What a fascinating frustrating movie! Based on a fascinating frustrating real life case. Which, I am sure, many people in the comments already know much more about than I do.
This is a hard film to discuss and decide what makes a “spoiler” and what doesn’t, since it so closely follows the real sequence of events. So I think I am going to give a very brief discussion of artistic style and quality and then leap into the SPOILER section right-quick.
Irrfan Khan is what makes this movie work. It’s a dark tricky confusing story, but Irrfan is there being calm and reasonable and intelligent at the center, if you can just hold on to him like a talisman, it will all turn out okay. And I don’t think any other actor could have played that role in just the right way, underplaying it like an art actor but still holding the screen like a Star.
Konkona is on the other end of things. While Irrfan is the calm and reasonable respite, Konkona is the mass of misery that torments the viewer to watch her. Which makes sense, her daughter has just died after all.
And they are surrounded by an able group of supporting roles. Neeraj Kabi does a decent job playing the tormented father. Prakash Belawadi as the wise mentor/boss to the inspector. These are all familiar roles done well.
Besides Irrfan and Konkona’s performances standing out, it is really the directing that is the most impressive. Meghna talked about this movie as a “Rashomon” type film, where we see the same story multiple times over. But what she doesn’t say is that it is a true Rashomon film, meaning there is one clear “true” version. Meghna expertly juggles the original police investigation, the two subsequent investigations, and the various versions of the crime that are shown as the proposed solution based on the investigations. She also shows a strong sensitivity to the people involved, real people after all. Not so much through what was included as through what was not included. For instance, we don’t learn that the victim had a boyfriend until a tossed off comment close to the end of the film.
But the true craft is how, while seeming to give us multiple options, Meghna steers the audience towards one conclusion, tricking us into thinking we got there on our own. Irrfan is the character we start and end with, Irrfan’s story gets slightly more time than the other investigations, Irrfan just seems to care more than the others. No matter how much she may say it is up to the audience to decide, it’s a rigged game, she knows what we will all choose to conclude.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This is based on a real life case that my desi readers are probably sick of hearing about and know far more about than I do, but which will be new to my non-desis. So, for the non-desis, here are the bare outlines. Arushi Talwar was a 13 year old girl. She was found one morning in bed with a wound on her head and a slit throat. Her family servant was missing, a middle-aged Nepali man. He was immediately assumed to be the murderer, but then his body was found the next day on the roof terrace of the building also with his throat slit. Arushi’s parents were home the entire night and claimed to have heard nothing and have no explanation.
The original murder was odd. Tragic also, obviously, that’s part of this, the tragedy of a 13 year old girl dying so horribly. But it was just odd, that she was found tucked into her bed, that the servant was found on the roof killed in the same way, those were features that immediately caught your attention. However, what made it into a true cultural event is the same thing that makes all of these “mysterious” murders into cultural events: Police Incompetence.
(Police incompetence depresses me, so here is a picture of Dog Hazel to cheer us all up)
This was not a perfect crime. There was blood everywhere, including a bloody handprint on the roof of the building. There was no doubt clear evidence of who committed the crime somewhere in the apartment. The problem was not that the murderer was too brilliant to be caught, or that the crime was too mysterious to be explained, the problem was that the crime scene was corrupted to such an incredible degree that any definite answer became impossible to confirm. Reporters were allowed in to take photographs while the investigation was underway, evidence was trampled or else purely unusable. According to later investigators, 90% of the evidence was destroyed by the original investigators allowing mobs to trample through the crime scene. For instance, the bed sheet Arushi was found on somehow disappeared, along with any DNA evidence that might have been on it, including a “wet spot” that multiple people remembered seeing under her body. That is what made this case a “mystery”, not a lack of evidence or explanation, but rather the destruction of that evidence which could have made the explanation obvious.
The other thing that makes it both a problem to prove, and a public obsession, was the way it intersected multiple social forces roiling through the country today. The murder took place in an affluent suburb of Delhi, a new affluent suburb. The community was full of 3 separate forces, the original residents who were struggling to adapt to the new urban reality (this would include the original investigating police), the educated upper middle-class newcomers (Arushi and her parents and their friends), and the poor servants immigrating in to work for the middle-class (Hemraj, the servant also found dead).
(City of God deals with the same reality, it’s what India is today, workers traveling from other regions of India/South Asia in order to serve the new middleclass who are rapidly expanding and pushing out the traditional residents)
The result was a complete clash of understanding. Arushi’s parents were quickly believed to be sexual deviants participating in wife-swapping, Arushi herself was identified as a sex mad teenage girl with too much freedom, Hemraj was a predator preying on the teenage daughter of the house where he worked, and the police were over their head and incompetent. Or, Arushi and her parents were “better” people, too intelligent and modern and all that to be fully understood by those around them, Hemraj was a poor struggling villager preyed upon by his employers, and the police were noble dispensers of justice. It all depended on who you asked.
Meghna, in her fictionalized version, choose to take these conflicts and focus them down on the police investigation. The title of the film seems a little cheeky, “Talvar”, but not meaning the real life people, no no, this film is about the murder of “Shruti Tandon” and “Khempal”. But late in the film there is a discussion of how Justice is scales and a sword, sword being “Talvar”, and the police are the sword.
This is not a story about the Talwars, the real life family, this is a story about the police officers who investigated them and who they are. That allows for all those fascinating problems of society to come to the surface, but in a new way, not the same old case that the audience for this film has already chewed over again and again. It also allows for the “Rashomon” effect Meghna wanted, each investigative team coming to their own conclusions and their version being shown in flashback.
But each version is not truly equal, just as each investigative team is not treated equally by the film. Irrfan is at the opening, his reassignment to the case is what starts the film. More details of the original investigation come out as he talks to the police who carried it out. And after he is removed from the case, he is brought back at the end to talk it over with the team that replaced him and challenge their theories. Plus, it’s Irrfan!!!! The biggest name in this film, and the biggest presence (well, maybe tied with Konkona). Obviously he is the one who is going to get the audience sympathy. And so among the police, he is the one we sympathize with. And Meghna skillfully creates another layer of 3 societies within the investigation, lower and middle and upper, above the victim and her family, a whole other layer of society on top of them. Irrfan is in the middle here, and he is punished for it. And that reveals the ultimate theory of the film, that the Tandon/Talwar’s were punished for their middle-class status, trapped betwixt and between and hated by all.
(Another movie dealing with changing India, in this one our new middle-class kids just decided not to care and enjoy their lives even if the rest of the world didn’t understand)
I am aware this film has a particular argument, no matter how much it pretends it does not, and I have not down much research on the original murder so I don’t want to appear to be presenting any opinion of my own. So this is a disclaimer, everything I am about to say is the murder and investigation is AS THE FILM SHOWS IT.
We start with our original investigative team. Crude, accented, chewing paan the whole time. They don’t bother searching the terrace even when a neighbor points out the blood on the lock and the stairs, they let the mattress be taken out of the murder room, and they assume it is the servant and, when he is found dead, almost immediately arrest the father. With the explanation that it must have been an honor killing, he found his daughter and servant in bed together and killed them both. Except this film, because Meghna is so sensitive, avoids even repeating this story and leaves it at “honor killing” for unspecified reasons.
As this film presents it, the leap to “honor killing” was part of a pattern of this police team simply not understanding how middle-class families such as this functioned. Neeraj Kabi, the father, tells them he was planning to let his daughter have a sleepover with her friends for her birthday, and the term has to be explained to the inspector, who insists on taking the most scandalous view of it. He also jumps on the assumption that the couple is participating in wife-swapping, or possibly just an old-fashioned affair, with another couple, their best friends and business partners in their dental clinic. He is encouraged in these assumptions by Sumit Gulati, a worker from the same village as the dead servant who also works for the Tandons in their clinic. Sumit happily claims that Neeraj and his business partner are having an affair and the police and he have a good laugh over it. The police are enjoying the idea of putting sexual deviances onto those they don’t understand and resent, and it leads to a massive jump with no evidence towards Neeraj as the killer and Konkona as his assistant in covering it up. They believed the worst sexual excesses of the rich people, but weren’t able to expand their minds to a father who would not react to his daughter having sex by killing her.
(I know Neeraj from Byomkesh Bakshy!, another movie that does a great job investigating how one crime can show everything happening in a city)
And then there’s the second team. Irrfan, brought in when there is no evidence to convict the parents. He starts fresh with tests and evidence collecting and staging and recreations. The original theory of the crime is obviously false. The two of them couldn’t have been killed in the same room, because there was no blood found from the servant Khempal. And there is a memory by one of the police officers of multiple glasses and drinks in Khempal’s room, as though he had friends over that night. Based on the minimal evidence available, Irrfan lands on the idea of the servant and his friend Sumit Gulati and another Nepali worker as involved. Essentially, the butler did it. He uses truth drugs to get confessions from them all, they got drunk and started talking about the teenage girl down the hall. Khempal, the servant, objected because he saw her as a granddaughter, but the two younger men overruled him and dragged him into her room where they hit her on the head when she screamed and then it all went wrong. Khempal objected, they chased him out and killed him too. It matches the evidence, and it matches the prejudices. The invisible ones that Meghna Gulzar isn’t showing us because that is her artistic choice.
Irrfan is middle-class, intelligent, modern. He likes to test things and move slowly before he builds a conclusion. And he understands the world the Tandon/Talwars live in, he doesn’t assume that a man and woman must be having an affair if they are business partners, and even if they are, he doesn’t assume that is necessarily a problem. He himself is going through a divorce from a wife he still loves (Tabu). We see them in divorce court, Tabu gives a long poetic discussion of the death of their marriage while the judge listens uncomprehending, and finally Irrfan jumps in and says “Also, infidelity. Lots of infidelity.” He’s not telling the truth, but he is telling the truth he thinks this blankfaced judge will accept. That is how he feels about the Tandon/Talwars and the police investigating them. He knows that the police wouldn’t be able to listen or follow what they were saying, he sympathizes with them as another person who lives in a different world than most Indians. And so Irrfan is prejudiced towards them, and away from their servants. He looks for evidence to exonerate them and find another murderer. And he finds it, the evidence is there from both sides. And Meghna wants us to believe him, wants us to see that Irrfan and the Tandons are being punished for living in a different world than the rest of India.
The message becomes clearer in the final investigation. Irrfan loses his understanding intelligent boss and inherits a new one who wears an ascot and a mustache. He screams old-money and old-power. And he rejects the evidence Irrfan has found, taunting him for having been distracted by his personal life (the divorce with Tabu) and pushing too hard on this case. The truth serum testimony is inadmissible and without that they don’t have enough to go to trial. Irrfan’s investigation is over, they are starting from the beginning again.
(They are so cute together! I want them to be a couple over and over again)
And so the third group of police appears, the top of society, the ones even above the Irrfan’s and Tandons of the world. And they are there to protect the status quo. The initial investigators may have made the mistake, but they can’t have Irrfan and the Tandons coming together and outsmarting them, taking their power away. The new investigator is a grandfather who casually brings his grandson along with him while he investigates. He also brings a prosecutor with him from the start, he knows how to play the system and get the powers on his side. And instead of Irrfan’s approach of careful evidence gathering and consideration, he strolls through the crime scene, talks to a few witnesses, and builds up his own version.
The film brushes past this investigation a little, but he does actually pull out information Irrfan missed. Most notably that all of Irrfan’s suspects have alibis for that night, and the night watchman did not see any of them enter or exit. Irrfan used his smarts, this new investigator uses his pressure. He gets witnesses to shift their stories, or bring out new stories they hadn’t told before. The film leaves it open, never comes right out and says that he is influencing the witnesses, that he is ignoring evidence to built his story. But it comes awfully close, he says straight up that he gets a feel for a case and then builds it based on that. And it does not say that Irrfan might have been doing the same thing, coming in with a subconscious liking for the Tandons and trying to find evidence to save them.
The last investigator comes up with a slightly changed theory. Rather than an “honor killing”, he suggests that Khembal might have been attacking the daughter. And in the heat of the moment, when Neeraj walked in and saw them, he hit out wildly and hit his daughter by accident. The rest of the night was an attempt to cover up this accident.
And then we get the scene the whole film is building towards, the confrontation between the cops. Irrfan and his old boss brought in on one side of the table, facing down the new investigator, the prosecutor, the new boss, and Irrfan’s assistant who has changed sides as well. And they know they are going to lose. They present their evidence, but they focus more on needling the other side, making them doubt themselves, making them weaken just a little. And it works, the ultimate decision is that the official line is still “the parents did it”, but the case will be closed for lack of evidence. Not a great resolution, but at least better than actually taking the parents to trial.
That feels like the culmination of the film, the moment of enough doubt to stop the case. Meghna keeps going, because she has to, because the story didn’t end there in real life, but it breaks the films natural build. This is where it should have ended, with Irrfan’s minor triumph in putting in one little crack of doubt between the upper and lower classes that are pinching the middle between them. That is the story this film is telling, the lowerclasses who can’t understand the new middle that has sprung up in their midst, and the upper classes who can’t handle these new people succeeding on merit and challenging them.
(Also what VIP is about, the talented young graduated who isn’t willing to fall back to a lower level but is being blocked from a higher level by entrenched forces)
But Meghna has to keep going and so we end with the depressing message that it wasn’t just two sets of police who hated the middle-class Tandon family, it was the whole country. We get just a glimpse of the ridiculous TV specials, arguing that Konkona isn’t upset “enough” based on her TV appearances, perhaps there should be a DNA test to prove whether or not she is “really” the victims mother, with the incredibly old-fashioned assumption that a mother by blood would never be capable of harming her daughter, and a mother by adoption could never truly love her child. But it’s enough to give us a sense of what was happening. The Tandon/Talwars were turned into a scapegoat for everything that was wrong in the country, turned into chameleons of hate, becoming whatever you wanted them to be. And the amazing morphing evidence and theories coming from the police just helped with that. The end result was a couple who may or may not have been guilty but were put in prison more because of public opinion and the needs of the nation than anything else. True “scapegoats” in the classical sense, sacrificed so that the rest could survive.
And Irrfan became the scapegoat of the police department. His evidence ignored, dismissed as fantasy as a result of his marital problems. On a small level with much less loss, but there is a reason we end with Irrfan miserable on the couch watching the Tandon/Talwars be sentenced. They are the same, both of them with the illusion ripped away that they live in a fair free country that will let them live their lives without being crushed between the opposing powers of the multiple people below them and the multi-powered people above them.