The Tashkent Files movie review: High on hysteria and hamming, Vivek Agnihotri's film comes off as a cheap trick
Director Vivek Agnihotri’s purpose behind Tashkent Files is as clear as day light, but he spends 144 minutes trying to hide it
A young “political” journalist desperate for a scoop to save her job attempts to probe the mysterious death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. More than 50 years after his death, a film following this premise releases right at the onset of the Lok Sabha Elections, far from the scrutiny of the Election Commission.
Director Vivek Agnihotri’s purpose behind The Tashkent Files is as clear as day, but he spends 144 minutes trying to beat around the bush, appearing to examine varied points of view, lest someone calls this a partisan narrative. But, thanks to the shrieking tone of the film and needlessly dramatic performances, it’s easy to see through the director’s design.
Ragini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad) is threatened by her editor that she will be moved to the “arts and culture” beat if she doesn’t get an explosive story out in nine days. A mysterious phone call, a la House of Cards, draws her attention to Shastri’s death in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, a day after Pakistan signed a peace treaty with India in January 1966, that ended the Indo-Pak war. A secret committee is set up by a political party leader Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakravarty) to probe the details surrounding one of the most controversial deaths in India’s political history. (While official records have stated that the former Prime Minister died of a heart attack, there are several conspiracy theories that believe otherwise.)
The committee includes an NGO-running social activist Indira Joseph Roy (Mandira Bedi), a beedi-smoking historian Aiysha Ali Shah (Pallavi Joshi) who loves punctuating her sentences with the term “fake news”, a former RAW chief Anantha Suresh (Prakash Belwadi), a retired judge and a scientist Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi). Each of characters even get classified into categories of terrorism – intellectual, judicial, racist, political and even, hold your breath, TRP terrorism – in Chakravarty’s long and theatrical monologue (there's no reason given for this).
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. Agnihotri packs in phrases like anti-national, presstitute, fake news, secularism – nearly everything that has been making headlines in this country over the last five years.
Even as the narrative treads the perilous territory of history and politics, logic takes a backseat. Ragini manages to visit Tashkent, meet a former KGB/CIA secret agent 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. In the second half, the course of events seem too forced and it all finally stumbles into a trite climax. It’s interesting how a film that dedicates itself to “honest journalists” at the start, later defines journalism as another name for politics.
The character arcs are as confusing as the film’s perception of concepts. Ragini, who is initially chided for using false sources for her “trending” stories, becomes the seeker of truth overnight. Secret agent Mukhtar somehow doesn’t kill Ragini, Naseeruddin Shah’s purpose as the vile home minister Natarajan seems fuzzy throughout. What a waste of a fine actor. We see Shah spouting monologues as his wife Achint Kaur (“in a friendly appearance”, as credits say) and his golden retriever mutely agree. Chakravarty and Prasad’s performances remain over-the-top, as that seems to be the brief that was given to them. In some portions, the film becomes a hodgepodge of a docu-drama weaving in interviews of Shastri’s grandson Sanjay Nath Singh and former journalist Anuj Dhar.
Agnihotri pulls out parallel medical reports and many highlighted portions from Mitrokhin archives to point out how, and possibly why, the death was never probed into. He cites passages from the book of former Central Intelligence Agency operative Robert Crowley that throws light on the agency’s alleged role in it. To those who have not read up on Google about Shastri’s death, the film will appear explosive, despite being shrill. Indian servers may soon see a surge in Google search for terms like “Mitrokhin archives” and “KGB” and “Tashkent”. But pertinent as the film’s subject maybe, The Tashkent Files 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.
In a meta stroke, if not a masterstroke, Ragini asks Shyam Sunder Tripathi in the end, "what did you get by probing Shastri’s death now, 53 years after it happened?" To which Mithun replies “mudda,” for the next election. Had this film not piggy-packed on India’s most important election in history and contained its frenzied storytelling, its arguments perhaps would have held water.
But at the moment, it appears as just that, "mudda."
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