of the year. We’ve just sent, as our entry to the Oscars, a striking indictment of the Indian justice system. Talvar, in its own way, paints just as bleak a picture.