In an early scene in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan Khan) jokingly calls a colleague Sherlock Holmes. Ashwin then hums a thriller-style tune, to stress the gap between the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super detective and the humdrum procedures followed by this team as it tries to crack a double-murder case. The scene, with its gentle dig at the sort of cliffhanger-filled mystery that Talvar itself is not going to be, is akin in some ways to the moment during the chase sequence in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday where we hear florid filmy dialogue from an old Amitabh Bachchan movie about policemen and robbers even as unfit policemen and their exhausted quarry fumble through a slum.

And yet, there was a point during Talvar when I was thinking of Khan’s character as a Super-Detective Lite, if that makes any sense—not a Holmes, but something comparable if you factor in the nature of this film. In a narrative that is often documentary-like, Ashwin, initially at least, is a bit of an outlier.

Though based on a real person—CBI officer Arun Kumar—he feels like a fictional character introduced to help us make sense of a messy case and untangle knots created by incompetent policemen and self-serving bureaucrats. To a degree, he is an archetype: the crusader who untiringly pursues the truth, even while battling personal crisis (an impending separation from his wife, played by Tabu; there’s something self-indulgent but also witty about this Vishal Bhardwaj-produced film using Bhardwaj’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a domestic sideshow to a story about blood and betrayal, servants and masters, and overvaulting ambition).

Khan brings deadpan humour to the film, telling a policeman, “Next time you’re at a murder scene where the killer has considerately left behind a big bloody handprint as a clue, try to preserve it." Who expects a government-employed Indian detective to show commitment and comic timing? And who better than one of our best, most wryly charismatic actors to play the part?

So there is a touch of wish-fulfilment in the way Ashwin is written and performed, and fantasy-as-nourishment has always been one of cinema’s functions. When done well, it can, temporarily at least, make the real world a more bearable, even a more comprehensible place (which is one reason why I’m bemused by the snobbery directed at “escapism", or by the idea that watching such a film or reading such a book entails leaving your brain elsewhere. No, it doesn’t—you need to engage, just as you do for the overtly serious stuff).

The ploy of introducing a fictional figure to tackle a real-life problem has been around for a while. It has been used even in the context of such great evils as Nazism (as in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), but let’s stick with the personal-crime context for now, and return to Sherlock Holmes. Two films—A Study In Terror (1965) and Murder By Decree (1979)—pitted Holmes against the notorious Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper. Both ended with the super detective unmasking the murderer, even if he had to stare down a royal conspiracy, and the soundtrack was appropriately stirring (Ashwin would have enjoyed humming it). You can be immersed in, even moved by, these films without forgetting that in the prosaic real world, the Ripper is still the unidentified subject of debate and speculation—while Holmes exists only on the printed page (or the Kindle).

The wish-fulfilment elements in Talvar are much more muted though; the film is ultimately constrained by the politics and blemishes of the Aarushi Talwar saga. Near the end, there is a long, discomfiting sequence where a number of mostly middle-aged men, divided into two groups with opposing views about the case, sit together at a table and argue, trade accusations, banter, joke… all at the same time. Every now and again, when the mood becomes too frivolous, one of them admonishes the others—come on guys, let’s remember what this is about—but the levity never leaves the table; how can it, when you have a group of oversized boys given the chance to play with the words “dharm-pracharak asana" (a grand-sounding term for the missionary position)? This is a club made up of people who are pragmatic about the workings of the world, aware that they will have to deal with each other in other situations in the years ahead, and that bridges must never be burnt no matter how fierce a disagreement gets.

And ultimately, for all of Khan’s super-detective-like panache in the early scenes, this is the film’s real tone: its cold, cynical understanding that in a case like this, the victims quickly become abstractions, a circus of voyeurism and self-interest takes over… and even a Holmes might turn in despair to his morphine, the same way Ashwin keeps turning to his own addiction, the video games on his phone.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column about Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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