‘The Tashkent Files’ movie review: History in the time of conspiracies

A scene from ‘The Tashkent Files’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files begins with a dedication to “all honest journalists of India”, and thus begins, quite early on, the filmmaker’s not-so-discreet jibes at all the institutions and ideologies, he believes, have wrecked the nation. Through his characters, he classifies them —NGOs are “social terrorists”, Supreme Court judges are “judicial terrorists”, writers and historians are “intellectual terrorists” and the media, of course, is “TRP terrorists”. The ones who are not a terrorist, it appears, is Lal Bahadur Shastri, around whose death the film is centred, and the ones who fought against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. India, he insists, became a colony again ten years after Shastri died.

It’s quite apparent that Agnihotri is presenting an ideological slide show using Shastri’s death as a conduit. How did the second Prime Minister of India die? That’s a question that could very well make for a captivating thriller with its many conspiracy theories but the filmmaker uses this opportunity to take down left, secular and socialist ideologies and institutions, in a fashion that is unintentionally comical. It’s quite amusing how the film appropriates terms like “anti-national”, “presstitutes” and “fake news”, which have famously been the armour of the current regime and its followers. Then there are some facile and tokenistic “balanced” arguments, or “war of narratives” as a historian character, Aiysha (Pallavi Joshi) puts it, which are bound to throw off right-wing ideologues completely. Not to mention the casting of the vocal critic of the current regime, Naseeruddin Shah (albeit to play a malicious minister).

The Tashkent Files’ agenda comes clear only in its climax, although it's a no-brainer, as the film keeps referring to the Emergency in as many ways as possible. The filmmaker wishes to be subtle by not taking names (for the most part) and even censoring them in “official documents” but clearly subtlety is not Agnihotri’s forte. The characters -- who are part of a 12 Angry Men (1957)-style committee formed to debate and investigate Shastri’s mysterious death -- are shrill and loud. Joshi’s character, Aiysha, is the most interesting of the lot, as she embodies the archetype of an “armchair intellectual” (she is literally in a wheelchair) and her only motive apparently is to maintain her top position on the bestseller list. She mouths eloquent dialogues like “Main historian hoon mujhe bohut saari batein pata hai (I am a historian, I know a lot)” as a well thought out rebuttal. Agnihotri’s disdain for a person like that is evident as is his distrust in NGO head, Indira Joseph Roy (Mandira Bedi), who screams lines like “No! That is misogynistic” and “Capitalism will kill you with burgers” (to an auditorium full of critics who have just been served the same). She also randomly explains Russian words like dacha (bungalow) during closed room discussions. Pankaj Tripathi’s character, a scientist, only makes a significant contribution when he stokes communal discourse against Muslims. He is soon shut down, thankfully. A young journalist, Raagini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad), who was gifted the scoop of Tashkent Files by a Deep Throat, is shown as the only voice of reason. She is driven by sach (truth) to such an extent that when strangled in Tashkent and asked who does she work for, her response is, wait for it -- sach.

To Agnihotri’s credit, he has picked a subject that is engaging, and he has done his research when it comes to bringing out a cornucopia of conspiracies but onscreen, they become a hotchpotch of hearsay, juvenile arguments, eye rolls and a background track which says, “Sab chalta hai”. Releasing during election time, if one were concerned about the film being propaganda, you need not worry too much. With no conviction and utter confusion, the film is evidently more drama than reality. But the concern here is one of possibility: what if this was a potent, well-crafted propaganda film that released a day after India went to polls, slipping under the Election Commission radar?

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 9:34:02 AM |

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