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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

WAR review: A spectacle for most part!

Two action stars of Bollywood are fighting against each other. Don’t ask many questions. Just enjoy the spectacle.

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WAR review

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Two Indian soldiers are warring against each other. More than that two action stars of Hindi cinema are fighting against each other. Don’t ask too many questions, don’t try to apply too much logic, it will take the fun away from watching an otherwise spectacle – WAR. Captain Khalid (Tiger Shroff) is trained by Major Kabir (Hrithik Roshan). A spectacular and gripping first half of the movie reveals how they have reached from being bros to foes.

WAR could well have been Dhoom Reloaded; but the makers have made a sincere attempt to give these two heroes some back story and some flaws that make them super-humans than super-heroes. It is still larger than life, a tad tiring but watchable. It is popcorn entertainment. And the makers here are trying to bridge the gap between masses and classes.

Tiger Shroff flies like he does in every movie, but in this one he feels pain. A superbly choreographed combat scene introduces Tiger as he busts a mafia deal in Portugal. On the other hand, Hrithik is introduced as the quintessential superstar, getting off an helicopter and his subordinates looking at him in awe. Biggest admirer among them is Tiger, who idolises Hrithik in real life too. So, Tiger’s admiration for his senior officer (Hrithik) is inherently there. They look like brothers and their chemistry makes their bromance a fresh offering after a long time. WAR might just get its own franchise in near future.

Watch the WAR trailer:

WAR has reinvented the action scene in Hindi cinema with a more western-like cinematic sensibilities while blending the Indianness of emotions. Hrithik has experienced superstardom from his first film Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai. He went on to play a superhero (Krrish franchise) and an action superstar in Dhoom 2 and Bang Bang. But he can still pull off a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and somehow manage a Super 30. But Tiger Shroff’s career has been modelled around action only. WAR is his sincerest performance. His acting prowess is not what we go to watch on screen. We have made peace with it. From whatever I have seen of him in films, this character of Khalid is (visibly) driven by emotion than just the action.

It is a film about bromance and it is mounted on two pairs of strong shoulders. It is about Hrithik and Tiger and they sail the ship through. The story (Siddharth Anand, Aditya Chopra) and screenplay (Siddharth Anand, Sridhar Raghavan) have enough twists and turns but silly situations take us to reach the end. The dialogues (Abbas Tyrewala) are lazy writing; needed some smart-ass lines. But by that time, you have put logic, questions aside, you just want to enjoy the action spectacle.

After the spectacular first half, the narrative drags, sometimes on the verge of derailing from the track. It’s a little too long. Maybe in near future – makers and audience – as a collective, won’t feel the need for unnecessary songs. Frankly, I had thought both songs Ghungroo and Jai Jai Shivshankar were meant as promotional songs but sitting through them during the movie was testing my patience. The twists are interesting but getting from one twist to another gets predictable on couple of occasions.

Also read: The Family Man review: This James Bond from Chembur is a delight to binge watch!

Four action directors have choreographed action for WAR and they have created some thrilling set-pieces. The first combat scene of Tiger, has only background score of fists and screams. It’s an adrenaline rush. But background score in the rest of the film is a little overdone.

Putting together such a big budget action film, especially if it features high-tech intelligence and security services, is definitely a tough task. In India, you have to find the lowest common denominator so that you cater to a pan-India audience. YRF had superbly managed that with Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai starring Salman Khan. The success of it lies in humanising the quintessential superstar whose on-screen image has ruled the movies for decades. The makers surely have honed their skills with their latest offering. WAR’s success lies in its two humanised heroes, albeit action too. Watching it on screen once doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Don’t ask many questions. Just enjoy the spectacle.

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Movie Reviews

The Family Man review: This James Bond from Chembur is a delight to binge watch!

Manoj Bajpayee (as the undercover analyst Srikant Tiwary) alone is a good enough reason to watch The Family Man. But there’s more. It is everything that a spy-thriller should be.

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The Family Man review

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What do you expect from a spy thriller? Kick-ass action, suspense, twists, smart dialogue, the spy’s heroics and some brilliant cinematic storytelling? Amazon Prime Video’s latest original The Family Man ticks all the aforementioned points. Created by the filmmaker duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (Raj & DK) The Family Man is probably the coolest spy thriller coming from India.

Srikant Tiwari (played by Manoj Bajpayee) is an undercover analyst in the Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (T.A.S.C.) of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). As seen in any spy movie/series these men live two lives. They can’t reveal the nature of their job to their family and friends. They describe their work mostly as meetings or office paperwork. The man here is no different.

Srikant Tiwari is a highly-respected spy in the organisation but leads a dejected family life. His brother, wife, kids think that he’s a loser doing a ‘government job’. But unlike other ‘family men’ Srikant can’t remove his frustration on his family. Unlike other husbands/fathers he can’t tell what he goes through at work on daily basis. It’s agonising as well as heroic. Heroes do their jobs silently.

The show is aptly titled The Family Man with the tagline “Middle Class Guy, World Class Spy”. It is this family side of this ace spy that connects him with every man in the country. In a way, it is the story of all of them. Unlike many spy thrillers there are no men looking suave in suits, driving swanky cars and sipping expensive whiskies.

The Family Man trailer:

Tiwari eats vada pavs and idlis at the street stalls. He drinks at modest quarter-bars after a tiring day. He drives a Santro. Tiwari is asking his senior to approve his long due home loan. But this James Bond from Chembur (a Mumbai suburb) is way cooler than any other spy you would have seen.

Manoj Bajpayee plays Srikant Tiwari with such an ease that him alone is a good enough reason to binge watch the show. Gaalis (cuss words) uttered by him sound lyrical. He carries a certain pain on his face – that’s the dejection he faces as a family man. He swaps it with an endearing smile (almost childlike grin) when he accomplishes a mission. And this is captured beautifully in one scene where his daughter is telling her mother about how he saved her from getting suspended from school. What a middle class man yearns for is a sense of validation, at work and at home. Srikant at work is worshipped but struggles to find that validation at home.

The series is credited as based on news stories. The filmmakers’ (Raj & DK) 2010 film Shor In The City was also based on the news stories. The duo’s knack for showing quirkiness in the smaller-than-life scenarios has been evident since their debut feature 99. Here, they don’t have the limitation of censorship or the duration limit of a feature film. And they show what they can create when they have that freedom.

Also read: Manoj Bajpayee’s The Family Man is inspired from several real-life events

Raj & DK have crafted two outstanding one-take shots of assassination of terrorists. One of them is more than 10 minutes long. When was the last time you saw something like this in Indian content? Cinematography (Nigam Bomzan, Aziz Moollan) is spot on. Background score is hypnotic. The action looks more adrenaline than a choreographed set-piece. That’s a plus. Even the supers/title cards are done well. The screenplay (Raj & DK, Suman Kumar) and dialogues (Sumit Arora of Stree) capture the diversity of India blending all the flavours in one.

The Family Man is not only about the spy and his family. Through various sequences leading to the centre conflict of terrorism, the series touches upon the socio-political reality of today’s India. The cow protectors and mob kill two men carrying beef in their truck. Three college students involved in terrorist-like activities are mistakenly killed. Terrorism that is often linked to a religion has its roots going down to the places and people you wouldn’t imagine. Complexities are smartly woven together.

But it’s not just about terrorism and political secrets. The series explores the dynamics of interpersonal relationships at home as well as work. How quickly the kids are growing up rather getting exposed to the whole wild world. How modern day marriages are going through a transition. The creators here have managed to bring all of this together quite efficiently.

Also read: Manoj Bajpayee is the utlimate hero who broke Bollywood stereotypes!

All of this wouldn’t have looked seamless on screen had it not been for its fine actors. Leading them is of course Bajpayee. Besides being a spy he’s a storyteller at heart. He can coin a story at any gun point. He’s a delight to watch. His Maharashtrian sidekick, his colleague at NIA, JK Talpade is played superbly by Sharib Hashmi (long time after his hilarious 2012 film Filmistaan). Priyamani as Srikant’s wife Suchi plays it subtle and simple. But she keeps you intrigued. Tiwary’s kids Dhriti (Mehek Thakur) and Atharv (Vedant Sinha) give natural performances.

Need to mention Neeraj Madhav here who plays Moosa, an ISIS trained terrorist. He portrays the complex emotions of a vulnerable son missing his mother and executing a terror attack with prowess. Other supporting cast of Shreya Dhanwanthary, Darshan Kumaar, Sharad Kelkar, Dalip Tahil, Kishore Kumar G, Abrar Qazi do their jobs sincerely.

To sum it up, The Family Man is a cinematic romance. Everything just falls into the right places and it’s the moments that make it an enjoyable journey of ten episodes. Drop everything else and binge watch it.

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The Zoya Factor review: Why so much fuss?

Sonam K Ahuja does a reasonably good job but the film is much ado about nothing.

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The Zoya Factor review

Alright, I haven’t read the novel (The Zoya Factor) on which this film is based. So, I went to watch the film with zero expectations. I just wanted to be entertained for those two hours in the theatre. But unfortunately, entertainment didn’t last for more than the first half. Sonam K Ahuja plays Zoya Solanki who was born on 25th June 1983, the day the Indian cricket team won the World Cup. Zoya’s father (played by Sanjay Kapoor), an avid cricket lover calls Zoya a lucky charm for the Indian cricket team.

Zoya hates cricket. But as fate would have it she finds herself becoming the official Lucky Mascot for the Indian cricket team. How that happens and whatever happens after that is the premise of the film. But there’s so much fuss around this silly sounding phenomenon. Cricketers and crickets fans alike are known to be superstitious. Most of us have watched tense cricket matches doing all sorts of praying rituals, just so that India wins the match or series. The madness reaches its peak when it’s the world cup.

My generation of cricket fans must have seen all the emotional outrage when things don’t go well for Team India. The World Cups of 1996, 2003 and 2007 have been prime examples of that. Post the 2011 world cup victory, fans have sobered up (or down?). The Zoya Factor involves one such world cup with lucky mascot Zoya on the Indian team’s side. The year in which the story is happening is not clearly mentioned. If it is present day, then a thing or two should have been changed w.r.t cricket rules (taking a runner is not allowed to a batsman anymore).

Trailer of The Zoya Factor:

What hurts The Zoya Factor is the lack of reasoning. We get to know how Zoya becomes the lucky mascot but why would the cricket board even consider something like this is a question (even if it’s just a movie) that doesn’t have an answer. The ‘Hows’ of a film can be debated and passed on but the ‘whys’ can hurt a film’s prospects big time. That’s the case with The Zoya Factor. There’s so much fuss created that you wouldn’t care for.

The film showcases everything on a superficial level. We don’t get to know much about Zoya (the protagonist) apart from the fact that every aspect of her life sucks. A more layered character would have added some weight to the film and the drama around her would have been somewhat credible and believable. Sonam K Ahuja does a reasonably good job as Zoya. She has put on weight for this role and she looks the part she plays. But more should have been explored about Zoya’s character. All the other characters are one dimensional, including that of Nikhil Khoda (played by Dulquer Salmaan), the captain of the Indian cricket team who starts dating Zoya. You don’t really feel connected to anyone’s journey.

Also read:Dream Girl review: Ayushmann Khurrana shines again!

The film drags a lot. There are some genuinely nice and funny moments but those are all in bits and pieces. There’s brand integration throughout the film. In a movie based on cricket an integration of Pepsi won’t hurt much as the brand has been associated with the game and cricketers for decades. Branding of a paint brand on the team’s jersey is still fine. It’s pretty much realistic too. (I like to write good things about film and I found myself looking for reasons to like this one).

The film drags a lot. There are some genuinely nice and funny moments but those are all in bits and pieces. But cricket, the centre of the whole circus should have been shot well. It is poorly acted and directed. The way the players play the shots or get out or drop catches or run their teammates out – it looks silly and lazy. All the clichés like no balls, sixes on the last ball, catches taken with a player’s feet touching the boundary line make their way into the film. It would have still been fine, had it been built up smartly. Interestingly, some of the cricketers and a board member look like they have been modelled on real Indian cricketers and officials. It’s fun if you spot it.

Also read: Chhichhore review: Nitesh Tiwari’s masterpiece is hilariously profound and overwhelming!

It is difficult to put together a cricket movie for the complex game that it is. Unfortunately, this is yet another failed attempt to crack a cricket movie. There have been quite a few made on contemporary cricket. Barring MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Iqbal (2005) all others have been works which lack knowledge and detailing. Movies succeed on the suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, The Zoya Factor didn’t work for me on that front. I left the movie theatre with the question, “Why so much fuss?”

Rating:

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