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TALVAR. Director: Meghna Gulzar. Players: Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Kabi, Gajraj Rao, Sohum Shah, Sumit Gulati, Tabu. Music: Vishal Bharadwaj. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release: Junglee Pictures.

Real life news stories can be tricky to transfer to the pseudo-fictional setting of the large screen the minute the source “material” becomes murky. In the case of Talvar, which is based on a 2008 story about a double-murder near Delhi, the “reality” of the narrative gets instantly muddied by inaccurate or incomplete eye witness accounts of key players. What to do with a murder case when everyone is implicated and yet no one appears completely guilty or entirely innocent? As Gulzar and company’s brilliantly staged Talvar would have it, the possibilities are endless.

The quiet of a suburban Delhi morning is permanently shattered for one family when the family’s 14-year-old daughter and the family’s 45-year-old chauffeur are found horrifically butchered. One line of circumstantial evidence points to Nutan Tandon (Sen Sharma) and her husband Ramesh Tandon (Kabi) as educated professionals who may have resorted to murder upon stumbling on their daughter and chauffeur together in her room after her curfew. Or, as some other circumstantial evidence suggests, could it have been Kanhaiya (Gulati), the Tandon’s house servant?

In Vishal Bharadwaj’s well-written story, the extremely high-profile real life persona of the oft-boggled investigation is fronted by Indian federal investigator Ashwin Kumar (Khan) who is called in after local cops practically butcher the initial police involvement. The sense of hopelessness about to engulf the entire case is summed up by the local constable Dhaniram (Rao) who unknowingly and egregiously destroys crucial first-account clues that could possibly have decided the outcome. Without solid evidence, practically all that is left is building a “case” based on circumstantial evidence.

The Indian legal tradition of allowing circumstantial re-telling of “what must have happened” may appear shocking to alternative or even non-Indian jurisprudence based on observable, physically verifiable crime restructuring. Only one judge needs to be convinced. The conflicting and clouded-by-now blood trails lead to a monumental quasi-legal quagmire. Ashwin’s virtual entrapping of an already unlikable character to confess to the crime on a lie detector test—with results that can’t be used in court—greatly undermines Ashwin’s credibility and the government’s case along with our sensibilities about “innocent until.”

This fleeting hope and diminishing glory scenario is strongly put forth by director Gulzar and Bharadwaj’s gifted story writing. It is well acted and easily carried by the sheer force of the character-driven vignettes from each principal suspect as they recount their involvement. The frustration that sets is not because we want to believe who did it but more because, in perfect hindsight, we druthers that one small detail or that one bloodstain could have been viewed sooner or in a different light. If only!

As “real” as the story is, the filmmaker’s thumb-prints cannot escape positing a certain view the filmmaker would like to leave us with. And then we are back to that internal tug. There are brilliant caricatures that drive home the key artifacts about provincial legal affairs, at least as depicted here. The local police—often poorly trained or underpaid—call the first shots on “declaring” what must have happened. And dammit, they will not be confused by the facts. On the other hand, when federal hot shots are called in, there are still the professional jealousies and personal judgment that can and often do cloud the formal outcomes. If only!

There have been many noteworthy recent Hindi movies based on real or historical accounts including No One Killed Jessica, Bhaag Mikha Bhaag, Guru, Madras Café and Mary Kom. By extending the core definition of real-life to include historical accounts, the list can include Bandit Queen, Bawander, Jodhaa Akbar, Gangs of Wasseypur, The Attacks of 26/11 and even Ragini MMS as based on some semblance of actual events. Of these, the most culturally perplexing are those compelling court dramas where the outcome is not so certain, say, No One Killed Jessica or Talvar. In Gulzar’s book, Talvar serves as an insightful etching of a collective soul-searching. Do we simply walk away knowing that this is handled wrong while being weighed down by a sinking feeling of helplessness? Oh and oh, only if!


Aniruddh C.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.