The climax of The Tashkent Files will shake you up: Vivek Agnihotri
The director sounds off on the cover-ups and conspiracies surrounding the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second Prime Minister of India
Vivek Agnihotri was watching television on Gandhi Jayanti, 2015 when something struck him. There were ads dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, but none to Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second Prime Minister of India, who was born on the same day. Turning to his son, Vivek quizzed him about Shastri, but got a blank reaction. Irked, he went on Twitter and reminded people of the significance of the former freedom fighter and senior Congress leader. Soon, he was flooded with requests for a film on Shastri — not any film, but one centred on his death. “Normally people ask you to make a film on somebody’s life. Here they were asking me to make it on his death,” recalls Vivek, whose directorial credits include Chocolate, Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, Hate Story and Buddha in a Traffic Jam.
The sustained public interest over Lal Bahadur Shastri’s mysterious demise in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (former Soviet Union) prompted Vivek into research. The material was instantly compelling: On January 10, 1966, Shastri signed the Tashkent Declaration with Pakistan President Ayub Khan. The peace treaty brought to an end the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Despite the auspiciousness of the summit, things turned dark for India within a few hours. Shastri, who had retired to his room after the events of the day, passed away due to an alleged cardiac arrest. Back home, the Indian National Congress-led government denied foul play, but suspicions followed.
“One thing that really bothered me was how there was no post-mortem,” says Vivek. “Even Shastri’s family went to the Home Ministry and requested an autopsy. How can the Prime Minister of a country pass away without a post-mortem?”
Ahead of the release of his new film The Tashkent Files — which probes at the myriad theories surrounding Shastri’s death — Vivek speaks to us about his research process for the film, the concurrence of the release with the general elections, the film’s solid cast, and his political ambitions for the future.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Take us through the research process of this film.
I began by filing RTIs to the PMO, the Foreign Ministry and the Home Ministry. The responses were similar: that there was no document available on Shastri ji’s death. Since there was no official information, I decided to crowdsource my research. I released a video asking people to send me material. That opened up the world for me. The youngsters (on social media) led me to links, books and people with knowledge of what had happened. Slowly, this film started to take shape.
The trailer makes references to Subhash Chandra Bose and the ‘Tashkent Man’. There’s also Robert Crowley’s book about the CIA’s involvement in the alleged murder of Shastri. How many theories does your film cover?
Honestly, I have covered all possible angles and theories. The film is written in the style of a courtroom drama, where the audience is the judge and they are presented with both sides of the argument. However, during my research, I was led to a direction which not many people know about but is well-documented. That became the crux and climax of the film. It will shake you up and make you go, ‘Oh my god! We were part of such a big conspiracy…’
You have an impressive cast in The Tashkent Files, from Naseeruddin Shah to Mithun Chakraborty to Pankaj Tripathi.
We knew if we went to big studios, they’ll demand stars. It was the reason I decided to produce the film myself. There was no ‘B’ list for casting — I wanted just the actors you see. Everyone liked the script and immediately agreed.
I am working with Pankaj Tripathi for the first time. He is playing a scientist in the film. Generally, scientists in our movies have french beard and long hair. I wanted a North Indian-looking person who wears chappals and puts tika on his forehead. Pankaj is so full of talent. He won the National Award while shooting for this film.
Given the timing of release, is it fair to call the film anti-Congress propaganda?
I have always been an openly anti-Congress person, anyway.