Movie Review; TALVAR - An Indictment of the Indian Legal System?

Movie Review; TALVAR - An Indictment of the Indian Legal System?

The Hindi movie ‘Talvar’ ,released on 02.09.2015, has brought alive the ghosts of the infamous ‘Arushi Talwar- Hemraj’ double murder case of 2008 into public discussion again. On 16.05.2008, 14 year old Arushi Talwar was found dead in her bedroom in her Noida apartment, and the dead body of the domestic help Hemraj was discovered at the terrace of the apartment next day. The CBI Court found the parents of Arushi, Dr.Rajesh Talwar and Dr. Nupur Talwar, guilty for the double murders.( Judgment dated 26.11.2013 in Sessions Trial No. 477 of 2012, Court of Special Judge, CBI, Ghaziabad), )

The endeavour here is not to test the validity of the judgment in the light of the revelations in the movie, as it would be a puerile and egregious exercise. The attempt herein is to juxtapose the information revealed in the movie with the factual circumstances unfurled in the judgment so as to examine whether there are any missing links in the chain of events, and thereby to ask whether the call for a wider probe and further investigation into the matter is warranted or not. In other words, merely to analyse whether the issue has attained a proper sense of closure.

The movie, directed by Meghna Gulzar and scripted by the Vishal Bharadwaj, attempts to shed light into the areas which were omitted by the investigation. It follows the docu-fiction pattern, documenting the events pertaining to the case with certain fictionalizations to render it suitable to cinematic medium. There were three teams which carried out the investigation, one by the State Police, and two by the CBI, and the film presents the versions of the three teams before the audience, and leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions.   Some critics have compared the movie’s narrative style to that of Japanese classic “Rashomon” directed by the Akira Kurasowa, wherein multiple versions of a single incident are weaved together to present a multifaceted account of truth to the audience.

The genesis of crime.

The viewers are introduced to the crime scene with the arrival of maidservant, and her inability to open the outer mesh door. She finds the door locked from outside. At this juncture, it is pertinent to refer to the discussion of the evidence of Bharti Mandal, the real life maidservant, at pages 86 to 91 of the judgment. It appears that the maidservant deposed before the Court that the door was not locked from outside, contrary to her initial statement before the police. She also admitted in her cross examination that she was deposing as per the instruction of investigation officer, clearly suggesting that she had been tutored.  However, the Court brushed aside such inconsistencies and discrepancies on the ground that she was an “illiterate and bucolic lady from the lower strata” and that her testimony ought not to be discarded on the basis of inconsistencies.(Page 91 of judgment).

The local police who arrived at the crime scene are depicted as carrying out the process with callous carelessness and ineptitude. They failed to cordon off the crime scene, resulting in the finger prints and the forensic evidence getting mutilated due to incessant flow of visitors. According to the police it was an ‘open and shut case of murder committed by the missing servant Hemraj, and announces a reward for tracing him out. The police commit gross negligence in their failure to examine the terrace of the building, where the body of Hemraj had been lying since last midnight. Although some of the visitors bring to the attention of the police the presence of blood stains in the lock of terrace door and stair railings, the police officers dismiss them as rust. It was only on the next day by 10 AM that the body of Hemraj was discovered in the terrace in an advanced state of putrefaction.

The discovery of the body of Hemraj a day later struck a major blow to the police, as it pointed out severe ineptitude on their part, and the initial theory of servant killing the girl came crumbling down. Coming under severe media criticism and public pressure, the Police felt constrained to find a solution to the case at the earliest. Thus, the theory of ‘honour killing’ was devised stating that the father killed both of them in a fit of rage upon finding them in an “objectionable, if not a compromising, position” and that the mother abetted and aided the crime. That the Talwars slept throughout the night without knowing the double murders which happened in the adjacent rooms was brought up as a suspicious circumstance against them. The parents explained that they used to sleep with the doors and windows closed and the Air Conditioner in their room was very noisy, making it impossible to hear voices from outside. Also, the fact that they specified the exact time of death of Arushi to the pundit at Haridwar before disposing off her ashes in Ganga was also used to frame them. However, they explained that the approximate time of death was mentioned to the pundit as they were told that the time of death was necessary to be mentioned for the proper performance of the rites. Anyway, the explanations offered by the parents were not heeded to and they were framed, and a press conference was hurriedly called for announcing the result. That triggered off a media onslaught, and the character and dignity of the parents and the deceased daughter were ripped apart by sensationalist media.

The alternate theory

At that juncture, the CBI( CDI in the movie), takes over the investigation. The new team conducted a sonic inspection of the room of the Doctors with the AC switched on, and found that it was impossible to hear voices from outside. The local police had omitted to properly examine the room of Hemraj, where a bottle of beer and two glasses were left. Hemraj was a teetotaller, and there were clear indications from the room that at least three persons had assembled in the room on the fateful night to consume alcohol. The needle of suspicion turned to an employee of the Doctor at the clinic Krishna (Kanhaiya in the movie), and Raj Kumar, a servant in the adjacent flat. They were apprehended and questioned, and were subjected to narco-analysis test. In the narco-analysis test, they were shown as confessing to the crime, and detailing the events.

It was revealed in the narco-analysis that the both of them, along with another servant, had assembled in the room of Hemraj for consuming alcohol that night. During their drunken revelry, they prodded Hemraj to procure the bottle of Bellentine whiskey from the doctor’s cabin.  Yielding to their demand, Hemraj entered the doctors’ office through the door of his room which was opening to the apartment, and proceeded to the cabin, followed by the other two. Meanwhile, upon hearing the noise, Arushi opened the door of her room, and that moment, Krishna and Raj Kumar sprang into her room, and tried to molest her. In the ensuing commotion, Krishna attacked her with his khukri (a Nepali knife). Hemraj got petrified upon coming to know this, and the other two took Hemraj to the terrace and killed him there.

Of course, the results of a narco-analysis test are not admissible in evidence as per the law settled by the Supreme Court in Selvi vs. State of Karnataka AIR 2010 SC 1974. However, the CBI officials were successful in recovering a blood stained pillow cover from the room of Krishna, which was found to be having the blood stains of Hemraj in forensic examination. That sealed that case as the presence of blood of Hemraj in Krishna’s pillow totally negated the hypotheses floated by the local police that Hemraj was killed in Arushi’s room. However, very soon, the charge of investigation is entrusted to a new team.

The Second CBI Investigation team.

It is suggested in the movie that a new investigation team was constituted immediately after the retirement of the officer who was supervising the first investigation team. The further insinuation dropped is that the new officer in charge manipulated the course of investigation to save the face of his friend, who happened to be the in-charge of the State Police investigation. Be that as it may, evidence and conclusions undergo a drastic change with the second investigation team. The pillow recovered from Krishna’s room, which had blood of Hemraj in it, gets interchanged with the pillow recovered from Arushi’s room. It is stated that pillow with Hemraj’s blood was actually recovered from Arushi’s room, and it happened to be referred as the pillow from Krishna’s room as a result of a typographical error. (The judgment of the CBI Court accepts the excuse of typographical error at page 158). Also, the theory of ‘honour killing’ propounded by the State Police is re-adopted. Statements from witnesses are taken again to suit the said theory.

At this juncture, it is pertinent to advert to the testimony of Dr. Sunil Dohre, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem examination of Arushi’s dead body, who deposed before court as PW-5. From the discussion at pages 172-174 of the judgment, it appears that his testimony was later improved considerably to suit the theory that the deceased girl was habituated to sexual intercourse. The said witness also deposed that her private parts were cleaned after death to remove any doubts regarding sexual intercourse. However, in the post-mortem report, he had  reported that no abnormality was detected in her private parts. Thereafter, in the statement given to the second investigation team on 30.09.2009, he makes a contrary statement, and deposes as above. But, the Court reconciles such embellishments in the testimony on the ground that none of the above investigators had questioned the Doctor regarding the same, and the Doctor had no occasion to give such statements until 30.09.2009 when he was probed on that aspect by the second CBI investigation team. His testimony is relied upon to give credence to the theory of motive behind the crime. One can only frown at such casual and cavalier manner in which the learned CBI judge gets over the inconsistencies in the statements of prosecution witnesses.

The Anti-Climax

The high point of the movie is the final twenty minutes, wherein both CBI investigation teams analyse their divergent conclusions in the presence of the Director. In a scenario which is reminiscent of the legal classic ‘Twelve Angry Men’, each inference of the teams are put to close scrutiny and thread bare deliberations. The viewers would find most of the conclusions of the second CBI team ludicrous and cringe worthy. The propositions advanced by the second team induce laughter in the audience, creating a mood of dark humour, and as one of character describes, ‘their whole theory is a joke’. One gets the feeling from the events that professional rivalry, office politics and ego of the officers of State Police and CBI deflected the proper course of investigation.

Finally, upon weighing both the versions, the Director instructs the second team to file closure report in the case stating that there was no evidence to proceed against the accused. Accordingly, closure report is filed under Section 169 of the Cr.P.C stating that there was no evidence to prosecute the parents. However, the parents filed a protest complaint to the closure report. They wanted the real culprits to be nabbed and prayed for further investigation. However, in an bizarre anticlimax of sorts, the Special Judicial Magistrate(CBI), Ghaziabad, by order dated 09.02.2011, dismisses the closure report to take cognizance of the offence, and directs the Doctors to stand trial.

Miscarriage of justice

The judgment appears untenable and shaky on its own facts and evidence on record, and many of the conclusions are disturbing to common prudence.  ‘There were four persons in the house at night; two were found dead in the morning; so the remaining two must be culprits, if there is no evidence of entry by anyone else at night’- The whole reasoning of the judgment is built up on this simple hypotheses. At pages 191-193 of the judgment the grounds for arriving at conviction are enumerated.

The Court places heavy reliance on Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act to state that the events transpired in the apartment during the intervening night of 15.05.2008 to 16.05.2008 are within the domain of especial knowledge of the accused, and unless they are able to come up with a reasonable explanation for that, the chain of events establishing their guilt circumstantially will have to be regarded as proved.

The manner in which the judgment ignores the inconsistencies in the testimonies of Bharathi Mandal, the maid servant and the improvements in the statements of Dr.Dohre are in gross derogation of the tenets of criminal jurisprudence.  The prevarications in the statements of maid servant casts serious doubt on the proposition that the door was latched from inside, thereby necessarily leaving open the probability of outsiders coming in. Also, the embellished testimony of Dr. Dohre ought not to have been relied upon to establish motive behind the crime.  The most shocking of the Court’s finding is that the parents’ failure to hug their daughter’s body suggested their involvement in the crime.

Equally confounding is the implication of Dr.Nupur Talwar in the crime. Assuming the prosecution version to be true, it would only emerge that the father bludgeoned Arushi and Hemraj to death in a fit of rage upon finding them in a compromising position. There is no explanation as to the involvement of the mother in this act of crime committed in a fit of rage. She is roped into the crime with the device of common intention under Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code. There is no indication that the mother was also present with the father when the deceased were caught red handed. So, where is the occasion to form common intention, one would wonder. However, without endeavouring to explain that aspect, the Court goes on an academic discussion of the abstract theory of common intention in pages 196 to 203 of the judgment, and finds the mother also guilty, without affording any explanation whatsoever as to the manner in which the propositions pertaining to common intention are placed in sync with the case in hand.

The CBI officer Arun Kumar, who had headed the first investigation team, in an interview to NDTV stated that the movie was 80% accurate to the true events. The Talwars complain that they were not permitted to summon several witnesses of their choice, including the said Arun Kumar and allege that they have been denied a fair trial.

It may be borne in mind that the trial of the case took place in a highly vitiated atmosphere, in which all sorts of derogatory stories casting aspersions on the Talwars were being circulated freely in the media.  The widely held prejudice was that an affluent family was paying for its sins of a promiscuous life, and the Talwars were an anathema to the socially conservative and morally conscious psyche of Indian middle class. One cannot help suspecting that the Court too fell for such prejudices. In the concluding paragraphs, the judgment embarks upon an unwarranted homily about the sanctity of family values and parent-child relationship. The judgment of the Court proceeds on an inverted application of presumption of innocence and burden of proof. The judicial approach is peculiar in that the entire burden of exculpating themselves are thrown on the accused with the aid of Section 106 of the Evidence Act.  One might even get the impression that the Court was morally prejudiced and predetermined to convict the Talwars, and in that zeal, several inconsistencies and improbabilities in the prosecution evidence were overlooked. The judgment is not free from the pale of reasonable doubt, leaving behind several questions unanswered. There are several missing pieces in this jigsaw puzzle, and a further investigation may be necessary to unravel the truth.

Post Script

One may also question the propriety of a movie of this nature being made and released when the matter is still sub judice before the appellate Court. It might have the tendency to prejudice the judicial mind and interfere with the process of justice. It may be recalled that the release of Anurag Kashyap’s movie ‘Black Friday’ on 1993 Bombay blasts was stayed by the Court till the appeals were finally disposed of by the Supreme Court. Anyway, there has not been any such objection against this movie so far. Possibly because there is a general sense of lack of closure with respect to the Arushi case, and a prevalent wide spread feeling that the judgment is unjust and perverse. It is only a natural outcome of social dynamics that when the constitutional bodies fail to perform their functions, extra constitutional agencies will emerge to fill the void.