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The Tashkent Files Review: Vivek Agnihotri’s film dares to question one of India’s biggest alleged political cover-ups

The Tashkent Files raises questions on the mysterious death of India’s 2nd Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, and seeks to expose a different lie and truth

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the tashkent files review

On the night of January 10, 1966, Independent India’s 2nd Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was in Tashkent (USSR), breathed his last. Apparently he died of a heart attack. There are many theories surrounding his mysterious death. Not everyone was convinced that he had died of natural causes. The conspiracy theory that first floated out was that he had been poisoned that night, the poison administered in his regular nightly thermos of milk. Writer-director Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files is a thriller (a disrespectful term to use here really), that raises questions on the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death and dares to actually ask the question, ‘Who Killed Pandit Lal Bahadur Shastri?’ Was it an assassination? A state secret? A devious political cover-up?

What it’s about: The Tashkent Files is about the death of former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The film has been written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri and it stars Naseeruddin Shah and Mithun Chakraborty in key roles as current-day politicians. An ambitious young political journalist Raagini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad), known for ‘faking news’, gets a call from an unknown caller, urging her to look at the case of ‘Who Killed Shastri?’ Desperate for a chance to redeem herself with her seniors, and for a new scoop, she gets into the game set by the caller, who regularly follows up with clues and information about how she could gather evidence to build the story. She is soon trapped in a web of international intrigue, lies and deceit and political cover-ups. When her article hits the news-stands, she is approached by an ageing politico (possibly on his way out of the Government nest) Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty), who then talks to another Minister – PKR Natarajan (Naseeruddin Shah) who has his own secrets and scheming agenda, and they decide to set up an eight-member committee of diverse professionals to establish the truth or falsity of her allegation, 53 years after the PM’s death. It’s a case that still raises doubts in the average mind, and mostly in the minds of the late Shastriji’s family, who are not convinced that he had died a natural death. The girl was a nuisance and a danger. The committee members are as unalike as chalk and cheese, and each one comes in with an agenda of their own, and a lot of past baggage. Scared beyond her wits at the ensuing consequences, but ‘suddenly’ fired by her quest for the ‘truth’, Raagini is unable to pull herself off, even though she wants out of the game. How Raagini tries to get to the truth, the reactions and opinions of the members of the committee, the dangerous game of ‘truth and dare’ she is playing, and what conclusion is eventually arrived at form the 144 minutes that make up the film.

Yay: The subject of the film is its biggest edge. Of national importance, the average Indian citizen is shown the innumerable possibilities and conspiracy theories, that set one’s mind thinking. Yes, it must have come with a price attached, the desire to make this film. And Vivek Agnihotri has already apparently borne the brunt of that with his family, by way of threats to life. A lot of research seems to have gone into the making of this story, it cannot obviously be based on fictional versions. The psychological play of the committee members and their outbursts gives a good insight into human minds and their machinations. The validation by the real sons of the late leader adds some measure of credibility. The characterisations are strong. The supporting actors deliver their roles effectively – Mandira Bedi as Indira Joseph Roy, who runs multiple NGOs. Pallavi Joshi as Aiysha Ali Shah, a strong and opinionated historian, Rajesh Sharma as Omkar Kashyap, Director of the Indian Archives, Vinay Pathak as Mukhtar, the spy who loved India, now hiding in Tashkent, Pankaj Tripathi as Gangaram Jha, a racist, scientific theorist, seeming to appear on the side of logic, Vishwa Mohan Badola as  Kurian Abraham, an ageing Justice of Peace, seeking to reclaim his lost identity, Prakash Belawadi as GK Anantha Suresh, one-time RAW chief, who is suddenly faced with apparently glaring errors of his predecessors, Prashantt Gupta as Virendra Pratap Singh Rana, a highly angry and vocal youth leader. Yusuf Hussain, Ankur Rathee and Mohan Kapoor did okay. One dialogue struck home really hard. When Rana says ‘Yeh desh Nehruji aur Gandhiji ki hai…’ Raagini asks, ‘Shastriji ka kyon nahin?’ In an aside – does anyone even remember that 2nd October is also the birthday of Pandit Lal Bahadur Shastri? This film ensures you will never forget that. Also, the Mitrokhin Archives (of KGB spy and archiver Vasiliy Mitrokhin) merit perusal for interested citizens.

Nay: Of the motley cast, Vinay Pathak is wasted – he is in disguise, and does not have enough of a role for his histrionics though. Achint Kaur is just a glorified ‘moll’ish female presence around Natarajan, saying nothing and doing nothing except smile beatifically. Totally unnecessary. And having Naseer wear a ‘veshti’ in one scene does not give him a South Indian character. Naseeruddin Shah was the disappointment, he just went through the motions. And Mithun Chakraborty, whilst we may have seen politicians like that, was totally over the top with bombastic vocal outbursts and outrageous body language. The music was mostly unnecessary and loud too. The stress was on creating the story, and less on technical excellence. Two-and-a-half hours is loooong.

CineBlitz Verdict: Vivek Agnihotri had stated that The Tashkent Files was going to be the country’s first crowd-sourced thriller. But it is not totally an apolitical film about a political leader, like he claimed. The subject does not allow that. While it is not overtly propagandist, or even inflammatory, it is revelatory that even with so much information in the public domain, the case did not arouse the correct actions five decades ago, and those that did, all connected parties died rather conveniently in road accidents. He must have ruffled a lot of feathers and put fear in a lot of hearts in the course of making this film. While he leaves it to us to decide which theory we want to accept, the depiction effectively has all roads leading to one name and address. Whatever he may or may not achieve at the Box Office, whether people like him or not for his extreme opinions and often offensive views, you have to hand it to Vivek Agnihotri for having the gall to make this film. Zee Studios too has supported him entirely, considering Lal Bahadur Shastri was a personality they had made a film about earlier in 2018 too. Go and watch the film.

Star Rating: 3 stars

Movie Reviews

Bulbbul review: A visual spectacle let down by thin writing

Bulbbul on Netflix is a horror revenge drama film produced by Anushka Sharma and stars Tripti Dimri as an enigmatic woman in early the 1900s in Bengal Presidency.

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Tripti Dimri in and as Bulbbul

Director: Anvita Dutt

Cast: Tripti Dimri, Avinash Tiwary, Rahul Bose, Paoli Dam, Parambrata Chattopadhyay

Rating:

When after watching a film, you talk about the cinematography, production design, colors or music more than the film’s story, it’s an indication that the storyteller has lost his/her audience. Netflix India’s latest original film Bulbbul unfortunately falls into this category. The opening credit sequence with red flowers is captivating enough to raise the expectations from the film. You’re blown away by the visual spectacle that writer-director Anvita Dutt has created with her team – cinematographer Siddharth Diwan, production designer Meenal Agarwal, costume designer Veera Kapur Ee and the VFX department at Red Chillies.

The film is a celebration of colors – red hues symbolizing anger, celebration, menstruation and above all womanhood, stark blue representing the grim past. Adding to this visual spectacle is Amit Trivedi’s hauntingly beautiful score, dominated by violin. It’s a great combination of audio-visual storytelling. What hurts Bulbbul is its writing. Writer-director Anvita Dutt has tremendous command over the language, and the dialogues have a literary touch (no surprise as it is set in Tagore’s Bengal), but the overall narrative lacks novelty and doesn’t have much impact either.

Trailer of Bulbbul:

The characters played by Rahul Bose, Avinash Tiwary, Paoli Dam become one tone and standard template for films like this. What stays with you is Bulbbul portrayed by Tripti Dimri (such a beautiful enigma). She gives Bulbbul her vulnerability and grace with ease. Her eyes and smile do half her work. She seems so synonymous with the red hues in visuals and the violins in score.

The story begins in 1881 when Bulbbul, a child bride is married to a much older man Indraneel (Rahul Bose). He has a twin brother Mahendra who doesn’t have a conscience. Their third brother is Satya, played with complete sincerity by Avinash Tiwary. Dimri and Tiwary reunite after their debut film Laila Majnu (2018), a story of unrequited love. Here too their relationship of brother and sister in law has shades of belonging. Satya is Bulbbul’s friend, confidante as both are of the same age. They are writing a book together. The book as well as their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Satya is sent to London to study law.

Also read: Aarya review: A thoroughly enjoyable crime drama

Satya returns after five years, to know that a chudail (she-demon) is killing men of the village. This story is about women, and the abuse and suppression they have faced since beginning time. Men ought to be the villains of this narrative. But there’s a mandatory ‘not all men are bad’ type character in Sudeep (Parambrata Chattopadhyay). The men in the film have a standard template. Rahul Bose, Avinash Tiwary do their best but there’s not much for them to play.

In spite of its visual splendor, Bulbbul falters in its narrative and ends up in the same situation where most horror films do. It would have been great to see a tale of revenge in a novel way but unfortunately, nothing great happens after the promising start. The film at times, moves at a meandering pace, which can be repellent to a film on OTT, as the viewer can quickly switch onto something else.

Also read: Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Bulbbul is produced by Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma’s Clean Slate FIlmz. In their first production NH10, Anushka seeks revenge from her husband’s killers. Their next two projects Phillauri and Pari were ghost folklore and supernatural thrillers. Bulbbul is a combination of all three. To sum it up, there’s a lot to marvel in the visual splendor and musical genius of Bulbbul, but the thin writing lets the film down.

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Movie Reviews

Aarya review: A thoroughly enjoyable crime drama

Disney + Hotstar’s latest special Aarya starring Sushmita Sen is an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable crime drama.

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aarya

Creator: Ram Madhvani

Cast: Sushmita Sen, Chandrachur Singh, Sikander Kher

Rating:

It starts with Aarya played effortlessly by Sushmita Sen hurrying up some morning household chores, getting her kid to school, managing to keep a tap on her younger sister’s wedding arrangements, and preventing her husband from having ‘just one laddoo’ as his triglycerides levels have gone high. This sequence as are other sequences in the series involving multiple characters is beautifully choreographed.

Ram Madhvani (Neerja), the creator of the show, along with his writer-directors is in no hurry to make this series compact. At 9 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, Aarya unfolds slowly. If you assume that this is a crime thriller which such series get easily categorized into, Aarya might seem long and slow. That’s what people label anything that doesn’t move in quick cuts across multiple locations and plot twists.

Watch trailer of Disney + Hotstar Specials’ Aarya:

Aarya is an official Indian adaptation of the Dutch series Penoza. To me, Aarya came as a big relief from the overdose of crime thrillers on the OTT space. It does involve crime for it is set in the world of drug mafias. But it is as much about a woman, a daughter, a mother, and a wife. Interpersonal relationships have been woven so beautifully that the slow burn feel of the series is its asset.

Madhvani and his co-directors have got remarkable performances from their actors. Remember Sonam Kapoor in Madhvani’s Neerja (2016)? It is the only performance of the actress that stands out in her entire filmography.

Also read: Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Here, Madhvani has an ensemble cast that gives excellent performances. Leading the pack is of course Sushmita Sen. This is her show and she owns it. She portrays Aarya with poise. When her world turns upside down, she takes it head on like a fierce lioness protecting her cubs. Chandrachur Singh (also making a comeback) as her husband has his own charm. Vikas Kumar as ACP Khan, Ankur Bhatia as Sangram, Namit Das as Jawahar, Sikander Kher as Daulat, and Manish Chaudhary as Shekhawat leave their mark.

The series is remarkably cinematic in its production design, costume design, cinematography, sound and background score. The writing is organic. There’s not much dialogue-baazi in it. Yes, it is possible to keep the audience engaged by letting the characters converse than trying to dramatize every scene with filmy one-liners. There’s a lot to marvel at Aarya – the woman and the series.

Also read: Gulabo Sitabo is an ‘antique’ dramedy that owes its charm to its eccentric characters

Aarya might not be a binge watch for everyone. I took my time watching an episode a day. But I thoroughly enjoyed the series. The slow burn allowed me to get transformed to crazy rich drug world in Rajasthan and the world of Aarya. It gave me that time to absorb everything without having to be on my toes all the time trying to guess what’s gonna happen next. I liked that for a change. You might too.

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Movie Reviews

Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video review: A scattered tale with no Ras

Amazon Prime Video’s latest Indian web series Rasbhari starring Swara Bhasker takes too long to make a point and falls all over the place while doing so.

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Swara Bhasker and Ayushmaan Saxena in Amazon Prime Video's Rasbhari

Director: Nikhil Bhat

Cast: Swara Bhasker, Ayushmaan Saxena, Rashmi Agdekar

Rating:

Nostalgia, a teenage boy’s sexual fantasies/awakening, small-town setting can be a good combination to put together a film or a show in today’s times. India’s youth have struggled hard to express their sexuality; often leading to perversions and sex crimes. Where boys with the so-called freedom that they have had got than the girls hasn’t really helped them becoming more mature or responsible romantic/sexual partners. Women still struggle to express their sexuality for the society they live in hasn’t really encouraged rather allowed them to do so.

Amazon Prime Video’s latest web series Rasbhari tries with good intentions to address this issue. Swara Bhasker plays Shanoo Bansal aka Rasbhari a seductress, sexually charged woman who is every man’s fantasy in Meerut – from school students and teachers to paanwala, cable guy and cop. Men lust over her whereas their wives call Shanoo a ‘kulta’.

Watch the trailer of Rasbhari:

One of the males lusting over Shanoo is her student Nand Kishore Tyagi (Ayushmaan Saxena), who boasts among his friends that he will score with Shanoo. There’s innocence and foolish craze in a teenage boy’s fantasies about a mature woman. For many boys, their first crushes have been their teachers. The makers here, writer Shantanu Srivastava and director Nikhi Bhat take too long to establish the setting and characters. Frankly, there’s nothing much that they reveal about either. First four episodes test your patience after which the story starts moving.

The writer tries to give the sub-text. For example, Nand offers Shanoo soan-papdi (an Indian sweet) to which she says, you should ask someone what they like instead of assuming it. Assumptions indeed lead up to f**k ups. It’s a subtle way of telling men about seeking consent before sex. Don’t know how many understood that metaphor. Sub texts like these are few and inconsistent. The whole narrative is. At times, it feels as if they’re trying to say too many things, which is fine as a series is where you can actually try it out, but it is so disoriented that you have to try hard to focus.

Also read: Gulabo Sitabo is an ‘antique’ dramedy that owes its charm to its eccentric characters

The series does produce a few laughs, most of them coming from the cuss words that the school friends use for each other. That’s the most organic thing in the series. Everything else looks forcefully stuffed. The cardboard characters don’t have many layers or depth. You know pretty much how everyone is going to react in a situation. Swara Bhasker as Shanoo and Rasbhari is inconsistent throughout and fails to make an impact in a series where there’s no competition for her. She is Rasbhari and it’s her series. Ayushmaan Saxena as Nand Kishore and Rashmi Agdekar as his romantic interest Priyanka do slightly better.

There is for sure a good intent to tell an erotic tale from a woman’s perspective. Although, a guy is a narrator of this one. But Rasbhari could have been more compact and impactful to make a strong statement. What could have been a fun 2-hour feature film is stretched to about four hours of series divided into eight episodes. Thus, Rasbhari becomes a scattered tale with no Ras.

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