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The Tashkent Files review: A dim-light conspiracy that fails to light a fire

Release Date: 12 Apr 2019 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 24min

Cinestaan Rating

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Shriram Iyengar

Director Vivek Agnihotri chases so many threads of narrative to reach the eventual conclusion that it feels like another theory, rather than the truth. 

"This is called dim-lighting," screams the exasperated Aisha Ali Shah (Pallavi Joshi) at one point in the film. "You are clouding the room with so many theories that it is hard to see the truth." This encapsulates Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri's film.

The story begins with a young journalist, Ragini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad) in search of her next big scoop. It lands on her desk on her birthday in the form of an anonymous package containing papers about the mysterious death of India's second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Pandora's Box she opens puts her in opposition of the menacing home minister, PK Natarajan (Naseeruddin Shah). The complications deepen when she is made one of the eight members of a committee to investigate if there was a conspiracy in Shastri's death.

The committee is made of an former intelligence officer Ananthshastri (Prakash Belawadi), an NGO founder, Indira Roy (Mandira Bedi), a researcher Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi), an archives officer Omprakash Kapoor (Rajesh Sharma), a retired chief justice Kurien Abraham (Vishwa Mohan Badola), historian Aisha Ali (Pallavi Joshi) and Shyam Sundar Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty), the leader of opposition. They form the angry men and women approaching a case with biased minds and agendas.

This reviewer loves a good conspiracy theory and approached the film with keen interest. The subject certainly offers enough grey area between mystery and myth to explore. However, the poor plot and an agenda make the hysterical shout-fest between the committee a little too far fetched to believe. From theories about global conspiracies and spy masters (Vinay Pathak as the cloaked Mukhtar), the film dives into some unknown stories. But it fails to back them with enough credence.

The whole plot depends on two key pieces of evidence, 'Conversations With A Crow', an interview with Robert Crowley, former head of CIA operations, and the Mitrokhin files, a collection of handwritten notes by Russian KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin.

The first half of the film focusses on the CIA as the hand behind the murder of Lal Bahadur Shastri and scientist Homi Bhabha, before randomly switching to the KGB theory. Therein lies the problem. Having made up its mind that the death was indeed a conspiracy, the film seeks to build and remodel the instances around to suit the conclusion. Choose whichever is convenient, it seems to say to its audience, not realising that both books function on hearsay.

The film offers a lot of theories, possibilities, and rumours with shrieking conviction to suggest they are facts. Despite its attempt to stay balanced, the film does reveal its bias towards the end. The portrayal of the Congress government as a scheming Machiavellian machine from mentions of K Kamraj as the kingmaker to the blink-and-miss appearance of Indira Gandhi during the mention of KGB offering bribes to leaders makes no bones about hiding it.

The film also conveniently focusses on every known error of the Congress from its scams, masking them under the general description of the deep-state power that controls India. Effective, but biased nonetheless. Inefficiency and corruption are truly the only things distributed equally among all political parties, regardless of their ideology.

Written by Agnihotri, the screenplay is plodding and a little random. If the committee's acceptance of rumours as facts is disturbing, even more is perhaps the portrayal of a journalist looking for a scoop like a hungry man on a food delivery app. The random appearance of files, and the acceptance of the editor is a little unrealistic. The shoehorning of this entire plot into a 12 Angry Men style premise feels a little too affected. There is even the moment of communalism shown by Gangaram Jha (Tripathi) that is shooed off with a light tap on the wrist. It feels almost protocol, rather than an emotional dramatic moment.

The loopholes of the plot aside, the performances waver between good and poor. The subtle bits of spark are provided by Pallavi Joshi, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajesh Sharma, and Prakash Belawadi. Naseeruddin Shah mumbles like a man planning something even he does not know. The magic lies in the exclamations of Pankaj Tripathi and Belawadi who look more suited to their characters. Shweta Basu Prasad starts off well, but meanders into melodrama that drag the character down.

In all, The Tashkent Files takes an interesting story and drowns it in loud hysterical melodrama without addressing the facts of the matter. The hypothesis of the film starts to fail towards the second half, not helped by some of the poor dialogues and acting. It is a disappointment, if only to a conspiracy theorist who would have liked to see some real evidence that supported the case.



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