Lal Bahadur Shastri (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Selected members of the Indic Academy, an associate of ‘The Tashkent Files’, discuss the movie and its value in our time.

On the sidelines of the recently concluded fourth annual convention of the Indic Academy (IA) in Bengaluru, a chat show had been arranged. It was to be a leisurely conversation with Vivek Agnihotri, director of The Tashkent Files, a movie that revisits India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s, mysterious death.

IA had persuaded Vivek to write a book on how he came to produce the seminal film, Buddha In A Traffic Jam. The book on it, Urban Naxals, is a runaway bestseller.

Indic Academy is the Intellectual Partner for his new film and one of its members, responsible for forging this collaboration, was asked to produce an Indic Chat with Vivek Agnihotri on the making of the film.

She picked six members for the IA panel. I found myself among them.

“Hey, why me, all of 77 years now?,” I messaged her.

“Because you are 77,” she replied. “You have a huge part to play.”

No one ever says no to this colleague. She is by now a veteran producer of several chat shows for IA.

I sat a while thinking. I would certainly be the oldest in the chat show. I have lived through entire tenures of all of India’s Prime Ministers. It’s a claim of sorts.

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What do I recollect that none in the chat room can access through currently available sources?

I was in a reverie.

As one ages it’s natural one has seen and lived through much. Many memories are bundled and buried away in a heap. Forgotten for ever? Not so, as I discovered. I found I can ferret out my bundle on Shastri ji’s days. Out walked my vivid memories.

I was 5 when Jawahar Lal Nehru became prime minister and 21, when he died. Throughout his tenure India was equated with him. The country by and large was in love with him. Hindsight tells us of his errors, but in real time, few questioned him. The country was unconsciously insecure of an India without him. ‘After Nehru, who?’ was a question that was repeatedly pitched at us. We felt quite vulnerable.

Then Lal Bahadur followed Jawahar Lal. He was a man of small stature with an impish smile. One could easily underestimate him, like the Pakistanis did in 1965-to their great detriment. They were to experience his iron fist.

In a trice we were in love with this decisive man. None of Jawahar Lal’s pensive, indecision in Lal Bahadur. He was fearless and relentless.

In under three weeks into the 1965 war, the Indian army had swept back Pakistani intruders and chasing them, entered their territory and captured huge tracts of their land and stood at the gates of Lahore. Pakistan’s vaunted Patton tanks lay scattered as debris in India’s deserts.

Indian army at the outskirts of Lahore  Indian army at the outskirts of Lahore 

Shastri Ji rose to great heights during the war. He called upon Indians to give up a meal a day to get over food shortages. The whole country observed Mondays as ‘Shastri ji vrat’. He asked citizens to donate their jewellery for the war effort. Millions obliged.

Just when Indians had begun to march behind this beloved, inspiring leader he was declared dead.

Just like that.

In faraway Tashkent, at 2 am.

When he slept alone, unattended.

Of a heart attack?

And no post mortem sought or done?

“What!”, howled the nation in disbelief. I didn’t believe he had died a natural death.

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No one in India did; not then, not since.

But he lies forgotten.

Will the film take me closer to the truth?

My host, diligent as ever, made us watch the trailer which has been sweeping YouTube. She gathered us to watch the rushes of the movie an hour before the chat was to roll for the cameras.

Author, columnist, and popular social media personality, Shefali Vaidya, who was selected to be the host, did her bit to put us at ease: “I will introduce you and leave you to express yourselves. Feel free. I am not an anchor but a participant like you.”

We were seated in two cars for the long ride to Shangrila Hotel for the shoot. I was nervous but excited; I hadn’t faced professional movie cameras before.

Besides me and Shefali, there were Guru Prakash, Vinay Mangal, Arjun Kadian and the youngest of us, Gayatri Iyer. All of them are accomplished professionals in their individual fields.

Vivek had flown in from Dubai just for this shoot. He’s a genial man with a light touch. Then came a man in slacks, a plain shirt and sandals: Award-winning actor, Prakash Belawadi, the man who plays a retired RAW chief in the movie. There was a young pretty girl. Turned out she was Shweta Basu Prasad, who plays the intense, passionate young woman I had seen in the rushes, the young journalist who couldn’t be deterred. It was hard to believe it was this young girl.

The chat show began to roll.

Shefali quickly introduced us and got the conversation going.

Vivek narrated what made him do this film.

He said he had long been intrigued by the mystery, but found no official documents to build his story from.

“It was then that I decided to crowd-research the story,” Vivek says. “My casual request for contemporary sources resulted in a deluge. Vernacular press had done work that’d shame mainstream media. Lone crusaders had continued to keep a vigil on the story. An unknown elderly man in Chhattisgarh shared a pile of information he had collected over the years. Many stepped out to help me and urge me on..”

As he went about possessed by the mystery, he soon could not evade action. He sounded big names like Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakravarthy and his own wife, Pallavi Joshi. To his surprise he found them all driven by the need to do the story.

Thus the cast came together.

Shweta is of a generation that can scarcely have heard of Shastri ji. She says she was transformed by the mystery. From the scenes of her in the rushes, I could tell she’s now a woman possessed to ferret out the truth. The unfairness of what befell our PM and the casual ways of those she approaches as a journalist in search for truth, seems to have electrified her. It’s a riveting performance. In our chat she often verges close to tears.

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Prakash, the RAW chief in the film, is a laid-back man. He describes for us who he’s certain are the suspects. Their successors today still carry the diabolical legacy. He sounds drained but suffused with satisfaction they came together to tell the story.

Vivek goes on: “By the time we began the shooting, the actors had grown into their roles and taken over the telling. There’s a 14 minute long scene. The investigation committee was to discuss the issue of PM’s death. I just briefed the scene and left the room.”

When he returned he was stunned to see them still seething with passion for their respective points of view. The scene’s intensity transfers to you.

He says Shweta had no brief in the scene where the Home Secretary laconically tells her that ours was Nehru’s India.

“She stunned us all by angrily bursting out, ‘ShastriJi ka kyun nahin ?’,”he says

I had answered a query by Gayatri, on why what happened 53 years ago should matter now. I said, “It does because if they can so easily bury what happened a mere 50 years ago, how easy it must be to bury what happened in India 200, 500 years ago?”

If Shweta’s generation begins to wonder what happened to Shastriji, they’ll be aroused to ask what befell our ravaged land the past several centuries.

That to me, is why this film matters. In a time when we think social media controls the narrative, Vivek Agnihotri might have have resurrected the medium of film as a truth-seeking tool.

At the Indic Chat  At the Indic Chat 

Vivek says many ask him, “What? A movie about a dead man?”

I think he has made Lal Bahadur rise again.

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Do go and see the film. I will. What little I have seen tells me we are in for a transformative experience. It promises to be a thriller, that will shake and change everyone.

When you have seen the film, do also see Indic Chat Live - an Indic Academy Round Table on The Tashkent Files that I have described here. It will add a great depth to the story that the movie has to tell.

The complete Indic Chat can be watched below.

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