The Tashkent Files opens possibilities of adapting for screen varied non-fiction material on Indian political leaders
Post The Tashkent Files, it would be fascinating to see similar projects on Anuj Dhar’s India's Biggest Cover-up and What Happened to Netaji.
In addition to revealing a mystery that has been in the making for nearly five decades, The Tashkent Files, the upcoming film that explores the mysterious circumstances of the death of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, also could see a new facet of the political thriller genre.
Both the political thriller genre and the sub-genre of real-life mysteries have never really managed to take off in popular Hindi cinema despite our contemporary history being rife with potent material. Directed by Vivek Agnihotri, The Tashkent Files is not the first film in recent times to base its narrative on a historical event. Although the recently released trailer of the film has managed to evoke a certain sense of intrigue in the audiences on either side of the political spectrum for different reasons, how the film performs would also be of keen interest for segments of the trade as there are many projects with the promise of traversing the same terrain in the offing.
The Tashkent Files uses the death of Shastri under puzzling circumstances — where he was said to have died of a heart attack even though his body reportedly had cut marks and according to eye witness reports, had also turned blue and bloated within a matter of hours — as the kick-off point. Based in present times, the narrative raises a few questions such as why was there no autopsy conducted even though the circumstances of Shastri’s death were puzzling and in the process, indicates one of the biggest controversies in independent India’s history. The film features an impressive cast that includes Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakraborty, Pallavi Joshi, Shweta Prasad Basu and Pankaj Tripathi besides others, and has been in the making for over two years.
What makes The Tashkent File something of interest is the manner in which it is juxtaposed with two recent developments when it comes to popular films in India. There has been a drastic increase in the number of books that are being optioned for film and television rights; and at the same time, the proliferation of exhibition platforms such as online streaming services have created a brand new market for material that is not cut from the traditional fabric.
Both filmmakers and the audience are lapping up content that would have had no takers only a few years ago. Take, for instance, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. Despite its rights being available for years, it was not until the arrival of Netflix that the voluminous book suddenly seemed a great prospect. The success of Sacred Games and then Ghoul has opened up vistas where anything that was previously believed to be un-filmable or a no-go for the pundits, now seems tailor-made. It is because of this that Prayaag Akbar’s book Leila (Simon & Schuster, 2017) set in a dystopian world where a woman, Shalini, looks for her missing daughter, was lapped up Netflix and will be directed by Deepa Mehta. The recent news of Hindol Sengupta’s biography of Sardar Patel, The Man Who Saved India (Viking, 2018) and Manu S Pillai’s Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins, 2016) both joining the growing list of non-fiction books being adapted for the screen is a clear indication of things to come.
Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India puts a fresh perspective on Sardar Patel and the manner in which he truly united India. The well-researched book brings to life Sardar Patel’s efforts, his pragmatism and the way he approached events that went on to shape India’s destiny. The web series, based on the book, would be produced by Sunil Bohra (The Accidental Prime Minister, Gangs of Wasseypur, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster). On the other hand, Pillai’s book has been optioned by Arka Mediaworks, the people behind SS Rajamouli’s epic Baahubali. It offers to be a visual treat where the narrative starts with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s entry into India and follows the life and work of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last queen of the House of Travancore (1924-1932). The film based on the book has the all the makings of a highly dramatic setup — the colonial era with princely states, powerful queens, and the feud between Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and the junior queen, Sethu Parvathi Bayi.
It is not just India where books have transformed into solid material for film and television. In Hollywood, many iconic books from the past, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle are being reinterpreted in the light of the recent political developments. President Donald Trump’s first tenure has unleashed a flurry of shows, including The Handmaid’s Tale and The Good Fight, which has been labeled a ‘controlled explosion of fury at the Trump era’ despite the fact some of the material is decades old. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985; Fahrenheit 451 and The Man in the High Castle were originally published in 1953 and 1962 respectively. This acute sense of presentism can be seen in an Indian context as well where the television series based on Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, first published in 2006, has been updated to keep up with the times.
The prospect of films and television series based on real-life historical events from India’s past do make for compelling material. Post The Tashkent Files, it would be fascinating to see similar projects on Anuj Dhar’s India's Biggest Cover-up (Vitasta, 2013), What Happened to Netaji (Vitasta, 2015), Mohanlal Bhaskar’s An Indian Spy in Pakistan (Srishti Publishers, 2007), Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives (Penguin, 2015), and Mihir Bose’s The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II (Aleph, 2017) to name a few. Many of the stories that these books cover have never been told and the prospect of them coming alive on screen is a thrill in itself.
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