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Interview Hindi

Vivek Agnihotri believes there is a mafia of critics ganging up against him

Agnihotri, director of The Tashkent Files (2019), slams those who called it a propaganda film and questions whether anyone who gives zero stars to a film is worthy of being called a critic.

Mayur Lookhar

“We say this is a nation of Gandhi and Nehru, but is it not a nation of Shastri," questions Ragini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad) in The Tashkent Files (2019).

The political drama, which was released earlier this month, reignited conspiracy theories around the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, India's second prime minister. Shastri died, reportedly of a heart attack, on 11 January 1966, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then a part of the Soviet Union.

The Tashkent Files was helmed by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri. More than with his films, Agnihotri has courted controversy with his strong political views. His political inclination and the release of his film just a day after the seventeenth general elections got underway invariably led to questions about his motives.

There has also been some scathing criticism of the film itself, but Agnihotri labels such reviews the work of a mafia of critics. He believes film reviewing has been biased since the days of Rajesh Khanna, when the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema acted in "mediocre" films and yet was praised.

Cinestaan caught up with the filmmaker and political commentator recently. The discussion largely revolved around his latest film, which Vivek Agnihotri strongly defended and slammed those who called it a propaganda film. Excerpts:

'Bollywood' [mainstream Hindi cinema] usually refrains from political subjects fearing a backlash. So it’s pretty brave of you to have made a film like The Tashkent Files. What were the obstacles you faced?

My biggest problem was that this film required a lot of research. Research and development require money. In Bollywood, nobody invests in research and development. Since R&D of this kind doesn’t pay much, not many are interested in it  Making such a film is full of grief and frustration.

When I started, people said who will be interested in politics? They [potential producers] said who will be interested in Lal Bahadur Shastri? They said people would be more interested in Bhagat Singh or Shivaji.

I wanted to release the film last year, but no studio was interested. Most studios said the youth don’t even know Lal Bahadur Shastri. And this is a 53-year-old case. That’s exactly why I was confident this film will work only with the youth.

I am very vocal about my political ideology, so a lot of people do not want to touch me. You go to a doctor, does s/he ask you your ideology? In families, people have different ideologies. I differ with my wife and son, but does that mean we don’t co-exist as a family?

I had approached a few young actresses, but some found the film too political, while a few were concerned about working with me. Finally, I found a neutral girl in [Shweta Basu Prasad].

'Bollywood' usually likes to be apolitical. How does a filmmaker like you survive in this industry?

Which industry? Bollywood? Everybody has political views but nobody speaks about them. That’s hypocrisy. I resigned from Bollywood a long time ago. Bollywood is a thought. It is a mediocre mindset. I don’t want to be part of mediocrity any more. I am happy making a Buddha In A Traffic Jam (2016), The Tashkent Files (2019). Bollywood means trading your values, your happiness, peace.

Ideally, a film like The Tashkent Files should be sending shockwaves and getting people talking about Shastri's mysterious death. But given the limited screens, the mixed reviews...

(Interrupting) Mixed reviews! Where are they?

Well, the film’s page on Wikipedia largely mentions negative reviews. I think there are some 5-6 such reviews.

Are they really critics? Are those reviews about the film or about me? Would you call one a critic if s/he gives zero stars to a film like The Tashkent Files? There is one critic who three days before the film’s release writes on social media that he won’t review this film but will repost a review of Buddha In A Traffic Jam, to which he refused to give any star. Would you call that person a critic?

This is a mafia of critics. They want special screenings, to be treated like VIPs. The problem is that Bollywood producers largely make mediocre films. Those producers pamper these journalists. The first thing mediocrity needs is sycophancy and that’s why we have dynasties in this country. 

I don’t want to insult him, I was a big fan too, but the late Rajesh Khanna in his mediocre days always had sycophants around. 

These are not critics but advocates of a certain camp. A bad film of Shah Rukh Khan would get three stars. A third-rate Anurag Kashyap film would get four or five stars from these critics.

What I meant to ask was whether the film has been able to generate any debate on Lal Bahadur Shastri. 

The Tashkent Files has changed everything. From now on, Shastri’s name will be taken in a different way. Often we have heard that India is a land of Gandhi and Nehru but after The Tashkent Files, they will add Shastri’s name too. Mitrokhin Archive, nobody knew about it, but it’s come into public knowledge now.

(The Mitrokhin Archive is a collection of handwritten notes made secretly by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. Agnihotri's film has taken chapters from the book. It mentions about a top Indian leader (name withheld) being in the KGB's pocket.)

There is one thing I would like to point out, which I don’t think has come to anyone’s notice.

What is that?

Often our protagonists in Hindi films are upper-caste characters. Such directors, when they go to speak at forums, talk about casteism. Last year, I was attacked when I mentioned Ambedkar’s grandson travelling first class. It’s a great thing that today in India no one asks you your caste while booking a seat. Isn’t that good? 

I never publicized it, but what is the name of my protagonist? Ragini Phule. Who are the Phules? They are Dalits. Prasad knew throughout the film that she is a Dalit girl but nowhere I showed her as a Dalit.

My impression of the film was that save for Ragini Phule, all the other fictitional characters embodied two things — the greed to cling to power and vested interests. These characters and their talk looked more like the noisy debates we see on new channels. Don’t you think that in that noise, the core issue was lost?

Well, that was the idea. It was intentional. The character of Mithunda [Mithun Chakraborty] also says in the end that everyone was catering to their own agenda. He reminds all that democracy is not run through a vote but through rationality. Even the girl [Ragini] says that through the discussions, everything was pointing at something, but the committee was more preoccupied with its motives. That is what happens in India and that’s what I wanted to show.

I have received feedback from young minds who say these characters remind them how in a democracy everyone caters to their own agendas. 

Rather than having a bunch of politicians and influential people debating, would it have been more engaging to tell the story from the point of view of an investigative journalist like Anuj Dhar?

Well, it can be done in 10,000 ways. The good thing is that these views are coming. I felt that was the best way.

Look, there are not too many physical evidences in the Shastri death mystery. This is more about what someone said versus what the other person said. So, I felt it made a lot of sense to have a debate. I didn’t want to make something on rumours and gossip. That’s why I have shown books from where I have taken references. All this was taken from Parliament records. The debate which took place in Parliament, that’s where the whole thing came from. 

The first draft of the film was only the room, but then I realized that young people may not be interested. That’s how a third perspective of the girl [Ragini Phule] came in. And we took her out. We had to show the role of the spies. I wanted someone to interact with the spies.

Some critics have called it a propaganda film...

(Interrupting again) Why are you always focused on these mafia critics? It’s like we have to talk about politics but you don’t need to talk about a Lalu Prasad Yadav. There are good politicians too.

There is Shubhra Gupta, Saibal Chatterjee and a few more critics. They openly hate me.

Whose propaganda is it? If I had propaganda, wouldn’t I have released this film 10 days before the elections? I released the film a day after the elections commenced. Am I an idiot to release my film five days before a big film like Kalank (2019)?

Okay, I accept that I have propaganda, but these critics are doing the same. They have negative propaganda against me. If I work for a political party, then so do you. My speeches, articles, my writings, tweets, they all just say one thing — how to make India a wonderful country. It says I am proud of India. Why should anyone have a problem with this?

I don’t think it’s a propaganda film, for your characters identify with left, right, secular, different ideologies. There’s Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi) who suffers from Islamaphobia. But when the Shastri death conspiracy theory comes across as an election mudda [agenda] for a reasonable man like Shyam Sundar Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty), then I’m afraid, what do the reasonable, non-political, non-ideological viewers make of the film?

Make of it that in politics everything is a mudda. Politics is not moral science, ethics. It is not. What it should be, well that’s another question.

Isn't there too much talk on ideology but not enough on integrity?

Because no one has it. That’s the beauty of the film. Tripathi ends it saying to Ragini, ‘Welcome to politics.' I wanted people to know that senior politicians use the younger generations. That’s how young journalists become brokers for politicians. How did Barkha Dutt become a power broker? She was a bright girl. Every Indian journalist wanted to be like her. But what happened to her? Some big politicians made her their broker. The same thing happens with Ragini Phule. She stands there unanswered, stunned, she doesn’t know where to go from there.

Releasing a film at any time is a director, producer’s right, but then releasing it before a Lok Sabha election is bound to raise eyeballs. What do you say to those who question the timing of the film?

Has any of our actors spoken about elections, politics? Nothing of that sort happened. I could have released the film on 5 April, why would I release it one day after [the elections began]. That was the only window available.

A Salman Khan film is released on Eid, they exploit religious emotion, why doesn’t anyone question them? How can a film with just 250 screens change political fate? If it were a propaganda film, then wouldn’t I have got big money to release it?

Your committee consists of some intriguing characters from different walks of life. Some of these characters remind you of some real highly opinionated people whose views can create a storm.  Was that deliberate?

Yes. Forget a committee, I have seen people take positions on WhatsApp groups. The arguments get ugly and sometimes they affect relationships.

But don’t you think these people might say you created these characters to attack them?

Can you give me an example?

Well, Mandira Bedi’s character kind of reminded me of controversial civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad.

I don’t even know how Setalvad looks. Socialists will tell you we don’t need colas, no need for liberalization. Well, an Indira Joseph Roy [Mandira Bedi] could also be perceived as Arundhati Roy.

Look, social workers are not as glamorous as Mandira Bedi. Indira is a unique character. For Aisha Ali Shah [Pallavi Joshi], some compared her to historian Romila Thapar.  But she is a mix of many things. These are all original characters.

A political film will reflect ideology. There is capitalism, socialism, liberalism, communalism, but in the end, what do you take home? The right to the truth.

Given that Shastri may have been murdered, it’s sad to see the family, too, divided into different political camps. Shastri’s grandson Vibhaskar sought a stay on the film saying it tries to create unnecessary controversy. If the Shastri family itself is divided, how can the common people believe any conspiracy theory?

Well, he came to see the film. He loved it. He is a senior member of the Congress and very close to the top [Gandhi] family at 10 Janpath. He must have told them it’s a brilliant film, but then he must have been coerced into sending me a legal notice. After some time, he realized that the film is good and does justice to his grandfather. So he withdraws the case. I can only say that some members of the family are confused.

Given its controversial subject, was it easy to convince the likes of Mithun Chakraborty and Naseeruddin Shah?

These are seasoned people. Anybody who is wise will never have a problem. It is only the new people who have that fear. These are all secure actors. They listened to the script, they listened to the characters, and just said okay, we will do it. Not once did I have any issues with them. Yes, three decades ago, Mithun and Naseer had decided not to work with each other, They never did a film together after Ghulami (1985). But I told them, “Come on, let’s work together.”

Was there any intellectual discussion on the sets?

Yeah. In this film, everybody is an intellectual. Rajesh Sharma is an intellectual. Prakash Belawadi is known as an intellectual. 

Were there any ideological debates?

Yes, we discussed politics. Rajesh Sharma is a leftist. Mithunda has been a Naxal himself. Naseer has a totally different ideology, neither left nor right. Mandira is very liberal, Prakash Belawadi is a right winger. The maximum discussions were on [US president Donald Trump].

It’s remarkable that so many people with different political ideologies worked together in the film. 

Yes, we do, This is all media created. I am sure when Narendra Modi and Mrs Sonia Gandhi sit down, they also talk normally. I have been to so many news debates, People fight like dogs. But as soon it's over, they are cordial with one another. Only immature, childish people would have enemies.

Recently, veteran BJP leader LK Advani made a pertinent point when he said that just because one does not agree with the politics of BJP one does not become anti-national. But what we see today on social media is you criticize the Modi government and you are quickly labelled anti-national.

That is politics. I don’t fall into it. I have never used the word anti-national. Ragini Phule asks questions about nationalism. But that is what I believe in. For me, people who compromise on the security of the country, they are anti-national. I think urban Naxals, terrorists are anti-national. Anybody who supports terrorists is anti-national, anybody who supports stone pelters, anybody who supports this ‘tukde tukde gang' is anti-national.

But what about the slander, the rape threats? Today, people are scared to make any political comment for fear of being abused.

It happens from all corners. Everybody does it. It’s just abuse. They are not going to kill you. You should not bother about them and voice your views fearlessly.