Synopsis – The Tashkent Files is a thriller that revolves around the mysterious death of India’s 2nd Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri and attempts to uncover if he had actually died a natural death, or, as alleged, was assassinated.
My Take – Among the set of big films, this relatively low buzzed release has been slowly gaining momentum at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Deemed a propaganda film right from when the first trailer dropped for actively targeting the Congress party right before the Lok Sabha elections begin, it sure is questionably how this film found itself in theaters, while the ‘real propaganda’ film, the Modi biopic featuring Vivek Oberoi, saw its release being stalled.
Unsurprisingly this film too saw high drama around its release, as the film questions the mysterious death of independent India’s second PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, it received a legal notice from one of the members of the family, right after being blessed by the others. There is no doubt that circumstances behind the sudden demise of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in Tashkent on Jan. 11, 1966, remains shrouded in mystery.
While it was officially declared that he died as a result of a massive heart attack, just hours after signing a peace treaty with Pakistan in the aftermath of a war between the two neighbors, doubts remain. The documents on the circumstances of his death have not been declassified, and there is an official admission from the Indian Government that no postmortem was conducted, or even asked for, despite more than half a dozen doctors, a majority of them Soviet, having examined his body. One theory is that he was murdered by the Soviet secret service, the KGB, for refusing to be drawn into closer ties with the communist superpower.
Here, director Vivek Agnihotri (Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, Hate Story), collection of statements made by former spies, both CIA and KGB, a few politicians, some investigative journalists, and, of course, prominent members of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s immediate family. The story is conveniently set in the present time, when fake news competes with journalistic tradition to give us a potpourri of random data, sound bites, sources which stick deep in the throat, and a team of ‘experts’ to discuss conspiracies. All done to weave a cinematically exciting plot.
While the film manages to keep you hooked till the end, with its pacing, one liners and mystery, I must agree that director Agnihotri’s purpose behind the film is as clear as day, as he spends 134 minutes trying to beat around the bush, appearing to examine varied points of view, lest someone calls this a fanatic narrative.
This is a film which is made to question your very roots, lies that have been fed through our history books and several instances which reflects the truly intolerant nature of the Congress party. It explains suitably how they made a mockery of the Indian democratic system and reduced it into a monarchy. But, thanks to the shrieking tone of the film and the dramatic performances, you somehow manage to stick till the finish line, of course with brazenly outrageous and audacious lengths the film went to make its point.
The story follows Raagini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad), a young political reporter, who after being lambasted for posting a fake news, is warned by her editor to bring in hot scoop to turn the tide in her favor. A scoop which comes to her in the form of a mysterious call, which draws her attention to death of former PM Lal Bahadur Shashtri who died under mysterious circumstances in Tashkent, a day after Pakistan signed a peace treaty with India in January 1966 that ended the Indo-Pak war.
While her editor doubts whether any reader would be interested in Shastri today, but, impressed by her enthusiasm, and against his better judgement, he allows her to run her findings as a front page story. Surprisingly the story goes viral, forcing current minister PKR Natrajan (Naseeruddin Shah) to set up a review committee led by his political rival Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty), and consisting of Indira Joseph Roy (Mandira Bedi), an NGO-running social activist, Anantha Suresh (Prakash Belwadi), a former RAW chief, Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi), a scientist with agitating views, Aiysha Ali Shah (Pallavi Joshi), a reputed historian, Omkar Kashyap (Rajesh Sharma), a powerful businessman, Vishwendra Rana (Prashant Gupta), president of the Young Indian Congress, Kurian Abraham (Vishwa Mohan Badola), a retired chief justice and of course Raagini herself.
All set to discuss whether the subject has the credibility necessary to deserve Government action, or at least a discussion in Parliament. All the while Raagini keeps getting clues, leading her to bigger breakthroughs at different intervals. The question is, is she getting closer to a big reveal or is she being played?
As much of the film’s 134 minutes is devoted to the arguments between the panelists, often turning dramatic and hysterical, about 80% of the film is set in an old musty room in Lutyens Delhi, in which closeted quarters the selected members assemble to talk and share information. It’s glaringly obvious how the film’s structure is inspired by 12 Angry Men (1957), with the committee members hotly debating every point, changing their point of view often, and voting for and against certain findings. It’s a clash of personalities, of egos and the young reporter, who is a rookie to such gains, gets often steamrolled.
Though intriguing, Phule’s character sometimes comes across as exaggerated, including a painful moment when a halo is, quite literally, placed around her head, depicting her transformation from fake news spinner to crusading celebrity. Only if the film was consigned just to the meeting place but the drama gets cluttered when she is shown chasing elusive characters in different places. Instead of adding to the tension, such scenes deflate it.
Some of the situations, like the one involving a voice synthesizer, feel somewhat ludicrous. Hence making this film a far cry from the kind of depiction of an authentic study others films in the genre had offered up. There all are unsolved puzzles and we have had enough arguments and political propagandas over this, but the film is just not about this, as the film also deals with multiple issues at the same time keeping Shashtri‘s death mystery at the center, rest phenomena of beneficial nature of people, types of terrorism, racism and the Fake Truth which has been accepted by our society etc.
However, the biggest problem remains in how director Agnihotri doesn’t have the finesse to craft a conspiracy thriller, let alone achieve the potency that we associate with confined-space dramas. The arguments that take place in the committee room resemble an angry Facebook comment chain that in the end arrives at no significant conclusion. He focuses on cold facts, correlates evidence, painstaking research and authentic detailing to enlighten us about that dark time, but as the narrative treads the perilous territory of history and politics, logic after a point takes a backseat.
For example how Phule manages to visit Tashkent, meet a former KGB/CIA secret agent known as Mukhtar (Vinay Pathak), cry in front of Shastri’s statue and return armed with more secret documents that she openly carries on the streets of Delhi. It’s interesting how a film that dedicates itself to “honest journalists” at the start, later defines journalism as another name for politics. To me the film was nothing but a biased portrayal.
Pertinent as the film’s subject maybe, the film does not go beyond the realm of Googled material. And after over two hours of probing and examining, the narrative takes refuge in a disclaimer stating that the authenticity of facts (depicted) cannot be proven. As a viewer, I came out none the wiser on the mystery behind the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, but on how persistent one’s views can be.
The acting too, thanks to the melodramatic nature of the film, is loud. While Shweta Basu Prasad has evolved from a child artist to an amazing character artist and does justice to her role for the most part of the film, the rest of the stellar cast comprising of Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakroborty, Pankaj Tripathi, Prakash Belawadi, Pallavi Joshi, Mandira Bedi, Rajesh Sharma, Prakash Belwadi, Vishwa Mohan Badola and Prashant Gupta are alright. Vinay Pathak is barely recognizable as Mukhtar but along with Achint Kaur, gets wasted, in an underwritten role. On the whole, ‘The Tashkent File’ is a politically drive film which despite its interesting premise gets muddled in its right wing views.
Directed – Vivek Agnihotri
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 134 minutes