The Tashkent Files Review

“The Tashkent Files” is a film that deserves far larger exposure. This much-delayed movie is a timely reminder that politics can be a completely murky game if you choose to play dirty. (photo provided)

Zee Studios present Vivek Agnihotri Creates’ & SP Cinecorp’s “The Tashkent Files”

Produced by: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, Pranay Chokshi & Haresh Patel

Written & directed by: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri

Music: Rohit Sharma

Starring: Mithun Chakraborty, Shweta Basu Prasad, Naseeruddin Shah, Asif Basra, Pankaj Tripathi, Pallavi Joshi, Mandira Bedi, Vishwa Mohan Badola, Vinay Pathak, Achint Kaur, Prashantt Guptha, Ankur Rathee, Rajesh Sharma, Yusuf Hussain & others

MUMBAI—Such films based on true events, ironically, begin with a disadvantage: they do not propagate populist or politically-correct ideas and people, but instead focus on lesser-known or rare people from history who are equally, or more, deserving, or on events that deserve to be investigated, written or spoken about.

Like “Veer Savarkar” made in 2001, which was a top-class authentic and crowd-funded thriller that could not even get a proper release as it showed true sequences that made the government of that time pretty uncomfortable. Invariably also, money runs short even in promoting and marketing such bitingly honest films, and you find less supporters.

This resultant low buzz could prove counterproductive in today’s times when most of the media is set to demolish the film for the political stand it takes. Writer-director Agnihotri focuses on cold facts, correlates evidence, painstaking research and authentic detailing (including a video interview of author Kuldip Nayar, of Shastri’s son and references to or depictions of key books and documents) to get to enlighten us about that dark time when India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died of a sudden heart attack in January 1966. This was a mere few hours after he had signed a no-war treaty with Pakistan, and weeks after the 1965 war that he had commanded and given a crushing defeat to Pakistan.

An intrepid purveyor of fake news, Ragini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad) is warned by her editor (Arif Basra) that she will be shifted to a mundane section if she does not get a scoop. By chance, an anonymous caller delivers a packet of files about this mysterious death. Ragini writes an article that becomes a rage, and the opposition party’s Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty) forces the home minister (Naseeruddin Shah) to form a committee to find out the truth about the almost 50 years-old case.

Within the committee, apart from Ragini, are author Aisha Ali Shah (Pallavi Joshi), social activist Indira Roy (Mandira Bedi), archivist Kashyap (Rajesh Sharma), scientist with a kink Ganga Jha (Pankaj Tripathi), ex-RAW chief Ananthasuresh (Prakash Belawadi), president of the Young Indian Congress Vishwendra Rana (Prashantt Guptha) and the retired Justice Abraham (Vishwa Mohan Badola).

As Singh and Rana insist that Shastri’s death was natural, interesting questions surface: Why was Shastri kept in a separate place? Why was there no bell to call for service? What was there in a flask that Shastri, when in the throes of a heart attack, pointed at? Why was the cook different that day?

Above all, why was there no move towards a request for a post-mortem by the Indian government? And such other questions either never asked, or never answered. The fingers of suspicion point out at multiple sources: political rivalry and expediency, the Cold War fought between the KGB and the CIA, and so on.

Ragini keeps bumping into clues, is egged on by the caller, loses her job, continues her mission, almost gives up, is expelled from the committee, but fights back grittily. Tripathi is smitten by conscience, and exposes the ulterior vested interests of the rest of the committee members. Ragini is called for a final deposition. And that is the hour of reckoning.

Agnihotri has made a first-class and gripping thriller, albeit a shade heavy in its content as in without any light relief – and we do not mean masala elements. The heaviness could perhaps have been compensated by a more concise length, but then, in all fairness, we are never bored but totally involved. So many spoken lines are hard-hitting, insightful and loaded with wry humor and pith.

A sore point is the needlessly dark camerawork – why do filmmakers love this noir approach of late? Even otherwise, Uday Singh Mohite’s cinematography is quite uneven. Satya Mannik Afsar’s background score is well-done for the most, but Rohit Sharma’s song “Sab Chalta Hai” is one big guitar-heavy scream.

Agnihotri directs his actors well – and the top honors go to Shweta Basu Prasad as Ragini. She adapts to different moods well and is good in the challenging parts of the film, like in the climax with a blackened face. Mithun Chakraborty is his usual self, and Naseeruddin Shah just alright. Pallavi Joshi as the author and Mandira Bedi as the social worker are excellent. Pankaj Tripathi makes a mark as the radical thinker. Vinay Pathak is barely recognizable as Mukhtar but gives an impressive performance. And except for Achint Kaur, who is wasted, all the rest do well.

This is a film that deserves far larger exposure. This much-delayed movie is a timely reminder that politics can be a completely murky game if you choose to play dirty. It shows beyond reasonable doubt that there was much more that needed to be investigated and examined in such a vital event like the sudden death of the nation’s leader on foreign soil.

Rating: **** (Almost)

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