In one of the scenes in The Tashkent Files, actress Shweta Basu Prasad makes an impassioned speech (with a semi blackened face) emphasizing that she as a young Indian citizen is challenging the status quo created by the pro-Congress party intellectuals on the truth surrounding the mysterious death of the Late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (then USSR). The scene is shot in a dimly lit pre historic government office room with hideous green colored table lamps all over the place. This sequence looks a bit comical due to shoddy production design. The main problem with the TKF is that it has its heart in the right place but doesn’t really create a forceful narrative around the subject given its relevance in India’s history.
The fact is that Lal Bahadur Shastri whose enigmatic leadership posed threats to world power and was a staunch believer in India’s potential makes this the first ever movie based on him. And congratulations to Vivek Agnihotri to choose this idea in an industry where nobody takes a stand!
A Perspective of the Genre
To pick up a subject like the mysterious death of India’s second Prime Minister is a great idea to begin with. Think of a film like “All The President’s Men”, and how Alan J Pakula captured a well researched and nuanced view of reporters Woodward and Bernstein of the Watergate scandal. TKF sounds like a Pandora’s box from the conceptual stage but unfortunately it gets arguments based on hearsay, crowdfunded information from unconfirmed sources and the film at the end actually makes a caveat that these facts are not confirmed. This strategy looks at the viewer with an assumption that he/she are not treated as serious audiences. The result of this process is that a film which should be considered in isolation of the current political scenario actually ends being a Congress party bashing propaganda film.
What is the story of “The Tashkent Files”?
The film revolves around a journalist named Ragini Phule based in Delhi who is looking for a scoop to propel her career in investigative journalism in a newspaper in Delhi. She gets a call from an unknown source who wants to give her the scoop on the case files of the death of the Late Prime Minister Shastri. She follows the clues and directions given by the source and publishes a whole story on the subject. She gets noticed by senior politicians in the government and particularly by leader of opposition Prasad (Mithun Chakraborty) who sets up an enquiry committee in the matter and makes Ragini a part of it. The committee comprises of a number of luminaries in the country including intellectuals, intelligence officials, politicians, etc. They all assemble in a government office and start the brainstorming regarding the death of Shastri. Each one of them gives their reasoning and perspective as to what would have happened on the fateful night of the Late prime minister’s demise. The film moves in and around this room until a final conclusion is reached in the end. In between Ragini manages to make a trip to Tashkent to meet an Indian spy who gives her invaluable inputs on the case.
The Weaknesses of The Tashkent Files
The film fails to build the authenticity in its approach to investigative journalism by quoting authors own books where they make the claim for Shastri’s assassination. There are no visits to the venue of the death, in depth interviews with people who were policy makers, eye witnesses at that time. A lack of these kind of pointers creates confused storytelling to the audience who would like to know how Shastri died. In fact, the film keeps talking about unconfirmed sources and word of mouth accounts of people.
The other issue with the film are the poorly written characters. Mithun Chakraborty who keeps behaving like a sloppy politician with unkempt hair and unironed clothes doesn’t look or talk like a man who is heading such a critical and important committee. Pallavi Joshi as a noted historian looks fake. Even Pankaj Tripathi who plays an activist looks below average when he shows his disdain for the Muslim community. Naseeruddin Shah who plays Home Minister looks every bit like P Chidambaram is wasted. Vivek Agnihotri himself as Deep Throat informer on the phone is passable.
The length of the film goes upto 150 minutes and that really makes the audience exhausted. The first half seems to be engaging as a large chunk of the focus is on the case. In the second half , senseless jingoism and obsessive nationalism takes over. A shorter duration might have meant a more engaging film.
The Tashkent Files has been shot well. In the first half, you can actually feel the tension building and the feeling of the Cold War and 1960’s India come to light. The natural light in the shots in Tashkent look gorgeous. The old flashbacks of the original footage of Prime Minister Shastri’s add a sense of authenticity to the investigation. The connection with the KGB in the beginning of the film also raises the bar. Lastly, a subject like this which was hidden under the files for so many years deserves a solid audience in the given nationalist discourse.
The big highlight here of course has to be Shweta Prasad Basu who as Ragini steals the show as she does the heavy lifting with a variety of responsibilities up her sleeve given her character leading the charge.
I will give this film a 5 out of 10 purely because of its brilliant subject and tight direction by Agnihotri but the film is pulled down by bad performances and wasteful appearances of stalwart actors like Naseeruddin Shah.