Cast: Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Neeraj Kabi, Sohum Shah, Tabu, Sumit Gulati
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Runtime: 132 min.
Verdict: Adolescence and righteousness abound. Self-patting display of middle class morality. I would much rather prefer not watching Dabanng than not watching films as these.
Genre: Drama, Thriller.
Let us do a quick roll call. The maid – has a boyfriend. The idiot witness – lives alone. Khempal – lives alone. The driver – lives alone and lusts after Shruti. Kanhaiya (Mr. Gulati) – drinks and lives alone. The security guard – is an insomniac and lives alone. On the other side, all the investigating parties and the primary accused at the end of the film and their near and dear ones and almost everybody in town – including replacement investigator Paul (Mr. Atul Kumar), who has a son, and primary investigator Ashwin Kumar (Mr. Khan) who is essentially gravitating towards his wife Reema (Ms. Tabu) under the guise of a failed marriage (a conceit to essentially underline the romance) – are neck-deep in domestic bliss. Strangely, and this with what can probably only be called a supercut of condescension – the camera recording all the testimonies from all the guards and servants – with its lumping together of “a class/type of people” into one
stereotype homogenous lot (a technique that was brought about
by Rang De Basanti, and one which
probably needs to stop now), the maid’s boyfriend (even the word) comes across
as a laughing matter, while Vedant’s (Mr. Shah) reference to his girlfriend is
surrounded by no such underlining/quoting and feels matter-of-fact.
Now, here’s what I see around myself. The immigrant problem, or let us say conflict, or, toning down a little bit more, tension, is not one of the id of the migrant trying to run over the family-based values of the existing dominant class, but that the values of the immigrant overwriting the values of the dominant class. It is a conflict between two ways of living which almost inevitably has to peter out because they are essentially clones of each other, for the eager migrant desires the way of living of the dominant class. So as a filmmaker trying to put on the hat of an anthropologist, one can either hint towards this conflict with both parties trying to protect their way of living, or one can choose to completely abandon one party’s point-of-view by labelling it as crass and proceed to spend the humanist juices on the other one. You could argue that there indeed are other flavors on how to go about it, and maybe we, living in a similar urban setting, can probably draw a rather familiar analogy – of families and bachelors (For simplicity, I’ll leave the ladies out of this) living in an apartment complex – to understand them.
So, I have a hot wife, own a nice apartment in the complex, have a grand car and seem to mostly have a lifestyle you can refer to as classy. All assumptions, alright? I have, say three bachelors, living in a neighboring 3 BHK apartment. So I can assume any of the following:
a. They look at everything I have and envy when me whenever I get out of my house with my hot wife in my nice car wearing classy stuff. They want to one day own such an apartment. They do talk about me whenever they are boozing together on Friday and Saturday evenings, and decorating me with some fine cuss words.
b. They don’t care about zip. They’re so engrossed in their lives they probably haven’t even noticed me.
c. They hate the apartment complex I live in, and they in fact have booked a villa, which they are planning to move into pretty soon after they are done with their individual weddings.
d. I envy them whenever I see them walking around with their girlfriends, or planning to spend the evening with friends boozing. Also, I compensate by declaring them as nuisance to the complex/society spreading bad examples for the kids.
e. Inheriting scenario (a) they think I travel the world – both on vacation tours and onsite trips. And they envy that even at my age I am supremely fit and probably attend plays and film festivals.
f. Inheriting aspects of scenario (b) (c) and (d), they travel the world, and they attend concerts and they probably plan to attend the French Open next year and FIFA World Cup in Russia. They regularly attend their gymnasium sessions, while I carry my paunch and gastric troubles around.
Again, assumptions. Scenarios, to be strictly taken as figments of fiction for purposes of argument. The point here is that before we begin a scientific study on two set of groups, it needs to be understood what the point of differentiation is we are studying. Is it a set of ideologies, or moral values we are comparing and contrasting? In which case, are we being fooled in any way, for the driving motivation in an urban setting is usually the economy, and economy is predicated on desire and not values. I mean, the whole kit and caboodle around reality principle pleasure principle. Not to get all cheesy on you, but desires unite I and my bachelor neighbors, I guess, and it is probably wrong when a Nepali song is mostly a butt of a joke, while a song shared between Ashwin and his wife assumes romantic duties (quite literally, aapka pyar pyar aur humara pyar sex?). Or that we represent the lower class as leeches gladly feeding on free liquor, or sneaking in friends after night, but we do not get any shots of wife-swapping behavior. What Talvar seems to be indulging in is value-based profiling, and pretty poor examples of it. A cop chews pan and has a funny ringtone and is fat and has trouble bending and is regressive in his outlook. A senior cop mumbles the names. It might all be facts, but the purpose of art is not to list Wikipedia points, but to provide a sense of soul to those points. As Mr. Herzog would put it, a sense of ecstatic truth, if you will. By invoking wife-swapping and not including it the film, admittedly an unbiased take, is indeed judging an act and essentially earmarking it as an act unworthy of the middle-class morality. More importantly, by invoking it from the perspective of the lower class, it is dare I say unintentionally, associating it to a value-system attached with either the “seedy” elements of middle class, or the affluent. And hence committing not to objectivity but righteousness. This is very much the middle-class morality in play, the one that is criticized in The Wolf of Wall Street and Mr. Bay’s masterpiece Pain and Gain, and the manner in which Kanhaiya walks out smiling (one would be reminded of the old villains/rapists of yore who would commit the crime and walk out laughing at the victim, leading them to suicides, in the films of 80s and 90s), you would wonder if these same folks who would shout against death penalty if folks like Kanhaiya, or Mukesh Singh, were on the line.
And that is primary failure point of Talvar, which is not that it is taking sides, but it probably doesn’t even know it is taking sides. It is further problematic when the only guy in town who is worried about all the liberal jargon – liberty, justice, truth and the whole package – is the principal protagonist, and who mind you, wears a moustache and sunglasses just like the gentlemen in Dabanng, Singham and Rowdy Rathore who had a similar role in their respective societies. Again, the Ms. Gulzar and co. seem to be oblivious of this, but Ashwin Kumar is essentially their representative within the film, a conduit to their voice crying for justice and truth, while they externalize (and even otherify) the world around. Ms. Gulzar, like Mr. Banerjee in Shanghai, isn’t content with showing a corrupted system, she feels the need to express her righteous indignance.
Which I would not have been so cross with had the righteousness not taken the form of downright condescension (it almost ends up doing that, isn’t it?). Just to underline and capitalize and italicize it all, the film lands a one-two punch – (1) a “discussion” between two teams about what is the pragmatic truth, which mostly ends up being a game of one-upmanship and laughs (no prizes for guessing who wins it hands down) and (2) a dramatic video of the victim and the family. Two words I have here – (1) adolescence, and (2) kitsch. And if you are a film trying to understand the nature of an essentially tragic event, and your high points (at least based on audiences’ response) are a protagonist delivering one-liners and jokes on the Hindi translation of the word missionary, you’re in big trouble my friend. Because, you see, it is just plain wrong, and maybe even borderline narcissist that we seem to be mostly remembering Ashwin, while the victim and the family, seem to walking caricatures of grief mostly pushed to the periphery. Probably fitting that they land in jail while the film celebrates its second tear.