Monday, 30th October 2017

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Portrait of a crime

Director Meghna Gulzar has been hailed by the critics and has scored a box office hit with Talvar based on the Aarushi double murder case, says Sarbani Sen

  • Published 1.11.15
Meghna at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival in September

It’s the crime that gripped the nation. It has spawned, first a book and now an edge-of-the-seat crime thriller that cleverly offers three ways the murder could have happened and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions and decide on the truth.

For moviemaker Meghna Gulzar the kudos came after the very first showing of Talvar. At the 40th Toronto International Film Festival in September, the movie, which is based on the Aarushi Talwar murder case, was lavished with praise both from critics and audiences.

“The unfinished-ness of the case attracted me the most. Everyone knows something about the case, but not the whole story,” says Meghna. 

The moviemaker adds that she was disturbed by the twists and turns in the double-murder case that took place in Noida, outside Delhi.

Meghna’s latest movie, Talvar, that’s based on the Aarushi Talwar double murder case, offers three crucial perspectives — from the points of view of the state police, the parents, and an organisation that’s called the Central Department of Investigation in the movie

But Meghna knew she had a hit on her hands after the showing of Talvar in Mumbai. Her father, the poet and director Gulzar, is a man who’s famous for his lyrical imagination, and he’s never lost for words. But, after watching the movie, he was completely silent. Sitting calmly in the audience, he stared into nothingness, unwilling to speak to anybody.

Meghna asked him several times for his reaction to the movie. “But he refused to utter a word,” says the daughter. “That was the best compliment I have ever received!” gushes the film-maker.

In Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios, Meghna’s still savouring the success of Talvar and is revelling in every moment of praise. And she has her father by her side watching his daughter, who he has always called ‘Bosky’, hogging the limelight.

Talvar is her first hit film. Meghna’s earlier two films Filhaal in 2002 and Just Married in 2007 bombed at the box office.

But Talvar starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Irrfan Khan, is  being heaped with praise by critics and audiences alike. “It’s an honest and realistic film, very smartly done like a documentary yet very appealing to the masses. People will remember her for this film,” says Komal Nahta, the film trade analyst. Some critics say Talvar has the whodunnit feel of the 1950 Akira Kurosawa classic Rashomon.

Based on the 2008, real-life double-murder case of Aarushi Talwar and the family’s domestic help Hemraj, the film has catapulted Meghna into the league of hit directors this year, says Nahta. Financially, too, the movie is a hit. Made at the cost of Rs 15 crore, it had collected close to Rs 26 crore by the end of second week and is still going strong.

Talvar wasn’t her idea, admits Meghna. Almost three years ago, film-maker (and her father’s ardent fan) Vishal Bhardwaj, suggested that she direct a film based on the Aarushi Talwar case.

For Meghna, it turned into a giant project. She started researching and read thousands of articles and watched countless videos of the Talwars and others linked to the case. “I didn’t interact personally with the family but gathered all the articles and videos that were available in the public domain,” she says. “We haven’t fabricated any of the news,” she says.

Unlike her other two films, Filhaal and Just Married, which Meghna wrote herself, she wanted Bhardwaj to write the script. “He’s the expert and for me it was a new genre,” she says.

Meghna (extreme left) directing Fardeen Khan and Esha Deol in Just Married; (Middle) Amrita Singh with Meghna (left) on the sets of the short film Pooranmashi 

For the lyrics, she roped in her dad who says it wasn’t easy working with her. “She’s a stubborn girl and would make me rewrite a song many times,” he says with a mischievous smile.

Meghna started out with a very clear idea of what she wanted to do. She presents three viewpoints on what happened in an unbiased a way as possible — though viewers will pro-bably decide that there were flaws in the investigation. She felt it would be better not to meet the Talwars and, instead, based her story on her research. And she went ahead even though the Talwars had filed a case against filmmaker Manish Gupta and his movie Rahasya, saying it defamed them and was inaccurate.

She got the first hint that she had got it  right  when the audiences at the Toronto Film Festival gave the film the thumbs up. Among them was Aarushi’s aunt, Shree Paradkar, who is Nupur’s (Aarushi’s mother) cousin and currently the deputy editor,, an online news portal in Canada.

Paradkar says: “I found myself wincing at the beginning of the film when a policeman grabs a bottle of Ballantine’s whisky from the dining table and puts it back with his bare hands. To see potential evidence on a crime scene compromised so nonchalantly sunk me into despair.”

Gulzar says that he finds similarities in Meghna’s style of directing films with his own. “Simplicity has always been my way when telling a story and I see the same style in her direction. She gets straight to the point without any flashiness. It’s time for me to learn from Meghna,” he says. Meghna shoots back: “I’ve learnt to keep things simple and spontaneous from him. That’s his strength in writing and direction.”
Being the only daughter of Gulzar and Rakhee, did Meghna ever feel pressured? “There were expectations from me from the viewers and the industry. But that never bothered me or my parents because surpassing their achievements or even equalling them was never a consideration. But on the other hand it was a motivation to do the kind of work that wouldn’t embarrass them,” she says confidently.

Gulzar says that even as a child Meghna had a mind of her own and never aspired for stardom. She studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, majoring in sociology and she was offered a lead role in a film soon afterwards. “But she refused saying she didn’t want to be an actor,” Gulzar remembers. “Even her mother encouraged her but Meghna was adamant,” he says with pride.

But like her father, she loved to write. Film critic and journalist Khalid Mohamed got her interested in the journalism when she was in college. “I interviewed senior actors including Sunil Dutt, Jaya Bachchan and Asha Parekh for The Times of India and the magazine Cinema in India, an NFDC publication,” remembers Meghna.

After college, for a year Meghna assisted filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza, who is known for films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai. Meghna worked with him for Naseem (1995). “I loved his style of film-making and the real life subjects he dealt with,” she says.

In 1995, after  a short course in filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, she joined her father who was making Maachis then.

Meghna with Gulzar, her poet and filmmaker father, from whom she learnt to keep her films simple and to-the-point. Photo: Gajanan Dudhalkar

But Meghna faced a strange problem on the sets — her over-protective father. “He always worried about me and wanted to know if I was comfortable, had eaten and other such things. That irritated me and I began avoiding the sets and instead assisted him during the post-production,” she says.

Meghna went on to direct two documentaries for Door-darshan in 1998 and helped Gulzar write the screenplay for his 1999 film, Hu Tu Tu.

“To evolve as a filmmaker I must experiment with different subjects,” she says. Her first film, Filhaal, starring Tabu and Sushmita Sen took on infertility and surrogacy, and flopped. 

“Perhaps it was early for its time. But you have to make your audience think with new ideas,” she says.

In-between, Meghna directed two music videos for Shankar Mahadevan and Alka Yagnik in 2003.

Just Married in 2007, her second film starred Esha Deol and Fardeen Khan. “It touched upon arranged marriage.” But this film also bombed.

But Meghna kept experimenting with different ideas. Her short film, Pooranmashi in Dus Kahaniyaan in 2007 was based on writer Kartar Singh Dugal’s short story. Starring Amrita Singh and Minissha Lamba, it was about mothers and daughters.

Meghna’s husband Govind Sandhu’s the co-founder of Antworks, a business management process company and took a break from work after their son turned three. “He wanted to be around to bond with our son,” she laughs.

Meghna on a holiday with her husband Govind Sandhu and their son

Meghna was just a year old when her own parents separated but living in a joint family helped. “I had a great time with my grandparents,” she says. Meghna divided her time between Gulzar’s and Rakhee’s places. “I thought it was normal to have two homes,” she laughs. Gulzar, Rakhee and Meghna and her family stay close to each other in Bandra and go for family holidays together.

Like her father, Meghna wears many hats. She writes poems and has also wrote the book Because he is... as a birthday present for her father. It explores Gulzar’s journey as a director, lyricist, screenplay writer and a poet through her eyes. Meghna interviewed Gulzar over six months for the book. “Till she turned 13, I would release a book on her birthday each year. Then she reversed it with this book,” Gulzar remembers.

What next after Talvar? “Vishalji’s working on Rangoon now. I’ve applied for a post as an assistant,” she says. Rangoon is Bhardwaj’s upcoming romantic film starring Shahid Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan and Kangana Ranaut.

That will be yet another role that she will enjoy doing and learning.