Legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, perhaps India’s finest exponent of melodrama, once remarked in defense of the technique, “Film is not a form, it has forms. I am not afraid of melodrama. To use melodrama is one’s birthright, it is a form”. While his work embodied this form as a means of expression, most of Hindi mainstream cinema has used it to the hilt as the only form available. Ever since its inception, it has sworn by this technique over any other technique in the book, being evangelical in its use, to the extremes if needed.
It is therefore refreshing when works come up intermittently which have a more studied, dispassionate way of storytelling. It is also fitting that one such work in the recent times had to come from Meghna Gulzar, quite like her father Gulzar, who along with a select group of Hindi filmmakers of the yesteryears (Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Bhattacharya being others), albeit adopted melodrama but with a lot more restraint than his contemporaries. It’s also worth noticing and far more interesting perhaps, that this work was built on the screenplay by another Gulzar protégé Vishal Bhardwaj (assisted by Ajay Nimbalkar). Bhardwaj, famously known as the ‘Bard of Bollywood’, and whose best works have been uniquely imaginative screen adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, the fountainhead of all that represents human drama, has helmed this project.
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Talvar is based on the investigations and the subsequent court pronouncements of the infamous 2008 double murder case of Noida which shocked and made voyeurs out of the average Indian TV viewers. Understated storytelling aside, what makes Talvar possibly more significant is that it could arguably be rated as Hindi cinema’s best police procedural (Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday coming a close second). Hindi cinema has always had a notorious reputation when it comes to depicting ‘professions’ and their complexities. And of those attempts, the most cringe worthy have been the portrayals of the police.
From horribly inaccurate uniforms, complete disregard of organizational hierarchies and ranks, stagey police stations commonly adorned by Gandhi’s portrait hanging on the wall, whitewashed prison cells, unbridled superhero-like machismo (often by the police officer protagonist alone) to the unintentionally comic and oft-repeated late arrivals at the crime scenes after the ‘hero’ had cleaned up all the mess, the police in Hindi cinema has been the most defiled of all professions. Talvar in that sense, is a very inspired attempt to showcase the law enforcers and their work in all its dimensions. The film gleefully displays, unlike any other Hindi film before, all the assiduous pursuits of fingerprints and testimonies, the forensic science nerds, the suspenseful polygraph and the unpredictable Narco tests, professional rivalries, nepotism backed appointments and factionalism changing the course of investigations.
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But herein lies the astuteness of Meghna’s direction and more so, of Bhardwaj’s writing. They never lose sight of the fact that along with the realism warranted in the storytelling, the Indian viewer needs to see the drama to stay invested in the narrative and not get alienated. Amidst all the details, the Rashomon-esque telling and retelling of the crime, the makers never forget to pause and look at the angst from being unfairly treated by superiors, the grief of suddenly losing a child or the pain of being at the receiving end of botched-up investigations and injustice. Amidst the processes and the procedures, they never forget the people caught right at the center of the storm. They never completely discard melodrama; instead deploy it with pitch-perfect precision to hold the viewer tight.
To this end, the makers do something that is perhaps essential but at the same time, brave. They take a stand. As much as the disclaimer at the start tries to project its impartiality and disown any claim to accuracy, the film in its ‘dramatized recreation of actual events’, does not dither in fundamentally building its narrative around ‘imagined’ loopholes and absurdities of the investigation. The makers amidst all the earnestness to pursue realism do not hesitate to give the viewer the ‘good-evil’ binary, the pivot around which all Hindi mainstream drama is built and the average Indian viewer’s staple for decades. And here the binary is not made up of the cops and the killers but with the cops themselves.
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While one investigating team (led by Irrfan Khan – in his usual sublime form) is visibly more efficient, diligent, conscientious and reaches within touching distance of solving the case, the other is given a lower pedestal in terms of both skill and morality to demarcate the ‘good cop bad cop’ binary in the film. In the climactic scene, this binary is played out in almost a ‘theatre of the absurd’ manner when these two teams are brought together to validate their own attempt and counter the other. After every conclusion of the lesser team is rejected and even ridiculed by Irrfan and his shrewd but mildly cynical senior played by Prakash Belawadi, the case file is closed with the lyrical declaration ‘Wo afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin, use ek khubsurat mod dekar chhod do’.
The narrative makes repeated and extensive use of ‘setup and payoffs’ to reconstruct the crime when being investigated with the two principally different approaches in the film. In doing so, the makers while making sense of the crime nudge the viewer at every turn and force him to keep track of every new clue, every new deduction — in the process making him an active participant in interpreting the crime instead of just reducing him to a passive onlooker to those attempts.
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It helps that the director has at her disposal a fine ensemble of actors. They help propel a narrative perched on such a delicate sense of balance between realism and melodrama. And this balance is hinged around Irrfan, the best actor working in Hindi cinema today, who carries it with his trademark effortlessness. On the one hand he goes about his investigations as a matter-of-fact, seasoned, slightly disenchanted officer. On the other, he stops short from displaying his frustration at his corrupted peers in full blown angst (barring one scene where he physically charges at his disloyal junior. This scene uses the hyperbolic melodrama for just the right measure, uncannily resembling Mark Ruffalo’s outburst scene in Spotlight, a similarly restrained account of investigative journalism and probably the best procedural film of recent times, coincidentally released in the same year as Talvar).
Gajraj Rao and Atul Kumar from the other camp, portraying officers evidently lacking in competence, deftly prevent these portrayals from being just short of caricatures. A special mention for Neeraj Kabi, who plays the grieving father caught between the crossfire within the investigating camps. He makes you genuinely ache for the injustice meted out to him. Also for Ketan Sodha’s background music which adds to the intrigue and eventual gloom of the narrative.
Talvar is Hindi cinema’s best attempt in the recent past at realism within the ambits of mainstream conventions. One that would be hard to surpass in the years to come.
Where To Watch: Netflix