In a film as laughably pedestrian as Vivek Agnihotri’s Tashkent Files, where the director liberally embarks on longish rants around the (pathetic) state of political discourse in India, one can’t help but wonder about the film’s pretty talented cast. The trailer hinting at a lazy hit job on the ‘first family’ of Indian politics (after the shockingly inept green screen in The Accidental Prime Minister), one can’t help but imagine how the director managed to get actors of the calibre of Pankaj Tripathi, Rajesh Sharma, Naseeruddin Shah, Prakash Belawadi, Mithun Chakraborty, Vinay Pathak and Shweta Basu Prasad. Basically a recreation of all the theories around Lal Bahadur Shastri’s “mysterious death” in Tashkent in 1966, it’s hard to watch this group of actors allowing themselves to be used to plant a seed of doubt with writer/director Agnihotri’s deep web theories parading as ‘facts’.
One look at the film’s protagonist, Raagini Phule (a hammy Shweta Basu Prasad), and you wonder what compelled the actor, who was stellar in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee (2002) and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal (2004), to take this project up. At one point her character talks about how ‘morality changes with every tweet’ and brags about how a ‘fake news’ story got the highest number of retweets. Only a scene later, when confronted by a former spy, she can be seen mouthing lines like – ‘I work for the truth’. Her character arc has many unintentional twists (and humour), like those films drowning in continuity errors.
Naseeruddin Shah participating in a film that’s appropriately timed for release to vilify the family before the elections, would be shocking if we had any feelings left by this time.
Mithun Chakraborty’s uncharacteristic rant as he goes around a table labeling everyone a ‘terrorist’ for their hidden agenda is reminiscent of the climax from Amitabh Bachchan-starrer, Inquilaab (1984). And did Prakash Belawadi move on from debunking notions of Hindi nationalism down South, only so he could play arguably the most dim-witted RAW Chief in recent Hindi films? A young journalist goes around plucking Top Secret documents as if they were apples in a garden, and Belawadi’s character occasionally picks them up in disbelief. Pankaj Tripathi’s bigoted Gangaram Jha, the head of the Indian Science Congress, is probably the only true representative of our times in the film. He pronounces ‘secular’ like a slur.
For a director slightly smarter than Vivek Agnihotri, some would even give him the benefit of doubt for being introspective/meta during some of the film’s chaotic moments. “This is a war of narratives,” someone screams as a part of a committee meant to come up with the ‘truth’ behind Shastri’s death. “You’re choosing your facts to suit your story”, someone says with a tone of ridicule. In another instance, someone scoffs at his fellow committee members for concocting theories around a former Prime Minister’s death and accuses them of playing ‘dirty politics’, only so that they can get their two minutes under the spotlight. For anyone familiar with Agnihotri’s luxurious use of rhetoric on Twitter, the parallels are there for everyone to see.
It’s hard to look at Tashkent Files objectively, but there is obviously an interesting story in the idea. A former PM’s mysterious death, a cover-up, a few stray mentions to CIA, KGB and the Cold War, state-sponsored assassinations, mysterious spies and a cub reporter in the midst of it all. It would have been great material in the hands of a serviceable director, especially with this cast at their disposal. Agnihotri only wishes to broadcast his ‘beliefs’ on fake news & ‘presstitutes’, his expertise on Lutyens media, his bias against the Gandhi family without the courtesy of fact-based reasoning, and his pseudo-intellectual philosophies on what makes an ‘anti-national’.
The director is also freewheeling with his use of real-life interviews of the Shastri kin and journalists, to deceive the audience into believing his movie is ‘fact-based’. When, in fact, it is only based on a bunch of insinuations, hearsay and a highly-contentious source called (wait for it) the Mitro-Khin Archive.
A film trying to decode a late political leader’s mysterious death, makes for a great plot for a film. The problem with Vivek Agnihotri’s Tashkent Files is that he allows his own acidity (for a political party) to seep into the ‘narrative’. And releasing it on polling day, one would have to be blind to not see the ugly bias. As Chakraborty’s character says at the end of the film, “it was never about the truth, but about finding a new mudda (contentious issue) for the upcoming elections.” Couldn’t have summed it up in a better way.