Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar is a recreation of one of the most controversial crimes in recent years: the double murder of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in 2008, for which Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were convicted for life in 2013.
The movie Talvar, like Avirook Sen’s reportage-based account Aarushi that was also published this year, argues that the conviction was a miscarriage of justice, based on extreme prejudice against the couple, shoddy police work, and departmental politics. Vishal Bhardwaj’s lucid and gripping script for Meghna Gulzar’s movie cuts through the often confusing details of the case and presents an alternative account of what might have actually happened. Irrfan, playing a government investigator based on the former Central Bureau of Investigation officer Arun Kumar, is in great from as an initial skeptic who, based on hard facts and commonsensical reasoning, comes to believe that the Tandon couple (the movie version of the Talwars) could not have slit the throat of their daughter and killed their domestic help.
Talvar is designed like a procedural, but its best scene involves people sitting around and talking. Two sides with polar opposite views on the case are arranged around a table; the current lot of investigators that believes that the Tandons’ guilt has been proven beyond doubt, and Irrfan and Prakash Belawadi at the other end pointing out the loopholes and bias in their arguments. A riff on Sidney Lumet’s classic chamber drama 12 Angry Men, the sequence is aimed at persuading the fence-sitters and comes as a fitting conclusion to a partisan account that practically begs for a fresh look at the Talwars’ conviction.
Meghna Gulzar said the sequence, which is pitched at the level of a tragicomedy in progress, was called the “grand meeting” in the screenplay. “It was always a part of the script, but we tweaked it with successive drafts,” she said. “It’s a master class in writing – the purpose at this stage was to disseminate some facts that were very dry. If you look beneath, there is a sense of an absurd circus that Vishal tapped into very successfully. The scene isn’t out of line because the film anyway has plenty of black humour.”
In initial drafts, the scene was more “sober and staid”, Gulzar added, but inhibitions were shed along the way. “When we started, we were guarded because it is a very delicate subject and a tightrope to walk,” she said. “But with Vishalji, there was a sense of liberation, and we felt we should just come out and say it.”
The movie was shot in the same seasons in which the actual case unraveled – the crimes were reported in the summer of 2008, and the initial trial took place in winter. The “grand meeting” sequence was shot by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, who has previously worked on Ship of Theseus and Haider, with multiple cameras. “We shot the scene like a play,” Gulzar said. “The actors would start a scene and take it right to the end. The scene runs into 13 pages, and contains only dialogue and facts since it is an argument.”
All the actors, including Atul Kumar and Sohum Shah, had to rehearse their lines down to the last pause since they did not know where the cameras were pointing and which portions of the footage would be used in the final edit. “The actors always had to be in performance mode,” Gulzar said. “We didn’t do too many takes, since, as we went on, we realised that the actors were getting less and less inhibited and their arguments were becoming a lot more spontaneous.”
Did the director have a back-up plan in case the scene did not reach its intended rhythm? The actors were guarded in the initial rehearsals, Gulzar recalled. “Actors are intelligent creatures and do not reveal their cards during rehearsals,” she said. “The rehearsals were cold, but I knew there would be fireworks once the shooting started. When we took one of the angles from beginning to end, the entire unit applauded when I said ‘cut’, and at that point, you know you don’t need a Plan B,” she said.
Gulzar intervened during the shooting only when she felt a tone was off the mark. “Otherwise, it was a free for all, because that is how it supposed to be – you can see the conviction in the theories on both sides,” she said.