Based on a notorious double-murder case in the Indian city of Noida, “Guilty” is bound to stir up controversy on its home turf with its dramatically potent depiction of police ineptitude, media excess, bureaucratic infighting and a possible miscarriage of justice. But offshore audiences are more likely to view helmer Meghna Gulzar’s well-crafted whodunit as something akin to an extended ripped-from-the-headlines episode of “Law & Order: Noida.” Popular Indian actor Irrfan Khan, coming off the global success of “Jurassic World,” lends his considerable star power to the proceedings, which could go a long way toward elevating must-see interest in markets where potential viewers know little if anything about the real-life events that inspired Vishal Bhardwaj’s solidly constructed screenplay.
On May 16, 2008, 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar was found murdered in her bedroom in her family’s apartment. Hemraj Banjade, a 45-year-old family servant, initially was sought as the culprit — until his dead body was discovered elsewhere in the building the following day. Suspicion then fell on the girl’s parents, Dr. Rajesh Talwar and Nupur Talwar, who were accused of conspiring in the “honor killing” of their daughter after finding her in a compromising position with Banjade. The parents vehemently denied their guilt, and investigators did indeed identify another equally likely suspect. But after being more or less tried and found guilty by the sensationalizing Indian media, the parents were officially convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and remain imprisoned while currently appealing to higher courts.
Gulzar and Bhardwaj have changed the names of the parties involved, but stick reasonably close to the particulars of the case while invoking dramatic license. In their version of the events, the major player is Central Bureau of Investigation detective Ashwin Kumar (Khan), whose dogged pursuit of the truth leads him to doubt the culpability of the murdered girl’s parents and, more important, methodically build a case against the father’s resentful assistant.
Khan conveys equal measures of cynical wit and authoritative gravitas as Kumar, a brutally pragmatic professional whose contempt for the sloppy first responders who botched the initial crime-scene investigation is exceeded only by his zeal in proving, by any means necessary, that the assistant, along with two accomplices, committed the murders. (Anyone unfamiliar with Indian police procedures may be mildly shocked by this movie’s depiction of “narco tests” — interrogations of suspects injected with sodium pentothal — as commonplace.) Now and then, “Guilty” pauses for a scene devoted to the dissolution of Khan’s marriage. But these humanizing clumps of backstory are minor distractions, and never last long enough to significantly impede the satisfyingly brisk narrative flow.
With a nod toward “Rashomon” and similar multiple-viewpoint dramas, Gulzar and Bhardwaj offer diverse dramatizations of possible mystery-solution scenarios, though it’s obvious that their sympathies lie with the murdered girl’s parents (portrayed with apt ambiguity by Neeraj Kabi and Konkona Sen Sharma). There is a wrenching third-act turnaround — again, based on real-life events — when Khan’s new superior upends the investigation and refocuses suspicion on the original suspects. This triggers the movie’s very best scene, in which rival camps proposing opposing theories make their cases before a neutral judge with as much snarky smack as hard evidence.
“Guilty” leaves its audience with the unsettling impression that, sometimes, in India and by extension everywhere, decisions to prosecute are made (or avoided) as a result of inter-office power plays and professional rivalries, and screaming media coverage can influence even supposedly impartial officials. It’s debatable how much justice has to do with it.