The Tashkent Files Review: A Life-Threatening Headache Presented by Alt-Historian Vivek Agnihotri


The Tashkent Files Review: A Life-Threatening Headache Presented by Alt-Historian Vivek Agnihotri

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files, a historical thriller that investigates the mysterious demise of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, opens with an ironic disclaimer: The movie “can’t claim historical accuracy”. Considering that it is written and directed by the country’s most dedicated alt-historian, a better title might have then been “Conspiracy Files”.

The Tashkent Files opens with Ragini Phoole (a jarring Shweta Basu Prasad), a journalist whose editor threatens to shift her to the “Arts and Culture” section if she fails to deliver a “political scoop” in a week. Given Agnihotri’s open animosity toward journalists, whom he has accused of writing soap operas, having a low IQ, and spreading propaganda, the fact that Tashkent Files paints them as imbeciles comes as no revelation. Naturally, Ragini’s introduction includes us being told that she is an irresponsible millennial journalist who only dabbles in fake news: Her editor reprimands her for filing a political story based on imaginary sources and made-up quotes; Ragini defends her actions by bragging about the number of retweets that particular story fetched.

In the real world, Ragini would have been fired. But in a Vivek Agnihotri film, Ragini sets off a massive re-investigation into Shastri’s death, more than 50 years after the tragedy. According to her story, Shastri – who was in Tashkent (then in the USSR, now in Uzbekistan) to sign the Tashkent Declaration – didn’t die of a cardiac arrest, but was poisoned.

True to the stereotype of a lazy millennial employee, Ragini doesn’t spend sleepless nights tirelessly working to earn the facts and figures that prove her version. Instead, all she does is walk to the office washroom and answer a prank call. A stranger on the other side of the line asks her the dullest patriotic pop quiz ever, whose questions include “What happened on August 15?” “What happened on October 2?”. In exchange for her answers, Ragini finds a file on the inconsistencies in Shastri’s death and just like that, without any further investigation, her story is printed the next day. Evidently, Agnihotri spends more thought in crafting a tweet than writing the script of a feature film.

A front-page byline and one week later, Ragini is now Delhi’s star journalist: She is invited on a primetime news show and her story prompts a fact-finding committee – headed by politician Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty) – to look into the allegations. Besides Ragini, the main players in this committee are Indira Joshi Roy (Mandira Bedi), a social activist whose only contribution is consistent screeching; Aiysha Ali Shah (Agnihotri’s wife Pallavi Joshi), a wheelchair-bound historian who pretends like she knows exactly how to stop the apocalypse and goes, “Main historian hoon, mujhe sab pata hai,” every five minutes; and Vivendra Pratap Singh Rana (Prashant Gupta), an ill-tempered young politician who keeps banging the table and yelling at everyone as if he’s on Republic TV.

After a point, the film becomes an endless cycle of whataboutery that is designed solely as a war cry against logic – just like Agnihotri’s Twitter timeline.

It doesn’t help that an inordinately large part of The Tashkent Files is spent inside a dilapidated room where this very committee convenes daily to debate whether Shastri died a natural death or whether it was a murder that was promptly covered up. For most of the film’s unending 144 minutes, the committee members argue with each other about the same things – like Shastri’s age when he died and whether there was oxygen in his room cor randomly scream “fake news!” as a comeback. After a point, the film becomes an endless cycle of whataboutery that is designed solely as a war cry against logic. Basically, Vivek Agnihotri’s Twitter timeline coming to life.

Agnihotri, a proponent of needless theatrics, goes out of his way to guarantee that The Tashkent Files says nothing about the potential cause of the former PM’s death. Instead of living up to the promise of answering who killed Shastri, Agnihotri’s unhinged script somehow makes Ragini travel to Tashkent just to ask Shastri’s statue for help before turning to another totally credible source: an Indian spy with an anger management problem. At some point, an editor-turned-monk briefly turns up looking like a discarded clone of the Dalai Lama  – in case you’re wondering, he is another totally credible whistleblower.

If that’s not enough, The Tashkent Files keeps quoting from random books and uses videos of Shastri’s family talking about his death as shocking evidence. Yet none of the “information” that the film posits – like the Indian government not ordering a post-mortem after Shastri’s death – are facts that are top secret; they’re freely available online. It’s hard then, to not see the movie as an attack on the right to Google search.

But because this is a smug Vivek Agnihotri film, its climax hinges on a whole sequence where Tripathi gives every member of the committee a terrorism designation: One is called an “intellectual terrorist”, another is a “TRP terrorist”, while yet another a “judicial terrorist”. Completing the ritual is a scene where Ragini has ink thrown on her face and is christened with Agnihotri’s favourite nickname: “presstitute”. You’ll be pleased to know that her past achievements include being called “anti-national”. Thankfully, no one gets called an Urban Naxal.

Throughout, The Tashkent Files keeps raising questions and then presenting multiple conspiracy theories like an ill-conceived Quora thread that is asking to be deleted. For instance, Agnihotri dedicates a large chunk of the film to highlight the involvement of KGB in Shastri’s death, so much so that even the end credits have pages from the The Mitrokhin Archive – detailing these allegations – plastered on screen. As usual, there’s a catch. They’re accompanied by another significant disclaimer: “The authenticity of the claims made in the report are not proven.”

By the end of the movie then, we’re back where we started – no one is certain how Shastri died or why Agnihotri continues making films. The Tashkent Files may not answer “Who Killed Shastri?” but it sure as hell, leaves no doubt in telling us who killed common sense.