'Guilty': TIFF Review

Guilty Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Gripping from start to finish.

Irrfan Khan stars as a brilliant police inspector in Meghna Gulzar’s true crime procedural about a double murder case.

A true crime whodunit exploring the infamous 2008 Noida double murder case, which has already given rise to a TV movie and the feature film Mystery (Rahasya) released earlier this year, Guilty (Talvar) is a gripping thriller and police procedural. Years have now passed since two married, middle-class Indian doctors were jailed based on circumstantial evidence for murdering their daughter. Condemning this sentence as a travesty of justice (though leaving just a hint of ambiguity and doubt about the parents’ guilt), director Meghna Gulzar’s third feature reaches farther to criticize incompetent cops, overbearing commissioners, ruthlessly competitive assistants and unfathomable judges. The portrait of the Indian judicial system that emerges is both frightening in its (probable) miscarriage of justice, yet also strangely reassuring as long as a brilliant Irrfan Khan is burrowing for the truth. While it’s doubtful his star power will take Vishal Bhardwaj’s multiple-viewpoint screenplay mainstream outside of India, it should draw interest from his art house fans.

From a downtrodden desk jockey in The Lunchbox to the billionaire master of Jurassic World, Khan has humanized the most stereotyped of roles, and his depiction of Ashwin Kumar, Joint-Director of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is nothing short of enthralling. Certainly the case itself offers him a juicy morsel to chew on. The film’s Hindi title is Talvar, meaning sword, but is enticingly close to the name of the real-life parents, Talwar. Though names are changed throughout, there is no doubt the filmmakers are aiming at a one-to-one correspondence with real people in the case.

As a suburban household awakens one fine spring morning, doors are strangely locked or unlocked, and the dead body of 14-year-old Shruti is discovered lying on her blood-soaked bed. Her father Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and mother Nupur (Konkona Sensharma) appear in shock. Soon the maid alerts the neighbors, and relatives call the police. The apartment is flooded with bystanders and the crime scene hopelessly compromised. The smug police investigator feels it doesn’t matter because it's "an open and shut case": The butler did it (in this case, live-in servant Hemraj). And he’s missing.

Only days later do the police force open the door to the terrace (the keys can't be found). There they find the servant’s body in an advanced state of decomposition. His head has been bludgeoned and his throat slit, exactly like Shruti’s. The police haul the father in for questioning. The media goes berserk, and the parents are judged guilty by socialites on TV talk shows.

So back to the drawing board. This time the big guns are called in. Leading the new investigation is Ashwin Kumar of the CBI, which normally handles major fraud and corruption cases. Kumar's impeccable scientific methods, mixed with astuteness, intuition and stubborn convictions of his own, exonerate the parents and point to three late-night visitors to the house. Since vital evidence has been lost or destroyed in the initial botched investigation, Kumar's team turns to less conventional methods to incriminate the suspects: lie-detector and brain-mapping tests and narco-analysis using a truth serum. The results seem clear-cut, and the audience is lead to what it will perceive as the truth of the case. But this is not the end.

This most engrossing part of the film is followed by an interval of office politics and the launching of yet another investigation. After some heart-sinking moments, an electrifying confrontation between Kumar and his CBI detractors raises the tension once more.

The screenplay half-heartedly inserts backstory about Kumar’s dissolving marriage with his glamorous wife (Tabu), but it’s a minor distraction from the thrust of the mystery, ably paced by Gulzar and editor Sreekar Prasad. Tech work is high-quality and atmospheric throughout.

Production companies: Junglee Pictures in association with VB Pictures

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sensharma, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Gajraj Rao, Atul Kumar, Tabu

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Screenwriter: Vishal Bhardwaj

Producers: Vineet Jain, Vishal Bhardwaj

Executive producer: Alan McAlex 

Director of photography: Pankaj Kumar

Production designers: Subrata Chakraborty, Amit Ray

Costume designer: Abhilasha Sharma

Editor: Sreekar Prasad

Music: Vishal Bhardwaj  

No rating, 132 minutes