4 October 2015

The Turn of the Screw

My column in today's Mumbai Mirror:

Meghna Gulzar's gripping filmic recreation of the Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder case is the most convincing intervention in what has been, right from the start, a trial by media.
Irrfan Khan in a still from Talvar
In an early scene in Talvar, we see Irrfan Khan and Tabu (playing "CDI" officer Ashwin Kumar and his estranged wife) initiate proceedings for a mutual consent divorce. In a film so tightly scripted and so single-minded in its attention to the real-life details of the notorious Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder, a subplot about the investigating officer's personal life might seem superfluous. The manner in which the scene unfolds, showcasing Tabu's talent for petulant irritation and Irffan's for deadpan delivery, might also suggest that the filmmakers needed a "light" scene to leaven the otherwise relentless grimness of the material. And to some extent, of course, this is true. 

But what makes Vishal Bhardwaj's script so masterful is that the scene isn't only that. Before the judge agrees to admit the divorce petition, she insists that the couple announce their reasons for separating. Tabu's tetchiness at the judge's morally loaded questions, echoes - in form and in content - the piqued replies given by Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi (playing Nutan and Ramesh Tandon, parents of the murdered girl) when the UP police investigating the case start to insinuate that the crime has to do with the 14-year-old Shruti's immoral sexuality. 

These scenes between the Tandons and the police capture with laconic splendour what director Meghna Gulzar and screenwriter Vishal Bhardwaj, like some critical commentators before them, believe to be the crux of why the investigation turned against the Talwars: An incomprehension based on social class. Among the things that were un-understandable to the police was the dead girl's language: The casual use of what they considered "bad language" but which was, amid this set of cool adolescents, perfectly unremarkable; especially when combined with the overly-emotional tone in which a 13-yearold might apologise to her father for what was, in fact, some minor misdemeanour. "Aur ek galti nahi, teen galtiyan," exults one Noida policeman in the film, gleefully displaying the book that Aarushi happening to be reading at the time: Chetan Bhagat's The Three Mistakes of My Life

Linked to this sort of linguistic incomprehension was the police's bafflement about a liberal upbringing, and the chatty, companionate relationship that might exist between parents and daughter. To the paan-chewing, not-particularly-English-speaking policeman who is assigned to the case (a very convincing Gajraj Singh), the idea of a teenaged girl's birthday celebration being something called a sleepover - in which young people would spend a night in the same house, pretty much unsupervised by adults - was unimaginable as anything but a licensed orgy. 

There is also another angle from which class can be seen to be at the centre of this investigation, and thankfully, the film does not shy away from showing it. When Ashwin Kumar (standing in for the real-life Arun Kumar) takes over the case, he is quickly convinced that the parents could not have committed the so-called "honour killing" that has been declared to be the motive, and under which assumption Rakesh has been arrested. He moves swiftly to turn the investigative spotlight on the servants - the murdered Khempal (Hemraj), and his three friends, who may have been in the vicinity of the house that night. Talvar shows how lie detector tests, forced narco-analysis and downright intimidation were used to try and extract - from at least one of them - a confession that would be admissible in court. 

Avirook Sen's book on the Aarushi case suggests that Arun Kumar's past record may have created an impression that cases in which he was involved, the wealthy and powerful managed to get off despite initially being suspects. This was true of two high-profile cases he had handled - the alleged murder of Rizwanur Rahman after his marriage to Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi's daughter, which the CBI under Kumar found to be a suicide, and the Nithari murders, in which Kumar's initial investigation argued that only the servant Surinder Koli was the culprit, not his employer Moninder Singh Pandher. 

But while clearly showing Irffan slapping the suspected servants around, the film also seems keen to suggest that he is not some posh person with a natural inclination to side with the Tandons: We see him eating greasy chowmein at streetside stalls, sharing a bottle of concealed alcohol with the poor old Nepali woman who works the stall, and playing lowbrow mobile phone games insensitively as the incarcerated Ramesh weeps in front of him. 

In the scene where Kumar intimidates a man he thinks is a witness and thus a potential approver, the film captures the poverty and fear of the stuttering servant - and yet somehow our real protagonist, for whom we are meant to really feel, is the man doing the intimidating. Because we are meant to believe that it is being done in a good cause, the cause of truth. In this, Talvar is not unlike most Hindi films that justify police violence as "tactics". 

Despite having been described as "Rashomon-like" in its depiction of various possible scenarios, Meghna Gulzar's film seems to me to be weighted heavily on the side of the "Tandons". The staging of the sequences in which we see them "commit" (and cover up evidence of) the murders is done in deliberately unbelievable fashion, designed to elicit laughter. In contrast, when it is "imagined" as committed by the servants, the film makes the murder seem taut and terrifyingly believable. Sumit Gulati's impressively sly, venomous performance as Kanhaiya (the real-life Krishna) doesn't aid the objectivity claim. 

The media appears in the film only tangentially, with a flavour of ridicule. But for a case whose history has been so deeply shaped by the media's imagination, perhaps it is only fitting that its final outcome should be sought to be influenced by a filmed fiction.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4th Oct, 2015.

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