My interest in Hindi films goes back to my school days. I was too young when the first wave of realistic or socially relevant cinema was created by Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, and Raj Kapoor etc. One can think of Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata, Do Ankhein Baarah Hath, Jaagte Raho etc. But, by the time the alternative cinema, called ‘Parallel Cinema’ arrived, I was in college and hardly missed any movie of this genre like Bhuvan Shom, Sara Akash, Uski Roti et al. In fact, my fascination with various genre led me to publish the first Indian Film and Video Guide of Hindi Cinema titled ‘Collections’. It had filmography of more than 6000 films, way back in 1990. It went into 6 editions till 1996, till I found it hard to give time to it.
After many years of masala movies, some with platitudes, ‘Rang De Basanti’ hit the screen. It was a strong political film. However, it played within the politically correct idiom, so it received critical accolades too. It became a super hit. The next truly political film to hit us hard was ‘Buddha in a Traffic Jam’. It seared a raw nerve. It was politically incorrect; it questioned the venerated left ideology, exposed the Naxal games and broke the unwritten covenant of film industry of being fashionably left. It was a rough cut, raw movie. But, it became an iconic film for sheer guts to take on the established hegemony of left-liberal intellectuals and hidden sympathy for left within film industry. Naturally, most critics, by habit left-oriented, even refused to review the film, just as they have done now in the case with The Tashkent Files. This time it is more out of animosity for a maverick than for the movie.
With The Tashkent Files, Vivek Agnihotri has come up with yet another highly political movie. It is the boldest political movie in Hindi. The topic is one that has troubled average Indian citizen since last 50 years but has been politically brushed under the carpet. One of the most visionary leaders of modern India, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri’s unnatural death needed a closure, rather an opening to be closed properly. Vivek Agnihotri has opened that wound finally, so it gets healed properly. Shastri ji also needed to be recognised as the visionary leader he was who brought in Green Revolution, White Revolution and encouraged Nuclear programme. He was lost to generations of Indians who never got to know him because these pages were simply torn out of contemporary history.
Vivek has adopted an uncharted, unconventional style to present this story. The Tashkent Files is not just a political film, it is a political thriller in the true sense. You don’t know which way the story will move next. When the final denouement hits you, you are left stunned.
The Tashkent Files has none of the rough edges that Buddha in a Traffic Jam had. Vivek Agnihotri has gone to a new level, in terms of storytelling, editing and etching out the characters. The ensemble cast keeps you spellbound. Dialogues are sharp, throw highly debatable opinions at you but carry flavour of slice of life. You can see the politics through them in all its cynicism and ugliness. Dialogue hit everyone – left, right and centre. There is no political bias there. You feel some of the dialogues referring to current scams are just thrown in for effect but you let them be, as story keeps quick pace. Ominous reference to some other unsolved political murders is not missed by a knowledgeable viewer and makes the young viewer think hard.
The atmosphere is brooding in line with the story, accentuated further by the camera work. Music adds to the sense of foreboding, though background music is overpowering in a few places. Mixing of the real-life characters with the fictional characters creates right sense of drama.
The story is about Shastri ji’s unnatural death or murder as the film tries to prove, though it deliberately leaves the question open as there has never been a thorough enquiry into it. But this story becomes the background against which Vivek uses broad brush strokes to bring out the Indian politics in its true colours. He raises much bigger questions about corruption, scams; and the permissive and cynical nature of our politics. One can even say that this could be true of politics in any country in the world.
Ultimately, as the protagonist brings out more and more evidence about the death of Shastri ji, you are left stunned and shaken in the final moments of the film. Because of the deep research and documentary evidence shared by the writer and director, you simply can’t brush it away. You really wonder whether India was indeed up for sale in the 1960s and 70s as one of the characters tells us. You are uncomfortable as you try to figure out who is actually pulling the strings in this nation so far. Zee studio must be complemented for supporting such a controversial subject and getting it wider audience.
I saw the movie in IITB – Mumbai and was struck at the reception it got from the intelligent youth of IIT. The response of the students was quite different at different turns the film took from what people of our generation had. They labelled the characters in their own way. It was surprising to see how the director could get the youth to connect to a 50-year-old story about which they knew nothing except slogan, Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan.
I don’t look at this film as a pop-movie that wishes to encash the current political atmosphere of the country. The hero of the film, Shastri ji, the theme of political shadow play and political corruption are timeless. To look at it purely as an expose of a grand old party would be simplistic. Because, this episode is history now. I see no reason for critics to boycott The Tashkent Files or treat it with contempt but for their close connections with old political system.
The Tashkent Files leaves behind some nagging questions that make you wonder whether it is not the right time for India to throw out old thinking perpetrated by traditional feudal politics and negate cynicism. India, that is, Bharat deserves better. We deserve better.