How devoted to conspiracy theories does a film about conspiracy theories have to be before it starts coming across as a conspiracy theory itself ?
‘The Tashkent Files’ sips generously from the fountain of conspiracies to bring us a story whose agenda is as subtle as that other film starring Vivek Oberoi.
Well, one Vivek’s loss is another Vivek’s gain.
Vivek Agnihotri, film maker and inventor of the term ‘Urban Naxals’, in probing the death of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, asks a pertinent question: why don’t we talk about Shastri as much as we should ?
Perhaps, because we are too obsessed with his predecessor – Jawaharlal Nehru, who, for the last five years has been showered with inordinate attention. Moreover, a strange web of coincidence has seen recent films probe former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Indira Gandhi (something tells me Rajeev Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao could be next).
The film, interestingly, in asking a whole range of questions about “what the truth really is” and “why we distort history” invariably and unwittingly does remind the viewer of the exact questions that millions have been asking but in a present day context.
Therefore, here are 10 moments from the film which, inadvertently, come across quite strongly as a commentary on the last five years.
Before we get into that, let’s get the biggest question out of the way first.
What does Vivek Agnihotri’s production company’s logo mean ?
Also Read: 'The Tashkent Files' lands in legal trouble
1. “Sab Itna Dhundla Kar Do ke Sach Kya Hain Pata hi Na Chale”
(“Make everything so hazy that it becomes impossible to decipher the truth”)
Pallavi Joshi’s character says these words in order to define the term “dim lighting”.
At a time when the entire repository of knowledge since the dawn of time is in our palms thanks to the internet, it is oddly funny how it is also the most potent tool for the viral propagation of misinformation.
Therefore with WhatsApp forwards about Nehru’s grandfather being Muslim, nano-chips in Rs 2000 currency notes or INDIA being an acronym for “Independent Nation Declared In August”, what is true any longer ?
2. “Jo kaam terrorists na kar sake woh hum ne aasani se kar diya. Hindustan ko divide kar diya”
(“We have managed easily what the terrorists could not. We have divided India”)
This is a loaded statement uttered by Mithun Chakravarty’s character in the film hence it merits a careful unpacking.
The word “divide” rings a bell because one has heard umpteen political leaders, journalists, artists and civil society members speak up against “divisive politics” or “politics of polarisation”.
Be it issues like the beef ban and subsequent lynchings, the NRC debate, tukde-tukde gang or even national vs anti-national, a binary politics appears to have become par for the course.
3. “We are talking about history. Let the historians decide what is true”
At one point in the film, Pallavi Joshi, who plays a historian in the film, is at her wits end and yells out these words in frustration.
Hang on a moment, why does this line and the accompanying frustration appear all too familiar?
Be it the assertion that Akbar lost the battle of Haldighati or that the Taj Mahal was actually “Tejo Mahalaya”, a Shiva temple, history appears to be written not be historians but by WhatsApp historians on a daily basis.
4. “Kaun kehta hain ki mare huye PM se kisi ko fayda nahi hota ?”
(“who says that a dead PM cannot be of use to someone ?” )
Of course hota hain.
Naseeruddin Shah, a wily senior minister, says this in the context of Shastri’s death but it rings true more in the present context of the almost daily invocation of former PM Jawaharlal Nehru.
From Kashmir, to Vallabhai Patel to, perhaps, even demonetisation, Nehru has borne the brunt of PM Modi’s ire to such an extent that a running joke now asks what the point of re-electing Modi for five years is if Nehru isn’t going to let him do his work.
5. “You bloody anti-national”
Ragini Phule, a reporter played by Sheta Basu Prasad, is accused as an “anti-national” for putting forth some uncomfortable questions.
This struck me as so familiar that i was left wondering if the film was still about Shastri.
In the hall of fame (or shame) of phrases coined in the last few years, “anti-national” deserves its own special place. Be it JNU students, journalists, comedians, the opposition parties or simply someone who may have skipped past NaMo TV too quickly, is immediately branded an “anti-national”
6. “This is about my right as a citizen. This is my right to truth”
Good guess but no, Shweta Basu Prasad’s character isn’t talking about the Right to Information (RTI). She isn’t talking about the systematic undermining of RTI queries either.
But she should. Everyone should.
According to the Central Information Commission, over 27,000 appeals are still pending. From demonetisation, to internet shutdowns to functioning of various government appointed committees, RTI requests have been routinely denied under flimsy grounds or not answered at all.
7. The government doesn’t want to probe mysterious deaths
At a point the discussion among the primary characters in the film veers towards how the establishment is often reluctant or disinterested in probing unnatural deaths. In the context of Shastri this might be a worthy point but in the current scenario it is an even worthier point.
From journalist Gauri Lankesh, rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi; JNU student Najeeb Ahmed, Dadri lynching victim Mohd Akhlaq or Alwar lynching victim Pehlu Khan, why hasn’t the government found conclusive answers to these deaths ?
8. “You are a fake news reporter”
A good thriller or a courtroom drama sets its premise in a manner that first lays the foundation of a convincing premise upon which the narrative then builds. The protagonist of the film is a journalist who is out to find “the truth”. Fair enough.
However, throughout the film she is portrayed as a reporter who peddles “fake news” in the guise of scoops.
So, the question is, how does a journalist with dubious credentials suddenly become the torchbearer of truth? Sounds familiar ?
9. “Secularism ne iss desh ka bantadhar kar diya hain”
(“Secularism has ruined this country”)
At a crucial juncture in the film, one of the primary characters vents in frustration about how one cannot apportion blame to a particular community for a number of incidents that have occurred. Later in the film he is chastised for harbouring this sentiment.
However, a cursory glance through most of the nightly primetime television debates reveal that they face no such vexing problems. Spokesperson for ruling parties have, on loop, blamed minority communities for almost everything under the sun while also garnishing their accusations with some truly shameful name-calling.
10. A journalist as part of a government appointed committee.. .wait what?
Last but not the least, coming to the central plot of the film – a government appointed committee to probe Shastri’s death. Alongside historians, ex-RAW officers, former judges, politicians and bureaucrats is a..wait for it...journalist.
At a time when the compositions of committees, access to information about the minutes of their meetings or even public consultations are as opaque as the , the idea of a reporter covering an issue being made part of that very same committee appears as far from reality as Virat Kohli’s hopes of winning the IPL.
The precise point at which the appropriation of Vallabhbhai Patel got underway might seem hazy but if history asks the same question about the attempted coup on Shastri, then the answer is – The Tashkent Files.
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