The Tashkent Files is the kind of movie you get when you arrange an offline meeting of the online community that has rallied behind the Quora question, “Did Lal Bahadur Shastri die a natural death?”
Of course not, Vivek Agnihotri’s latest screed bellows. Agnihotri puts the hysterics into history as he claims to unearth the truth of the former prime minister’s death in Tashkent in the former Soviet Union on January 11, 1966, a day after signing a peace treaty between India and Pakistan following the 1965 Indo-Pak War. Official sources tell us that Shastri died of a heart attack. But conspiracy theories about his sudden demise, fuelled by his family and a handful of books down the years, have kept the pot simmering.
Agnihotri’s film, which appears to have completely bypassed the attentions of the Election Commission of India, makes vague claims about the alleged conspirators before closing in on its intended target: the Congress party and its leader, Indira Gandhi. It won’t be a spoiler to say that for Agnihotri, the real villains of the story are Gandhi, who succeeded Shastri as prime minister, and the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.
The alt-history lesson is fatuously dedicated to “all honest journalists”. Agnihotri’s polemics are structured around Ragini (Shweta Basu Prasad), a reporter who is in the dock for dressing up the facts for her latest scoop. A mysterious source, this movie’s Deep Throat, gives Ragini a shot at redemption – the opportunity to tell the real story behind Shastri’s death, and the government cover-up.
Ragini’s reportage puts her in the crosshairs of malevolent home minister Natarajan (Naseeruddin Shah). However, her front-page story leads to the formation of a committee headed by Shyam Sundar Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty) and comprising, among others, historian Aisha Ali Shah (Pallavi Joshi), scientist Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi) and former Research and Analysis Wing chief Ananthsuresh (Prakash Belwadi). Ragini is added to the committee, and she continues her investigations on the side.
Bizarrely, the presence of a RAW luminary on the committee yields no revelations, so it is left to Ragini to pore over pictures and files, to Google copiously, meet sources in the wide open, and cite books that have been casting doubt on Shastri’s death all along. This will guarantee a renewed interest in such publications as Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue KR Malkani’s Political Mysteries, which examines the assassinations of political leaders, and Conversations with the Crow, a series of interviews with former Central Intelligence Agency Robert Trumbull Crowley about his employer’s alleged dirty tricks.
Agnihotri sure has done his research: the closing credits include redacted portions from former KGB agent Vasili Mitrokhin’s two-volume archive The Mitrokhin Archive, which made sweeping claims about the KGB’s attempt to influence just about every major nation on the planet, including India.
In the film, Ragini declares that nobody is really interested in Shastri’s death, but is using it to further an agenda. The observation can, of course, also holds true for the 144-minute movie, whose targets are far-reaching – the Congress party, that reliable punching bag called “Lutyen’s Delhi”, historians who have supposedly been peddling state-sponsored versions of the truth, media bootlickers, the education system. Pankaj Tripathi’s character also slips in communal thoughts about Muslims – they will come with their armies to destroy India, he says, and he gets away with only a slap on the wrist.
Historian Aisha offers token dissent when she observes that the committee is dealing with a “war of narratives”: this allows the film to air many bogus theories in the hope that people will start believing them. Of course, Aisha is described as an “intellectual terrorist” and her claims debunked.
Other such “terrorists” lurk in the committee, and Agnihotri comes up with names for all of them: “political terrorist”, “judicial terrorist”, “TRP terrorist”. (The last category is represented by a television anchor who suspiciously resembles Caravan magazine’s Hartosh Singh Bal).
The tone is as shrill and off-kilter as Agnihotri’s intemperate tweets and television appearances. Agnihotri kicked off his directing career with Chocolate (2005), a copy of the Hollywood production The Usual Suspects (1995). A football-themed film and a couple of erotic thrillers followed before Agnihotri found his calling as a director for the Modi era.
Agnihotri’s 2016 movie Buddha in a Traffic Jam, which targeted Leftist ideas, was a perfect zeitgeist film for the Age of Modi. The Tashkent Files also fuels the fear that Leftists pose a grave danger to the nation. Look what happened when they took over in the 1960s, the movie urges. India became a colony again 10 years after Shastri’s death, it seems. Why was the word “Socialist” added to the Constitution? Even Aisha cannot explain that one, although perhaps real historians could.
The wildest of the theories involves Subhas Chandra Bose. Agnihotri weaves his fiction together with interviews with Shastri’s grandson, Sanjay Nath Singh, and former journalist Anuj Dhar, who has made it his mission to prove that freedom fighter Bose actually survived the air crash of 1945. Bose pops up as one of the supposedly unexplained elements in Shastri’s death – he was apparently around in Tashkent at the time.
As Ragini becomes the vehicle for an ad hominem attack on institutions and the governments that predated the current one, we begin to worry for her sanity. The talented Shweta Basu Prasad gives The Tashkent Files more seriousness than it deserves, but her hysterical journalist is about as believable as the movie’s claims that the accepted history of Independent India is one big lie. The rigour that was needed to prove Agnihotri’s thesis is missing, and the biliousness of his selective targeting robs The Tashkent Files of its attempt to being an effective conspiracy thriller.