Vivek Agnihotri, Naseeruddin Shah talk about making Tashkent, a film based on Lal Bahadur Shastri's life
In Tashkent starring Naseeruddin Shah, Vivek Agnihotri will not only address Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, but also how he was viewed as a hurdle by some forces | #FirstCulture
“This is, perhaps, the most apolitical film on a political figure,” declares Vivek Agnihotri, director of the upcoming film Tashkent, based on the mysterious death of India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in Tashkent (formerly a part of USSR, now in Uzbekistan), in 1966. Directing a film based on historical events is a nightmare for any filmmaker in India. If a film inspired by 'Padmavat', the 14th century tale of a princess, is unpalatable for certain sections of society, what responses might a film on recent history receive?
The effort to silence attempts at unravelling the lives of democratically elected leaders has a history of its own in India. After years of flip-flopping by the Government of India, Hollywood's Universal Pictures had to shelve Indian Summer (2009) starring Cate Blanchett and Hugh Grant, which was based on Alex Von Tunzelmann's book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of Empire. The film was told the story of the close friendship between India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. This has also been the case with other political biographies such as Aandhi (1975), Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) and several other films that deal with political strife — especially those related to Jammu and Kashmir, the Gujarat riots and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
The lives of political leaders, classified files related to scams and frauds—subjects of potential interest and inquiry—are not even considered, for reasons that are known all too well. Agnihotri is currently shooting Tashkent in Delhi, Tashkent and Mumbai, in an attempt to find the truth behind the silence of the government on this issue. He says he wanted to make a film on the controversial Bofors guns scam, but failed to raise funds for it.
About being part of this film, actor Naseeruddin Shah says, “No stars? No songs? No fight scenes? Who will watch it! Our film industry is geared toward producing nonsense, not content, and chronicling history in any case is a tricky business.”
In such a climate, they are still taking a stab at a subject shrouded in international diplomatic secrecy, against all odds. Agnihotri’s last film Buddha in a Traffic Jam, based on the Naxal-intelligentsia nexus, witnessed violent protests which prevented the screening of the film in a few campuses. “I don’t think any filmmaker plans a controversy. A couple of years ago, I tweeted a homage to Lal Bahadur Shastri on social media, and I was surprised to see emotional responses to it. I found thousands of Indians appealing to me to make a film on Shastri’s mysterious death in Tashkent," he says.
Agnihotri asserts that he does not subscribe to conspiracy theories surrounding this death. An assistant who researched the subject for two years found that there was a larger conspiracy hatched against India. "Shastri was just a milestone in that strategically executed conspiracy against India. That’s when I decided to take up this subject.”
Several questions were left unanswered by the sudden, mysterious death of Shastri in a foreign land, after signing the Tashkent Pact with Pakistan’s then president Ayub Khan, which followed the UN's declaration of ceasefire to the India-Pakistan war of 1965. He died of a heart attack, but according to his personal physician Dr RN Chugh, he had no sign of heart trouble before. Strangely, later, when a few private inquiries were made, Dr Chugh’s entire family was killed in a road accident. Shastri’s son, Sunil Shastri, asked for a postmortem report because there were dark blue spots and cut marks on the abdomen of his father's body when it was brought to him. There were reports that the KGB suspected PM Shastri was poisoned. The KGB had also arrested the cook of the then Indian Ambassador to the USSR. Later, the prime minister's office refused to oblige when RTI queries were filed by senior journalists Kuldip Nayar and Anuj Dhar.
His death shook the country. Shastri had been the head of several ministries — Home, External Affairs, Railways, among others — and was popular and highly revered at the grassroots level for his integrity. “I was in school when Shastriji died, and we were all mystified by it. Many conspiracy theories did the rounds then, of course, around the 'villainous' Ayub Khan,” says Shah.
Agnihotri too filed RTI appeals, only to come up against the same brick wall; the government said it has no information related to Shastri’s death. Could he approach the keepers of the KGB archives? “It’s next to impossible to get anything from KGB archives. We have got lot of information from the CIA and KGB defectors, though. But the biggest hurdle in researching the death of one of our own prime ministers, which has remained a national secret, has been 'our system'," says Agnihotri. “The Indian 'system' and institutions are based on the idea of concealing and hiding information from the same public who is the rightful owner of that information. We have always spoken about the equal distribution of wealth, it is time that we also consider information as national wealth and distribute it equally among citizens,” he adds.
But both Agnihotri and Shah refuse to divulge the role assigned to the master actor. “I want people to see everything for the first time on the screen. All the actors are playing unique roles,” says the director, who clarifies that his approach to dealing with the subject “is not finding the culprit, but the design which prevented us from knowing the truth.”
Speaking about the hesitance of Indian directors to make films about politics and political leaders, Shah says, “We haven't made films like JFK, or W or All the President’s Men because we are constantly afraid of someone taking offence and issuing threats. We don't make political films in the first place — they take intelligence to make, something that is not present in large quantities in Follywood! (sic)” Even when they are attempted, he says that they “become hagiographies, we just cant seem to talk about people without idolising them.”
Tashkent is not biographical, explains Agnihotri. It concentrates on the Tashkent conspiracy, whilst also highlighting how Shastri, regarded by many as India’s first economic reformer who introduced several steps which led to reforms like the White Revolution was “seen as a hurdle to some forces”. In a first of sorts, the idea of the film was generated by people, the information was sourced by them, and they are crowd sourcing it, too. “We did it because the government has no papers on Shastri. I had no option but to go to the people for the information on the people’s leader,” concludes Agnihotri.
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