Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Thoughts on Talvar: Holmes in the heart of darkness

[Did a version of this piece for my Mint Lounge column]

In an early scene in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan Khan) jokingly calls a colleague Sherlock Holmes, in response to an inference made by the other man. Ashwin then hums a thriller-style tune to stress the gap between the exploits of Conan Doyle’s super-detective and the humdrum procedures followed by this team as it tries to crack a double-murder case. The scene, with its gentle dig at the sort of cliffhanger-filled mystery that Talvar itself is not going to be, is akin in some ways to the moment during the chase sequence in Black Friday where we hear florid filmi dialogue from an old Bachchan movie about cops and robbers, even as we see unfit policemen and their exhausted quarry fumbling through a slum.

And yet, there was a point during Talvar when I was thinking of Irrfan’s character as a Super-Detective Lite, if that makes any sense – not a Holmes, but something comparable if you factor in the nature of this film. In a narrative that is often documentary-like, Ashwin, initially at least, is a bit of an outlier. Though based on a real person (CBI officer Arun Kumar) he feels like a fictional character introduced to help us make sense of a messy case and untangle knots created by incompetent policemen and self-serving bureaucrats. Ashwin drily comments on the many investigative goof-ups and almost literally takes a policeman’s pants off in one scene; his mission is to clean up the rust that has gathered on Justice’s sword. To a degree, he is a movie archetype: the crusader who untiringly pursues the truth, even while battling personal crisis (an impending separation from his wife, played by Tabu; there’s something self-indulgent but also witty about this Vishal Bhardwaj-produced film using Bhardwaj’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a domestic sideshow to a story about blood and betrayal, servants and masters, and overvaulting ambition!). Irrfan brings deadpan humour and, yes, style to the film, telling a cop “Next time you’re at a murder scene where the killer has considerately left behind a big bloody handprint as a clue, try to preserve it.” Who expects a government-employed Indian detective to show commitment and comic timing? And who better than one of our best, most wryly charismatic actors to play the part?

So there is a touch of wish-fulfilment in the way Ashwin is written and performed, and fantasy-as-nourishment has always been one of cinema’s functions. When done well, it can, temporarily at least, make the real world a more bearable, even a more comprehensible place (which is one reason why I’m bemused by the snobbery directed at “escapism”, or by the idea that watching such a film or reading such a book entails leaving your brain elsewhere. No, it doesn’t – you need to engage, just as you do for the overtly serious stuff).

The ploy of introducing a fictional figure to tackle a real-life problem has been around for a while. It has been used even in the context of such great evils as Nazism (as in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), but let’s stick with the personal-crime context for now, and return to Sherlock Holmes. Two films – the 1965 A Study in Terror and the 1979 Christopher Plummer-James Mason-starrer Murder by Decree – pitted Holmes against the notorious Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper. Both ended with the super-detective unmasking the murderer, even if he had to stare down a royal conspiracy, and the soundtrack was appropriately stirring (Ashwin would have enjoyed humming it). You can be immersed in, even moved by, those films without forgetting that in the prosaic real world the Ripper is still the unidentified subject of debate, speculation and even mythologizing – while Sherlock Holmes exists only on the printed page (or the Kindle).

The wish-fulfilment elements in Talvar are much more muted though; the film is ultimately grounded by the politics and blemishes of the Aarushi Talwar saga. Near the end, there is a long, discomfiting sequence where a number of mostly middle-aged men, divided into two groups with opposing views about the case, sit together at a table and argue, trade accusations, banter, joke…all at the same time. Every now and again, when the mood becomes too frivolous, one of them admonishes the others – come on guys, let’s remember what this is about – but the levity never leaves the table; how can it, when you have a group of oversized boys given the chance to play with the words “dharm-pracharak asana” (a grand-sounding term for the missionary position)? In any case this is a club made up of people who are pragmatic about the workings of the world, aware that they will have to deal with each other in other situations in the years ahead, and that bridges must never be completely burnt no matter how fierce a disagreement gets.

Shortly after that sequence, Talvar ends by returning to the person whom everyone seems to have lost sight of in their spin-doctoring games and recriminations: the victim. But a case can be made that the film is too subtle or even perfunctory in doing this – the closing scene felt like a token, half-hearted exercise in sentimentality, included to belatedly give an audience something to get a little moist-eyed about as they shuffle out. Ultimately, for all of Irrfan’s super-detective-like panache in the early scenes, Talvar's real tone resides in its cold, cynical understanding that in a case like this the victims quickly become abstractions, a circus of voyeurism and self-interest takes over…and even a Holmes might turn in despair to his morphine, the same way Ashwin keeps turning to his own addiction, the video games on his phone.

P.S. The interviews I have read about Talvar being a “Rashomon-like” film, showing two or three different scenarios without taking a position on guilt or innocence, are a little misleading: this film definitely does take a position, almost to the degree that Avirook Sen’s recent book does. And it makes clever use of humour to present some of the farcical aspects of the case made against the Talwars. One of the biggest laughs – when Ashwin is sarcastically relating what needed to have happened, in limited time, on the morning after the murder for the prosecution’s version to be true, and we see the dead girl’s mother telling her husband “Come, hurry, we have to start the rona-dhona now” – reminded me of the hilarious “magic bullet” scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

1 comment:

  1. I felt that the Govt Panel which tried resolving the two sides of CDI findings screwed it up for the Tandons. By submitting before the court and stating not enough evidence against the accused amounts to incompetence which actually provoked the courts. The courts became more vary of the accused and adjudged them guilty. If the CDI had simply gone ahead with their latest investigation, the trial might have proven the Tandons not guilty as it was an investigation with lot of flaws.