There really are, in essence, just two types of films from India. One is the kind that follows the timeless tradition of songs and dances, and melodramatic and highly stylised acting. The other is the type that eschews the song-and-dance routine, and opts for realism and naturalistic acting.
Personally, I love both. The musical melodramas have their own set of rules that are largely unique to Indian cinema. The other follows more closely the conventions of Hollywood or western cinema in general.
There are, of course, the in-betweens, but that is for another article.
Talvar is a Hindi film that is of the non-musical variety, with its naturalism anchored by handheld camerawork that gives it a documentary feel. It’s one of the stronger and more solid work to come out of India, and it’s also based on true events.
The names have been changed, but it’s largely the story of the infamous double-murder in Noida in 2008, a case that quickly spiraled into a media circus, with accusations and allegations flying about in the sensationalised media coverage.
What gives the case such attention till today is the fact that it’s very much an unsolvable mystery, mainly due to the fact that the crime scene had already been compromised even before the first investigation team started their work.
The case – where the daughter of a doctor was found dead in her room, and later the body of a missing male servant was also found on a terrace near their home – is fascinating enough for more than one movie adaptation. I haven’t seen Rahsya, the other film about the Noida murders, but Talvar is a very engaging police-procedural film that pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the local police as ridiculously incompetent, and the higher-ups as politicking power men.
This really got me thinking, can filmmakers in Malaysia ever make a film like this? The answer is clearly a no, because of the strict regulations that dictate how the police should be portrayed in films – that is, in a positive light always. That may also be why Talvar‘s release was allegedly held back for a while. The film doesn’t only portray scenes of police brutality (which, in fact, is quite rife in Indian films, with the cops often taking matters into their own hands, but that’s part of the allure of action stories in Indian cinema), it also asks some very hard questions about law enforcement and its limits. With such restrictions, our local cinema definitely can’t ask any sort of questions; we can’t even make a film like, say, Infernal Affairs.
At first glance, Talvar seems like a very well-made murder mystery that wants to tell its version of the much-disputed events surrounding the Noida case. Who really killed the girl and the servant? Did the local police really mess up? Were the girl’s parents unjustly accused of killing their own daughter? Three investigation teams tried to crack the case, but who came to the right conclusion?
The film clearly makes its stand on who was right. Although it presents the murders through Rashomon-like varied perspectives – coloured by biases, hidden agendas and personal pursuits – its final word on the whole case can hardly be called ambiguous or open-ended.
If showing who’s right or wrong was the film’s sole concern, then it would surely be disputed. But Talvar is, fortunately, much more than that.
Superbly edited, with an electronic ambient score that perfectly complements the proceedings, and great performances all round, especially from Irrfan Khan who plays Inspector Ashwin Kumar of the Central Department of Investigation, Talvar is right up there with the best crime mysteries, such as Zodiac or The Onion Field.
It looks like a straight-up police investigation story, but it is also a very humane film. It carries a lot of sympathy for the victims in the story, not just the ones who were killed, but also the living who were inadvertently dragged into the whole mess. It reminds us that whether guilty or innocent, even the accused needs to be treated like human beings.
As I said before, the film asks some difficult questions. It posits the tough argument between ethics and brutality as a means to an end, between following the rule of law with compromises and doing whatever is necessary to punish the guilty. Is it really better to let 10 guilty men walk free than to imprison one innocent?
At times, the film seems to endorse police brutality, as one character opines that the sword in Lady Justice’s hand, which symbolises punishment, is getting rusty. Do all you need to do to bring the bad guys to justice, he seems to say, because too many of them are running free. That may be what our censors took issue with, and wrongly so, because the film is really concerned with the fallibility of a human being, not with morality.
Ashwin Kumar is, at first, portrayed as the quintessential hero cop, cool and intelligent. But when the film shows us his marriage problems, it asks us to question even the one whom we thought was the best. Cast the first stone, if you dare. Who among us is truly clean?
It is so much the humanity in the film that elevates it above just a mere police procedural. Sometimes it shows us our own faces, and often it is not a pretty sight. But that’s what the best films do, hold up a mirror to the human condition. That so much pain and suffering can come from human fallibility is the poignant and pertinent point of the film.
The English title of the film is Guilty, but it is not so much concerned with who was guilty for the double murder, as it is about how everyone is guilty in some way, from the media to the police and the public in general.
Talvar may not wear the blindfold that Lady Justice does, but it shows us that everyone is equally tainted.