*Author’s note: Though this film is based on a true story, I reviewed the film as a stand-alone piece of art, not as a referendum on the 2008 Noida double murder case.
A candlelight vigil is held following a teenage girl’s murder, protesters holding signs demanding justice for the victim. Director Meghna Gulzar and writer Vishal Bhardwaj highlight the subjective natures of truth and justice in the hypnotic mystery Talvar (international title: “Guilty“).
The girl is 14-year-old Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), found dead in her bedroom by her parents, who apparently slept through their daughter’s murder. Shruti’s father, Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi), and mother, Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma), fall under suspicion after the original suspect — a servant named Khempal — is found murdered on the roof of their apartment building.
The initial police investigation is a calamity. Neighbors and detectives wander obliviously through the family’s apartment, contaminating the crime scene. Officers neglect to preserve crucial evidence because they are busy taking photos of each other next to the body on the roof.
With the most obvious suspect exonerated by virtue of his being dead, the police invent outlandish theories to establish the guilt of the parents. They rely heavily on the testimony of Ramesh’s employee, Kanhaiya (Sumit Gulati), who has a grudge against his boss.
At the press conference announcing formal charges against the Tandons, the police chief mispronounces Shruti’s name and assassinates her character. The chief accuses Ramesh of wife-swapping, adding, “He is as characterless as his daughter was.” Embarrassed by the conduct of the police, the government turns the case over to the Central Department of Investigation (CDI), handing the reins to officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan).
As new theories of the crime are introduced, Gulzar reenacts each version as though it were true. Ramesh and Nutan are shown as either savvy killers or grief-stricken parents, depending on who is telling the tale.
The technique is integrated seamlessly into the narrative of the investigation, which changes hands three times. That means that Shruti’s death is shown over and over again, in gory detail. Even though the investigation is the focus of the story, the audience is never allowed to forget the two deaths that started it.
The point of Talvar is not so much to establish the truth of what happened — a fact made extraordinarily difficult thanks to the botched initial investigation — but the multiple ways that evidence can be interpreted. The different conclusions reached by the police, Ashwin, and his successor Paul (Atul Kumar), reveal as much about the investigators as they do about the crime itself.
Gulzar maintains the gravity of the story with sparing use of background music (also written by Bhardwaj). Uncomfortable interrogations are made even more uncomfortable without the distraction of a musical score. Gulzar also coaxes great performances from her cast, especially Kabi, Sharma, and Gulati, who have to act in the present day storyline as well as the reenactments of the murder.
Irrfan Khan is amazing, with Ashwin standing in for the audience as the objective observer. Well, as objective as Ashwin can be whilst being pressured into a divorce by his wife, Reemu (Tabu). The divorce subplot again highlights that the participants are human beings, not crime-solving robots. Same for the detail about Paul bringing his son with him to the crime scene because he can’t find a babysitter.
Talvar is an engrossing police procedural full of humanity. It’s both a joy and a nightmare to watch, knowing that the story is based on a real incident. Gulzar’s direction is tense, but never exploitative. This is a terrific film.