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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

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Movie Reviews

Absentia season 2 review: Emily Byrne’s quest to find answers is highly engaging

Starring Castle fame Stana Katic in the lead, Absentia takes ahead the story of Emily Byrne who was kept captive for six years, and is now looking for answers

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Absentia season 2 review
A still from the Amazon Original Absentia

Star Rating: 

Imagine a past so horrific that one has to drug oneself not to wander in the bylanes of memory that bring back the images of it. Emily, in Season 2 is in a constant struggle to balance the battle in her head and her quest in real life. The lady who set out to capture and extract revenge from her kidnappers in the first season, has turned out to be a complete vigilante in the second season, and is looking for answers to her questions in a city that is under attack from an unknown enemy. PS: If you can’t take anxiety and deal with high curiosity, head off straightaway.

What Absentia is about: An Amazon Prime series, Absentia is story about a FBI agent Emily Byrne who was believed dead, but returns after six long years. Turns out she was kidnapped by an infamous serial killer. Her struggle to remember what happened to her in the last six years, and the quest to find the kidnapper and take revenge was majorly the first season. Season 1 comprised all this, till Emily finally bust down her captor and had her revenge. By the end of it, we knew it wasn’t just the captor, but that the lady had many questions in her mind and needed to find the answers. Season 2 kicks off from the same note and takes you on the journey further. Emily is now hallucinating and controls it with drugs. However, she knows that the bad men are still pursuing her, while people think it’s just her trauma. While there is a gas attack that kills several in an FBI office building, Emily finds her real mother, and is also trying to make things good with her son. She joins the FBI again to get access to the interrogation, which reveals a lot. But who is following her all the time? Who is the attacker? Why is he killing people on a rampage? And can the innocent Emily Byrne regain her innocence and the happy life she once had?  All your questions are answered this time, trust us.

Yay: This is a show where amazing writing and finesse in acting go hand-in-hand. Writers Matthew Cirulnick, Deron M. Browne and Logan Slakter know that their audience is intelligent and know what they are getting into. All the three writers and the directors, Oded Ruskin and Adam Sanderson, don’t try to simplify things for you, they keep them jumbled while giving you a few visuals of the bits and pieces from the past, giving credit to your intelligence and memory. You are with Emily on the journey but you cannot root for her, since you don’t know if her version of the story is correct (how can one believe a hallucinating lady), so the makers build the series on the basis of the top level of curiosity.

For a series this intense and dark, comprising of some action here and there, what one misses is the evolution of the characters. But the makers are with the world they have created and true to it. Every character you know from the first episode is evolving and has a script to chew on (at least the ones immediately around Emily).

Emily, played by Castle fame Stana Katic, is surreal. Calling Stana a fine actress considering Absentia, might be an understatement. She gets into the skin of Emily. Convoluted, confused, scared, angry and still caring for her son, Stana portrays everything in these nine episodes. Watch out for her in the scenes where she is hallucinating. All the peripheral cast — Patrick Huisinger, Cara Theobold, Neil Jackson, and Patrick McAuley, have a tight hold on their characters and are honest with their approach.

Nay: Not many nay points here. Just the cinematography and design don’t move much ahead. The script and acts get richer with time, but the surrounding milieu stays the same. We know it is a long-form execution, and that sets might feel repetitive, but they should not feel that they are just there. Mise-en-scène is lost in the process.

CineBlitz Verdict: if you are into suspense, thrillers and revenge dramas, switch on your systems right away and dive in. Nine episodes with a runtime of approximately 40 minutes each, makes it binge-worthy. Watch it for the integration of good writing and justifying actors. We totally recommend Absentia to you.

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Movie Reviews

Men In Black International review: Tessa Thompson and her ‘pawny’ completely steal Chris Hemsworth’s thunder

Men in Black: International Review: The Chris Hemsworth-Tessa Thompson starrer is barely entertaining

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Star rating:

The Men in Black has been a much-loved sci-fi action-comedy franchise since Will Smith as Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K first wowed the audience in 1997. Now two sequels and 22 years later, we have another spin-off Men In Black: International starring the Thor Ragnarok pair – Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead alongwith Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson, who are reprising their roles from MIB 3 (2012). This one is directed by F Gary Gray (who had last directed Fast and the Furious’ hit eighth installment The Fate of the Furious) and understandably so, the excitement is on an all-time high. So, does MIB: International live up to the expectations? Read on to find out:

What Men in Black: International is all about:

Ever since a childhood encounter with an alien and consecutively seeing her parents being neuralised by some agents of the secret organisation ‘Men in Black’, Molly dreams of becoming an MIB agent herself. Fascinated by the Universe and growing up with no other passion, but to become a part of the MIB, she somehow manages to find them and their headquarters in New York.

After a series of tests, she is taken on probation as Agent M and sent to the London branch. There, she reports to the head High T (Liam Neeson). She gets herself assigned to work with the hotshot and the best agent in biz, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth). A seemingly routine mission requiring the two agents – H and M – to escort an important alien Vungus (a Jababian royal) ends violently when the royal is killed by a pair of suspected Dyads, wielding some electro-superpowers.

So, all in all, there are these two aliens hunting for something that the two agents were given possession of by the dying Vungus. The agents set out protecting that precious parting gift from falling into the wrong hands – because as you might have guessed already – the humankind’s existence depends on it! But besides the alien attacks, this time, the agents also have to deal with a mole in the MIB itself. So, will the Agents succeed this time around?

Yay:

Tessa impresses in her role as Agent M and grips her character graph tight right till the end. She completely outshines Chris here, who banks heavily on his charm as a star rather than his performance as an actor. We love the banter between the alien ‘Pawny’ (who the two agents befriend in Marrakech) and Chris and Tessa. Pawny (voice-over by Kumail Nanjiani) clearly has the most funny and entertaining, or should we say the only funny lines in the movie.

Emma Thompson particularly is impactful in her brief role and a delight onscreen. Liam Neeson and Rafe Spall as Agent C do just fine. Of course the hi-tech gadgets / guns, the VFX, the CGI, the new aliens, all work just interestingly enough and are strictly up to the mark but none that would make our jaws drop! The rides for the agents – both ‘the bike’ and ‘the car’ however get our thumbs-up. Seeing Indian YouTuber Ashish Chanchalani in a cameo will definitely have many rooting for him. He draws laughter just by being there!

Nay:

Yes, there’s that chemistry between Chris and Tessa that we also saw in Thor Ragnarok. However, under a weak screenplay the fizz is all lost in this one and what could’ve been taken notches higher, limps badly. Chris seems a tad bit too laid-back as Agent H. He’s goofy in parts, but fizzles out rather quick! The action is average and frankly we did expect better from the director. It all boils down to the film suffering due to a weak plot. The film just doesn’t get gripping enough at any point and that’s the biggest fail. Disappointing, because it held much promise and is a much-loved franchise!

CineBlitz Verdict: Well, the film is a let-down if you compare it to the previous MIBs. Will Smith’s wit and swag as Agent J are heavily missed. Though, Chris and Tessa do bring their own charm, they are ineptly supported by a weak story. If you are a fan, you will be sorely disappointed with this one. But the film is entertaining in parts, so just about qualifies for a one-time watch. If you are not a fan, read above, it applies to you too!

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Movie Reviews

Game Over review: Taapsee Pannu’s performance in this brilliantly directed, crisp thriller is hair-raisingly real

Game Over Review: Ashwin Saravanan and Taapsee Pannu nail it with this intelligent, intense, chilling and intriguing thriller

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Taapsee Pannu in a still from Game Over

Star Rating: 

Game Over is originally a Tamil-Telugu bilingual thriller film, with multiple layers of issues that are tackled in the film, and ever so subtly. Written and directed by Ashwin Saravanan, the hero of the film is Taapsee Pannu who is simply brilliant in yet another performance and yet another totally diverse character to the ones she has played before. The film is jointly produced by Reliance Entertainment and Y NOT Studios and presented by Anurag Kashyap. It is typically his kind of dark noir film in a sense. The story is very well written, and it leaves you swinging from intrigue to horror to thrills, as it plays out.

What Game Over is all about:  Set in Gurugram (the Hindi version) on the outskirts of Delhi, it begins with the brutal killing of Amrutha (Sanchana Natarajan). She is decapitated and burnt alive, and apparently, this is not the first, nor the last such killing. It is terrifying. Cut to an year later, a vibrant-looking, but internally traumatised Swapna (Taapsee Pannu) who is a video game designer/creator, seems to be suffering from panic attacks from an alluded-to assault of some sort. Darkness and the oncoming new year put her into such a severe state of dread, she ends up hurting herself despite seeking medical attention. Bound to her wheel-chair, she is now in the grip of panic, imagined or otherwise is anyone’s guess. Her constant companion and support structure is her house-help Kalamma (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan). Is she under attack from real evils or some supernatural or paranormal entities? What is the connection between Amrutha and Swapna? The film explores some unconventional aspects conceptually as well.

Yay: Taapsee Pannu outdoes herself as the creative gamer, paralysed by fear. There is not a single wrong tic on her part. She walks away with the game, the gamer and the whole film. (Taapsee has worked in the South film industry in the past) Vinodhini as her companion gives such a natural and effortless portrayal. The smaller parts too are effected by supremely well-cast actors – the shrink (Anish Kuruvilla), and Parvathi as Dr Reena, and mother of the dead girl Amrutha. The suspense is taut, the editing (by Richard Kevin) superb – you don’t realise when it’s 103 minutes and the film is over. Ashwin Sarvanan’s direction matches his writing – unusual and intelligent. His credited co-writer is Kaavya Ramkumar. A Vasanth’s cinematography is ‘frightfully’ effective, literally.  Production design by Siva Sankar is clean and creative, very well done. Ron Ethan Yohann’s music never strays a note beyond necessary, adding to the thrill factor.

Nay: Negligible, but granted – the lip-sync with the visuals is a little off- because the languages and words are completely different. It’s noticeable initially, but you get so caught in the film that you lose that along the way.

CineBlitz Verdict: The director leaves a thread, so subtle, to be interpreted by the viewer where you sometimes wonder, is it a game or a figment of her imagination, or is it real?

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