[sic] Ashwin, you have thirty-two days to clean the rust off the sword, before I retire”Prakash Belawadi as Joint Director, CDI; Ramashankar Pillai
CDI (fig leaf for the real-life Bureau) Cheif Ramashankar Pillai a.k.a Swamy (Prakash Belawadi) says these words to Detective (and Joint Director) Ashwin Kumar (late veteran actor Irrfan Khan) as the sleuth-hound of a cop takes small sips from a bottle covered in a brown paper bag and methodically eats his spaghetti at a shabby, over-crowded roadside restaurant and the Chief settles for tea. The sword he refers to is the one Lady Justice carries in her right hand – the word ‘Talvar‘ means ‘Sword‘ in Hindi; although the English title for the film is ‘Guilty‘.
Talvar is a fictionalized account of the 2008 real-life murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, Aarushi Talwar (not to be confused with the word sword) that made waves in the media and spread panic among the middle-class community of Noida, Uttar Pradesh. It swipes the blood clean off the sword, taking with it Bollywood’s song-and-dance, festivity fuelled escapism.
During the early hours of March 16th a double homicide was committed at the residence of the Tandon’s (actual name The Talwars) in a busy neighborhood of Noida. After discovering the 45-year-old servant Hemraj’s lifeless body on the roof, the domestic help was written off as a suspect. Immediately after, the pining investigative eyes all turned to the Physician couple and the parents of Shruti, Doctor Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi), and Doctor Nutan Tandon (Konkona Sen Sharma).
(Aray sir) this is ‘open shut’ case sir; yes sir… Case solved sir”Gajraj Rao as Inspector Dhaniram
After the initial, sloppy, incompetent, circumstantial, at best, investigation by the UP Police, led by the brilliant actor Gajraj Rao who plays the dismissive, tobacco chewing Inspector Dhaniram and whose phone keeps blaring vulgar songs whenever it rings, at most inappropriate times/visuals; the case file is handed over to the decorated detective Ashwin Kumar; a gripping, enthralling, laconic and furtive performance by the irreplaceable Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox, 2013 & Life of Pi, 2012), who is definitely the best thing to happen to Talvar, with detached mannerism, calculatedly delivery, a familiar world-weary detective whose full of small, sly details performance makes his detective not at all familiar. A man who is in the middle of his own mid-life crisis and takes over the case reluctantly, all along playing Flash games (Snake) on his old-school Nokia mobile phone. And once the CDI enters the frame, the evidence starts to change and many other suspects come to light.
Meghna Gulzar (Hu Tu Tu, 1999) directs her picture with the hustle-bustle of a police station, she recreates the murder scenes as the investigators build different scenarios as more evidence surfaces. She lets Irrfan Khan do what he does best, however, the trademark (controlled) outbursts are few and far in between.
Gulzar uses intricate dialogue by the gifted Vishal Bhardwaj (Haider, 2014) to consort her sparse direction and wide-framing of shots, combining razor-sharp wit with ground realities of a Police Investigation in a Third World Country, until Detective Free Games shows up wearing Nicholson shades (that keep sliding off his forehead on to his nose), sporting a Sanchez and blends into the character-quirks from the very first frame.
Khan is electrifying and his investigative techniques a tad bit debatable; he brings a sense of reason to the entire untrustworthy narrative of the film; the source material, which had all the potential to blow up in the face of a lesser director. Then there’s someone who lights up the screen with her small cameo and brought a smile to this preacher’s face, the ravishing Tabu (Maqbool, 2003) as Mrs. Reema Kumar, who wants a trial-separation from her infidel detective husband, not that she is faithful to him either; and when she confesses to that part, in court, I could not help but fall for her even more. Oh, Tabu, Tabu.
Talvar couldn’t have been more watertight, perhaps even a tightly-coiled procedure that plays more like a documentary than a feature film, thanks to the exceptional writing by Bhardwaj; for instance the servant quarter placement is too convenient for a plot contrivance. Yes it was like that in real life but this is a film. We watch films to escape reality. Yet, this one presents itself as an exhibit, an appeal for a reconsidering of the judicial decision.
The characters are built upon at every new lead or revelation, the performances from some of India’s finest, really help the film from getting where it is (starting by becoming part of Toronto International Film Festival’s Special Presentations). The DP is just right at day time but when the sun goes down, the colors change, the mood changes, the atmosphere becomes soaked in moonshine.
At 132 minutes, Talvar does a tremendous job of showing all sides of the story, even going to the extent of reanimating and reviving the vital testimonies as set-pieces that play out differently each time with the same actors and the same location, making the film a complex repetition of revisiting the same sites as a scene or two earlier, and experiencing similar reverberations through contrasting testimonial outcome, resulting in a sublime ambivalence of perception of reality and neutral (unsentimental and melodrama-free) and a genre-defying and non-exploitative inspection of cinema, with its near-perfect recreation of the events.
Even then the mood keeps changing from confused to convinced to doubting again. This film means business, it wants to get to the bottom of the bloody mess, even maybe under the skin (and it does, devastatingly so) but there is an underlying theme running throughout that makes you wonder if the rust can actually be taken off the sword?
The third act shows us bureaucracy, farewell parties, a drunk ex-CDI Chief, who does not chew his words for shit. It also determines that Detective Rapid Fire (this guy was a wit machine) has become emotionally affected by the case and his separation and that the case be given to an entire new team, dismissing all prior evidence. The screenplay also approaches faux-relief since the detective’s personal life seems to be settling down.
However, the best scene of the film is a sequence where all the big wigs of the law agencies are sitting together and presenting their cases to the CDI Chief/Director with opposing hypotheses. Here we watch an actor on the top of his game cutting the serious conversation with his razor tongue and Sherlock Holmes-type instincts. Khan, with his disciplined restraint (which was once let lose in Maqbool, 2004 and the actor exploded on-screen with the calculated spewing of expletives, that flow like poetry, but seriously) and immaculate comic timing, does not raise his voice or gets angry, he keeps laughing, checking his phone for the high-score and keeps refuting and dismissing the case put forward by the new person-in-charge, Detective Paul (Atul Kumar) and his boss JK Dixit (Shishir Sharma).
The scene is soaked in cruel-dry-humor, controlled emotions, dialogues that cut you in half and also bring a smile to the face. It is a scene that can be studied for its composition and the way the characters interrupt each other in a light-hearted manner in a very big hall, with each of them knowing that this is no laughing matter but if they don’t laugh, all of them will lose their minds and certifiably so.
Talvar is a cinematic tour de force, it is highly engaging and above all a winner in achieving what it sets out to do. Even though the viewer is aware of the outcome, Gulzar keeps us guessing till the end and if that isn’t enough to be called a triumphant directorial venture I don’t know what is.
Tabu is so lovely. Oh, my sweet Lord, she is so alluring, irresistible. I think the kids should make way for the queen once again; the only problem being Tabu is a little cuckoo in the head, just check out her body of work to get an idea.
If there isn’t a reason to leave, there isn’t even a reason to stay.”Tabu as Mrs. Reema Kumar
Dear Irrfan Khan, you’ll be missed dearly. May you rest in peace.