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Aarushi – Beyond Reasonable Doubt review: The dead seek justice. But how?

/ 48min

Cinestaan Rating

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Mayur Lookhar

Creative producer Mayurica Biswas's four-part documentary gives us an impartial, gripping, mind-numbing account of the 2008 NOIDA double murder.

A 14-year-old girl is found dead with her throat slit. A couple of days later, the family’s missing domestic help, initially the prime suspect, is found dead on the terrace. 

Nine years, three different investigation teams, and many flip-flops later, the 2008 NOIDA double murder case drags on. Earlier, there was a sense of mystery to it, but that has now given way to frustration as you wonder whether 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade, the help, will ever get justice.

Meghna Gulzar spun her crime drama Talvar (2015) around the controversy, giving us an insight into what might have happened, but more disturbing was the game of one-upmanship among the investigators. The same year we saw Rahasya, where writer-director Manish Gupta milked the tragedy to create his sadistic tale.

Feature films pander to an audience. They follow a certain style, but the paucity of time almost always makes it difficult to cover all facets of a tragedy. It is here that a sound and objective documentary helps.

Mayurica Biswas, a former producer (programming) at an English news channel, has documented the NOIDA double murder in a four-part series titled Aarushi – Beyond Reasonable Doubt.

The title may make you believe Biswas has exposed the killers, but actually she only gives you a balanced account of the tragedy. The realms of possibility are backed with views from not only key people associated with the tragedy, but also international forensic scientists and even a body language expert.

What the nearly four-hour documentary does is explore, beyond reasonable doubt, all the possibilities from Aarushi’s parents being guilty of the murders to giving them the benefit of the doubt. In the case of the other accused — Krishna Thadarai (dentist Rajesh Talwar’s assistant), Rajkumar and company, the documentary first gives them the benefit of the doubt but later the needle of suspicion points towards the Nepalese men.

Biswas has sought out different views from the media, some following the path of sensationalism, others striving not to lose their objectivity. You cannot be critical of Sanjeev Yadav, the journalist from a local language daily, who strongly believed Aarushi’s parents, the dentists Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, were the likely killers. Nor should one hail Rajat Kain, producer and anchor of the Rajya Sabha TV channel, and Shoma Chaudhary, former managing editor of Tehelka magazine, as flagbearers of objectivity.

In one instance, Kain wonders how Rajesh Talwar could say Hemraj 'was' their servant if he did not know the man was dead. Given that his daughter has been murdered and Hemraj is missing, surely Talwar could not be expected to harbour any intention of hiring Hemraj back if he were to be found? To give him the benefit of the doubt, Rajesh Talwar perhaps used ‘was’ in this sense. Kain, however, sees the word as an indication that Talwar knew the man existed no more.

It is a welcome change to see journalists analyse and interpret evidence logically rather than impose their pre-conceived notions, as we have become accustomed to in recent years. While the media perspective is important, Biswas does get more from the media than may have been necessary, adding to the film's length. Indian audiences have seen enough of the case being debated and judged in the media.

The film’s novelty lies in the fact that Biswas has got a perspective from Aarushi’s close friend Fiza Jha. Now 22, Jha gives us an insight into Aarushi’s life that goes beyond the sensational, concocted tales reported by some TRP-hungry channels.

One aspect that remained largely untouched was the relationship Aarushi shared with a school friend with whom she exchanged over 600 text messages in the course of two weeks. In one of the conversations, she is said to have revealed to Rajat (name changed) that she was having some grievances against her father. Though the details are not disclosed, and rightly so, you do hope Biswas merely used a fictitious name for Aarushi’s boyfriend.

The flip-flops, the various theories floated about in the course of the investigations, and especially the work of the forensics departments, meant that it was important for Biswas to get neutral views. The film crew travelled to Nepal to get an independent expert's view. The expert concluded that the lacerations on Aarushi’s throat were made not by a surgical blade but, probably, by the famed Gorkha knife, the khukri.

The first team deputed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), led by former joint director Arun Kumar, had strongly suspected Krishna, Rajkumar, Vijay Mandal aka Shambhu of killing Aarushi and Hemraj, based on Krishna's admission in the narco analysis test.

Biswas and the team have also managed to get access to a recording of the test conducted by Dr S Malini. We not only see Krishna confess to killing the girl and the man with a khukri, but, in his semi-conscious state, he also reveals that it was IG Kumar (perhaps referring to Arun Kumar) who coerced him to accept the guilt.

Meghna Gulzar’s dramatized Talvar showed us a character named Kanhaiya (another name for Krishna) confessing to the use of a khukri to kill Hemraj and Aarushi but, to the best of our recollection, he is conscious when he blames Ashwin Kumar (a substitute for Arun Kumar) for coercing him to do so during the narco analysis. 

Biswas and company also travelled to the United Kingdom to seek expert views. The most pertinent of them is Darren Stanton, body language and deception expert, who gives the benefit of the doubt to Rajesh and Nupur Talwar after watching their media interactions. Stanton, however, appears jittery after watching the tapes of Rajkumar.

Biswas also travelled to Nepal to try and meet Krishna and Rajkumar. While the former could not be traced, the latter agreed to face the camera but was largely evasive in his answers to the questions put to him.

Whether the Nepalese men are indeed guilty is for the courts to decide if and when they are arrested and arraigned, but your heart does go out to their families which live in poverty. Nothing, however, can compensate the loss of Hemraj’s widow Khumkala, who, if we recall correctly, is heard saying she never saw her husband again after he went to India to find work. Was his corpse never sent back to the family for cremation?

The perspective from the neutral observers adds meat to the documentary, but Biswas does not ignore the principal investigators from the CBI — Arun Kumar and Jaaved Ahmed, two former joint directors. Ahmed is more media savvy, but that is not why he gets more footage. After all, it was the team under him and led by officer AGL Kaul that eventually turned the needle of suspicion from the servants to the parents. Ahmed explains the circumstances that led to the Talwars emerging as the suspects and the subsequent closure of the case, with a local court jailing them.

Gulzar’s Talvar also exposed how the internal politics of the CBI affected the handling of the case. No such politics plays out in the documentary.

The Allahabad high court last month overruled the verdict of the sessions court and set the Talwars free. Those who believe in the innocence of the Talwars heaved a sigh of relief, but the question remains: who killed Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj?

It is beyond doubt that Biswas has done a commendable job of documenting the tragic episode and giving us an impartial view of the case in a gripping, mind-numbing documentary. Yet, all that pales in significance to the crying need for justice, at least for this writer. The image of the pale, lifeless Aarushi Talwar, lying there with her eyes open, demands just one thing: justice. And let us not reduce Hemraj Banjade to a footnote. Their souls will find no peace until the real killers are found and punished.

Watch the documentary here