“To memorise the victims of history — the sufferers, the humiliated, the forgotten — should be a task for all”
– Paul Ricœur, Memory and Forgetting
On a warm summer morning some years back, 16 May, when the entire country was slowly waking up to the bone-chilling case of the double murders of Noida, just like every other public reaction, Nishita Jha’s too was first outrage and then amnesia.
The year was 2008 when the Talwars had to face their worst nightmare as they saw their 13-year-old daughter, Aarushi, a week away from her birthday, lying dead with her throat slit open. Today, they are serving a life sentence under a special CBI court order — a “lenient” judgment handed out on account of “weak” evidences.
The Talwars have, of course, appealed against the verdict which awaits hearing in a higher court. But the five-year-long trial which had seen them battling against conflicting testimonies had become a matter of forgetting until veteran journalist Avirook Sen’s coverage of the case came out in the form of a book titled Aarushi. It inspired the critically acclaimed Meghna Gulzar film Talvar and has prompted digital content company Arre and Saavn to commission an audio podcast to the Hauz Khas-based creative collective, Jamun.
Scripted and narrated by investigative journalist Nishita Jha, directed by Ayesha Sood and produced by Udayan Baijal, Trial by Error: The Aarushi Files, took off when Arre’s co-founder Sai Kumar approached Jamun after buying the rights to Avirook’s book. “From the first days of following the case unfold on TV to the various police statements, the inefficacy of the investigation and the travesty of the judicial process had left me with a deep sense of tragedy. I wanted to convert that sense of tragedy and rage into a piece of reflective and immersive storytelling. Work on the same started from last November,” Sood tells Guardian 20.
“I’ve been obsessively listening to podcasts for a while. The form has evolved quite a lot and it›s intimate. Given the sensitive content of the case, the medium of podcasting, we thought would help us build an immersive, relatable world, one that the medium of film or TV just wouldn’t allow. Cameras, lights and crew are intimidating and allow people to put on a mask. Also, this case is sub judice and many people just won’t go on record on a camera. Audio has been used extremely successfully in wrongful conviction cases — the podcast Serial is a proof of that,” adds Sood.
The first episode of the podcast aired last Sunday, called “Rumours”. Exploring the fine nuances of the case by pondering on the idea of how rumour and gossip can turn harmful when one begins to believe them over truth, Jha’s powerful voice traces the murky details of the murder mystery — from the initial mishandling of the crime scene by the Noida police and forensic team to Meerut’s IGP, Gurdarshan Singh’s first press conference (based on loose testimonies of Anmol, a frightened 15-year-old boy, possibly Aarushi’s adolescent crush in school and Krishna, a compounder at Rajesh Talwar’s clinic, also a suspect in the case) to unending media trials that shaped public opinion for the very first time to declare Rajesh Talwar guilty.
“In addition, the series has a full ecosystem of additional reading and listening material from timeline and character charts to interviews with people who were close to the case as each episode is released. Listeners can find all of this on arre.co.in and saa.vn/trialbyerror,” says Gaurav Wadhwa, VP Entertainment and Original Content, Saavn.
On being asked whether Jamun’s decision to have Jha as the writer of the series was because of her close association with the Talwars, the latter says, “ I kept my distance from the case for eight years because I did not know how to tell this story in all its fairness, until I met Ayesha and Udayan and became convinced that they would do this in a way I was comfortable with, sans sensationalism. They knew early on that Fiza being my sister did not mean that I was close to the Talwars — Fiza and Aarushi were very close, but Fiza and I grew up in different homes. I saw Aarushi only as part of a foursome of little girls that included my sister too, and when she died, the only thing on my mind was— thank god my sister is okay. With the audio series, I’m finally able to look at this case as a journalist, and not as Fiza’s family.”
Although the backbone of the series is Avirook’s book, the project involved tremendous field visits. “Research, scheduling interviews, transcribing hours of interviews and then the episode gets built on the edit table. That’s where it comes together. It was a challenge contacting and convincing people involved to talk to us,” says Baijal.
Premiering every Sunday at 9 p.m., the series will have eight episodes in all, each focusing on different aspects of the case. “In addition, the series has a full ecosystem of additional reading and listening material from timeline and character charts to interviews with people who were close to the case as each episode is released. Listeners can find all of this on arre.co.in and saa.vn/trialbyerror,” says Gaurav Wadhwa, VP Entertainment and Original Content, Saavn.
“The value of something being told is in it being heard, and for a case as important and critical as this, the more people know about it the faster we may move towards justice and truth. Trial By Error is an attempt to leverage the power of audio and Saavn’s reach to quench our society’s need to know,” adds Wadhwa.