TALVAR – A VERY BIASED ESSAY
I usually begin articles of this sort by warning the reader of spoilers, but then Talvar is the kind of movie that you’ve watched even if you haven’t. Its plot is more or less nothing but a faithful recreation of the events following the Aarushi Talwar murder case; events that have been etched in public consciousness since 2008.
Names, of course, are changed. The Talwars become the Tandons, Aarushi becomes Shruti, Hemraj becomes Khempal, Dr. Rajesh becomes Dr. Ramesh, Nupur, the mother, becomes Nutan, Arun Kumar IPS becomes Ashok Kumar IPS and funnily enough, the CBI becomes the CDI – Central Department of Intelligence.
The other aspects of the case, however, remain invariant. Viewers will recognize the allegations of wife-swapping and filicide thrown at the parents, rumours of illicit love between a teenager and an old man, the possible murder weapons: a golf club, a surgical knife, a khukri, and so on. Even real world details that would have not been deemed sensational enough to include in another movie find their place here. Even throwaway bits like Dr. Rajesh Talwar not being able to identify the servant Hemraj’s body.
And then there are the two main theories surrounding the murders – one, that Shruti and Khempal were murdered by her father in a fit of rage after having been discovered in a compromising position, and two, that they were both murdered by Kanhaiyya (Dr. Ramesh’s compounder) and his associates, after a night of heavy drinking. Over the course of the film, enough evidence is presented in support of and against both these theories, and it ends just as inconclusively as the actual case did, with the arrest of the Tandon parents and a haze of uncertainty left hanging over the whole affair.
None of this is surprising in the least, and yet, what makes Talvar so unique is that it uses our familiarity with the plot to its advantage. Every new development in the case is presented in the most understated of ways. The plot twists aren’t really plot twists at all, merely new pieces of information. We learn, soon enough, that we’re not to take anything we see at face value. That we have to question everything we see. Talvar is one of those films where you aren’t supposed to suspend your disbelief.
This is especially relevant, considering that in real life, public opinion regarding Aarushi’s case was heavily influenced by news channel reports of the murder. There were a bunch of news channels which supported the filicide theory, it being the most sensational one out there, and would routinely ignore or understate evidence that pointed towards the other theory. Similarly, proponents of the Kanhaiyya theory disregarded evidence that pointed to the filicide theory. Talvar, being a movie – an audiovisual medium – has the unique ability to mimic the news channels’ little omissions and additions, and thus influence our thoughts on the case.
Which is what makes Talvar so successful as an exploration of bias, prejudice, and what happens when we let our preconceptions get in the way of systematic reasoning. The film does not shy away from pointing out how the two main theories have their roots in classist stereotypes.
For example, the filicide theory is pushed by a bald, paan chewing Inspector Dhaniram whose suspicion of the parents is based on a line of reasoning that goes something like this:
Dr. Ramesh is friendly with his female co-worker, which implies that Dr. Ramesh must be sleeping with said co-worker. The Tandons allow their daughter to have sleepovers, which is a very western idea, and so they must also be capable of engaging in other disgusting western practices like wife swapping. People who participate in such debauchery will not think twice before killing their daughter.
This plays on the common stereotype that high class people (upper middle class in this case, I suppose, if we are to be accurate) generally have loose morals because they have been contaminated by western culture.
The theory that Kanhaiyya committed the murders, on the other hand, plays on the mistrust that the upper and middle classes have for the lower class. And also, consider that Kanhaiyya and his associates are not just lower class men, they’re also Nepali – outsiders, in other words – and the reason for this mistrust (among the proponents of this theory) becomes more and more apparent. The film adds fuel to this preconception by showing these men to be crass, as the stereotype posits. They swear and drink indiscriminately, and one of them says he loves Shruti, even though she is only 14.
However the most revealing aspect of Talvar is that the film itself appears to be biased towards the Kanhaiyya theory. Even though film presents both sides of the case and ends on a rather uncertain note, we walk out feeling a little more sympathetic towards the parents than towards Kanhaiyya. How does this happen, and why?
The why is easy to answer – it is a case of form matching content. The movie invites viewers to think about how opinions are influenced by attempting to influence our opinions.
The how, on the other hand, is obtained by looking at how the film treats the character of Ashwin Kumar IPS, the CDI officer who proposes the Kanhaiyya theory. For starters, he is played by Irfan Khan – easily the most famous actor among the cast (with the possible exception of Konkona Sen Sharma). This automatically tilts the scale towards the Kanhaiyya theory, as we are bound to trust those we know as opposed to those we don’t. Incidentally, advertising works the exact same way, by getting a famous actor to endorse a product. Only in this case, the product is an idea.
And also notice that we spend a lot more time with Ashwin Kumar than we spend with any of the other characters. It is through his eyes that we see most of the film. He gets the best lines. He is the only one that we really get to know. Those seemingly unnecessary romantic detours that the film takes us on with Ashwin and his ex-wife, they serve a purpose. The film-makers want us to see Ashwin Kumar as a person. The rest of the characters are defined by their relationship to the case, but Ashwin alone exists outside it. And added to that, Ashwin has personality traits that are widely considered likeable: he’s classy, dresses and grooms himself well; he’s sharp, witty, confident, he stands up for himself, and so on.
All this adds up to make sure that we question Ashwin Kumar’s actions less than we question those of the other characters. It is why we are ready to write off Inspector Dhaniram’s conclusions as being the foolish thoughts of an illiterate boor; while Ashwin’s arguably unethical methods of investigation are seen as a necessary evil.
This isn’t an achievement in itself. In fact, almost every movie uses similar techniques to get us to like its protagonist. But consider that Talvar, early on, presents us with evidence that Ashwin Kumar might also have preconceptions that influenced his thinking on the case. He is obviously from the same social class as the Tandons, and in an early scene, he hints that his marriage lacks spice and outright confesses that he and his wife have both had extra-marital affairs, so he knows that infidelity/sexual experimentation is not a sign of moral decadence. In fact, it is strongly suggested that he views the allegations of the Tandons’ debauchery to be an attack on his own principles, which is why he is so vocal against the mere possibility of them being the murderers. Also, in another scene, we see him poring over a calendar in Khempal’s room which has platitudes printed on it. This could have very well influenced his opinion that Khempal was a straight arrow who wouldn’t make advances towards Shruti.
Near the end, Ashwin tells the proponents of the filicide theory that they investigated the case the wrong way. They were supposed to gather evidence, examine the evidence and come to a conclusion which is supported by the evidence, but instead they came to a conclusion first and then collected evidence which supported the conclusion. We are presented with the possibility that Ashwin might have done the exact same thing, but we don’t give this possibility a moment’s thought.
And this is the film’s thesis.
Because we see what we want to see.