Director: Vivek Agnihotri
Cast: Shweta Basu Prasad, Mithun Chakraborty, Pallavi Joshi, Pankaj Tripathi, Naseeruddin Shah
That propaganda is the flavour of the season is a given; the least movie directors can do is perhaps make them look like more than the cinematic manifestation of a Google search. As of this moment, the difference between Vivek Agnihotri tweeting and Vivek Agnihotri making a film is negligible. His latest, The Tashkent Files, virtually earns a Ph.D. in whataboutery; it spends 145 minutes passing off a dinner-table debate as a national enquiry into Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, takes almost two-and-a-half hours to reveal that it believes a famous opposition leader was the one who had Shastri poisoned, only to eventually admit that the “historical authenticity of the claims” is not proven. That’s like taking NASA to court for faking the moon landing on basis of a drunken chat you had with one of its retired scientists at a shady bar. Which sort of explains the film’s odd hybrid format – of integrating archival interviews, highlighted documents (in fluorescent ink), book passages and basic Wikipedia entries into a fictional intrepid-journalist-triggers-revolution narrative. Which is to say: The Tashkent Files is not informed enough to be a documentary, not balanced enough to be a docudrama and not smart enough to be an investigative thriller.
Shweta Basu Prasad plays a political journalist named Raagini, who is threatened to be demoted to “arts and culture” if she doesn’t find a scoop soon. She gets a mysterious House Of Cards style phone call that suddenly turns her into an Indian citizen on the quest for eternal truth. Her pitch: Why the shroud of secrecy surrounding Lal Bahadur Shastri’s demise hours after signing the Tashkent Agreement in 1966? Was India’s second Prime Minister (the phrase is repeated several times for the younger generation to understand the importance of facts) poisoned that night? In no time, Raagini’s articles get her appointed on a high-profile investigation committee led by political leader Shyam Sundar Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty). Tripathi answers to minister Natrajan (Naseeruddin Shah), who has a trophy wife (Achint Kaur) that refuses to utter a word. At some point, Raagini even finds the time to make a quick dash to Tashkent, tearfully kneel in front of Shastri’s bust to beg for “an answer,” locate an ex-KGB/CIA mole (Vinay Pathak, in a role that has him concealing his face) who boasts about assassinating leaders, and rush back to Delhi with new documents. The actress, who hasn’t quite gotten a decent feature-length role since her excellent performance in Iqbal, wears the look of a crazed girl who isn’t quite sure about why she wants the truth. It’s mostly because the director has dedicated the film to “all the honest journalists,” because apparently journalism is just another name for politics. By the end, she is screaming out facts and words and emotions to make her point.
Now, the problem here isn’t the director’s leaning or his point-of-view. It’s the way he chooses to camouflage it – that is, the way he chooses to quasi-intellectualize his storytelling skills in order to hide his rather simplistic sense of reasoning. He uses these committee members – ten handpicked senior characters – to depict ten different ways of thinking. Their bickering accounts for more than half the film; it’s like watching Twitter bots come to life on election day. The voices in this room may seem like an elaborate device designed to convince us that the director is willing to engage with varying perspectives. But this is a ruse; they seem more like a horror movie device, where everyone is eventually destroyed except the virgin.
The beedi-smoking historian (Pallavi Joshi) hates conspiracy theories and abstains from voting with both her “left” and “right” hands – she is finally dismissed as an intellectual terrorist. The aggressive NGO entrepreneur (Mandira Bedi) is a bonafide outrager who seems to speak in passionate Facebook statuses – she is dismissed as a social terrorist. The ancient ex-Justice is silent when it matters – he is dismissed as a judicial terrorist. A xenophobic Hindutva leader (Pankaj Tripathi) insists that Shastri’s personal cook, a Muslim, was the murderer – he is dismissed as a racist. I’m surprised nobody was declared a Pakistani terrorist. After dismissing everyone as a hypocrite, Mithun dismisses himself as a political terrorist, lest we think it is the director airing his controversial views through a fictional character. Irony poisons itself when Mithun further labels everyone a hypocrite for not caring about the truth and using the Shastri case to further their own agenda.
The journalist, who was once a fake-news expert, is declared the agent of truth, because she unravels the mystery as if she were a newcomer on Cluedo night. This is when it becomes apparent that the rest were merely background noise meant to amplify the only thing the director wanted us to hear all along: Congress sucks. She may as well have been standing alone and demonstrating her findings on the blackboard, but where’s the subtlety in that?
Perhaps the most significant part of the film is when all the famished critics in the press show were served burgers and fries minutes after the interval. It was a refreshing change from the tired popcorn-samosa combo. Almost on cue, Mandira Bedi hijacks the committee debate on screen and bursts into a rant about America and globalisation and capitalism and imperialism. As I tucked into my Aloo Tikki burger, her voice boomed: “They will kill us with their burgers and fries and milkshakes.” Was this deliberate? Could it be? The hall echoed with laughter. Only, I’m not sure if we were laughing with the director or at him. I missed the scene that followed, because I was too busy looking at the aisle expectantly, hoping for someone to serve us that milkshake.