Meghna Gulzar’s new movie Talvar presents different scenarios for how the 2008 double murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj might have taken place, an approach that can be described as “approaching a subject from multiple perspectives”, or simply, “Rashomon-like.”
Perhaps the greatest tribute to a filmmaker is when his or her efforts contribute a word or a phrase to the vocabulary. The words “Felliniesque” or “Bergmanesque” are now common entries in the English language. Movies featuring surreal and flamboyant characters and landscapes or piercing examinations of relationships qualify for these cinema-inspired adjectives, just as “Rashmon-like” is enough to discuss a film that presents contradictory versions of the same event.
Few movies have traversed the slippery slope of truth as have Akira Kurosawa’s international breakthrough in 1950. A brutal rape and a murder have taken place in a sun-dappled corner of a forest. Is Toshiro Mifune’s bandit Tajomaru responsible for having brutalised a samurai’s wife and killed the warrior? Tajomaru boastfully confesses to an unseen jury of his crimes, and nastily suggests that the samurai’s wife had begun to enjoy his attentions.
Other accounts of the same crimes emerge: the woman, her husband, and a woodcutter who found the body have different things to say about their involvement, depending on how they wish to be regarded by the invisible judges. Who is lying, who is covering up a painful memory, and is there anything like the absolute truth?
Rashomon is one of the definitive anti-thrillers around, but it is first and foremost an ethical inquiry into humankind’s endless capacity for self-delusion. “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves,” Kurosawa wrote in his memoir Something Like an Autobiography. “They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”
And it is visually ravishing too, marrying high-mindedness with technical virtuosity. The tracking shots, fluid camera movements, use of light and shadows and intense close-ups, by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, are legendary. Kurosawa was influenced by the quiet power of silent cinema, and Rashomon is studded with several wordless sequences. The first-rate performances by the filmmaker’s muse Mifune, Takashi Shimura as the remorseful woodcutter, and Machiko Kyo as the pitiful rape victim, help Kurosawa realise his dream of making a movie that reflect the “peculiar beauty” of early motion pictures.