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The Truth Seekers

Director Vivek Agnihotri and actresses Pallavi Joshi and Shweta Basu Prasad talk to Team Box Office India about their experience while making The Tashkent Files, a film which tries to uncover the truth behind the death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri

Box Office India (BOI): The Tashkent Files is a story about a subject that is not known to many people. Where did this idea come from?

Vivek Agnihotri (VA): For the very same reason – that many people do not know about this. Every October 2, we all remember Gandhiji but nobody remembers that our second Prime Minister was also born on the same day. So, two to three years ago, on October 2, I tweeted that today is also Shastriji’s (Lal Bahadur Shastri) birthday, let’s not forget that. Many commented on that tweet by saying, ‘Why don’t you make a film on Shashtrji’s mysterious death?’ The term ‘mysterious death’ appealed to me a lot. 

I was writing a book. I realised that there is some information that has been presented in different ways on this subject. Then I realised that if I want to make a film on this subject, I would need to authenticate all the information and so, for almost a year, we became whistle-blowers and filed RTIs. Eventually, we received only one reply, which said, ’We have no information on Shastriji, no documents’.

I was taken aback. After all, he was India’s second prime minister. I thought, there must be some log on all the people he had met or a log on his health. Yet there seemed to be nothing. That’s when Pallavi and I realised that this was a serious matter. The premise was that, I said we have no right to truth. Anything can happen and you will never get to know the truth about it. You will never know the truth behind scams, scandals or political murders. We decided to make this film about the ‘right to truth’ and it should begin with our prime minister. If you don’t know the truth about him, how will you know the truth about anything else?

BOI: What kind of research went into making this film?

VA: When we realised we were not making any headway, I released a video saying I wanted to crowd-source research. People said, ‘People crowd-source funding but what is this?’ They thought it was a joke; only, it wasn’t. I meant it because I wanted to know. And people do that, scientists do that, researchers in various disciplines do that, and the government has also done it often. But the film industry has never used it. I knew that if you approach politicians, you will get prejudiced or biased information. If I had employed film industry researchers, they would not have been able to handle the politics of it.

But when the information and the research material started coming in from the public, it opened my eyes because some of the information I got was not available anywhere else. They also led me to people, authorities and agencies where I could get further information. For example, KGB papers and CIA secret papers, which I didn’t know about and I wouldn’t have gone in that direction for my research. There are books that are popular on Shastriji’s death. That is how the research came about.

BOI: Shweta and Pallavi, your characters in the film seem very strong and intriguing. Can you shed some light on them?

Pallavi Joshi (PJ): I think Shweta should go first. She carries the film on her shoulders.

Shweta Basu Prasad (SBP): Thank you, ma’am. My character’s name is Raagini Phule. She is a rookie journalist and she starts off as a very ambitious young girl who gathers scoops and scandals, eyeball-catching headlines, fake news and stories and fabricated statements because she thinks this will help her climb the ladder. She comes across the Tashkent Files and in it is a case about the mysterious demise of our former Prime Minister Shri Lal Bahadur Shastriji. She starts researching his death and in that process unravels the mystery.

If you have watched the trailer, you will see that she becomes obsessed with it. Eventually, she realises that every citizen enjoys a fundamental right to truth and that’s what it turns into for her. For me, Raagini Phule represents the Fourth Estate of democracy, which is the media. It is also an ode to a hardworking and honest journalist because it is not a very easy profession.

PJ: I play a historian in the film. Her name is Ayisha Ali Shah. She is an intellectual, who has written many books and hers is the last word on history. She is a Padma Shri recipient, so she comes from a certain background and with a lot of baggage. She is very entitled and she is also crippled as she is wheelchair-bound. So I guess that brings out a certain amount of frustration from within. She is constantly snapping at people and thinks she is God’s gift to this world (Laughs). I had fun playing this character because, thanks to the kind of face that God has given me, I have always played such sweet characters like achhi bhali ladki, achhi maa, achhi beti…

SBP: Can you believe that such pleasant smiling face is not allowed to smile in the film? (Everyone laughs)

BOI: Vivek, according to you, what makes these actors fit the bill?

VA: First, that they are actors; second, they are brilliant actors; and third, they suited the characters I wrote.

PJ: Yes, you have to first be actors before qualifying as good or bad. (Laughs).

VA: What happens very often is that people cast actors in the roles in which they have already seen them playing or how they know them in real life. It happens everywhere. I am not a trained filmmaker and I have never assisted anybody, so I had no rules to follow. I think that people have many sides to them and actors can deliver these other sides. I have been doing it regularly with my work. I like to take people out of their comfort zone. An actor transcends only when they break out of the mould.

For Pallavi, they did not know this side of hers. Even for Shweta, everybody has seen a certain side to her and she comes across as a very believable, nice person. It was very difficult for both of them. It was especially difficult for Pallavi as I put her in a wheelchair. She smokes a beedi, she has grey hair and she had to assert her authority without making it obvious. Shweta had to play somebody who has to prove everybody wrong. She has to come out as the hero in the film.

BOI: How did both of you prepare for your respective characters?

PJ: I struggled a lot with the look of my character. I went through a lot of look tests till I got the look of Ayisha. I wanted to break the mould and I discussed this with Vivek. I changed my hair and that added age and authority. I also added a few years with make-up. I made her a heavily made-up person. She is also somebody who likes to use make-up, eye makeup, kaajal, lipstick. That gives personality. When I finally saw myself in the mirror, I was looking so different from my usual self. That is when I got the tone of the character. I realised I needed to raise the tonality of my voice to suit the character. I also made her into somebody who doesn’t accept authority. She is always on a first-name basis with everyone.

Mithunda (Mithun Chakraborty) plays Shyam Sundar Tripathi in the film, and I call him ‘Shyam’. Naseerbhai (Naseeruddin Shah) is PKR Natrajan but I call him ‘PK’. That’s how she is with everyone. She expects everyone to call her ‘Ayishaji’. When we started with the workshops, it was easier for us to get into character. Once I knew what the actor in front of me was going to do, I started becoming more and more nasty.

SBP: I am a BMM graduate and I have studied journalism. So I am familiar with the kind of journey that Raagini goes through. But she is a political journalist, an investigative journalist, so her journey is different. For the role, I had written a four-page back story of Raagini. There were readings and workshops as well. I had read the whole script with sir, the action, the dialogue and all of it. It took us three sessions. The script was a concise version of the research that sir and his team had done, so it was a revelation.

VA: Very often, people think ‘I play a police inspector, so I went and spent time with a police inspector and that is how I learnt.’ That is a role; that’s not a character. A character is an angry police inspector or a humble police inspector or corrupt inspector. In this film, what is the character of this journalist? She is lost in this jungle and that is where she discovers herself. She goes on a crusade to find the truth. That is the character.  

Pallavi is a historian. How do you play a historian? How do you study a historian? Historians can be of any kind. So it is the character. This film is not about the role anybody is playing. If you are playing a politician, do you go to the Parliament and study the politicians there? That is why people who focus on studying end up doing the wrong kind of acting. For those people who complain that actors don’t become characters, this film is a textbook case for anybody who wants to become an actor.

SBJ: It is also a very unique film. We have seen a lot of biopics and period dramas. But we have never seen a film that is set in 2019 and investigates something that has happened 53 years ago. When the first poster of the film came out, many people asked, who is playing Shastriji? They wondered whether Naseer uncle or Mithunji is playing Shastriji.

VA: Shastriji is playing Shastriji in this film!

BOI: While making a film on such a sensitive subject, what aspects do you take care of?

VA: The first thing I considered was that I was not making a feature film. With this film, I wanted to learn; I wanted to learn about the truth, I wanted to learn about the craft. I wanted to discover myself. I never once wondered how this film would fare at the box office. This film belongs to the R&D department for filmmaking. Acting can be done like this also, editing can be done this way as well. We experimented a lot with this film, we succeeded in some ways, we did not in others. Even 50 to 100 years from now, people will refer to it for modern history. So we have to be very honest. During the workshops, I told everyone that all I wanted for them to do was discover the honesty in the moment.

Hindi movies use music to manipulate emotions, but we have not done that with this film. 

BOI: How do you balance the entertainment factor while making a film like this?

VA: I think the most entertaining thing in this world is new information. Clichés are repetitive. They are habit forming. You see mindless comedies Friday after Friday. Every single person sits in front of the TV at 9 pm and says, ‘This is crap!’ Anyone who smokes a cigarette knows that it is bad, but it is habit forming. To escape from reality also becomes a habit, cinema is like that. But when you find new information, when cinema takes you to a new world like in Star Wars or Jaws, it is very entertaining. And more than that, there are two types of movies; one that stimulates your emotions and one that stimulates your thoughts. This film belongs to the latter category. I think cinema means entertainment, experience and enlightenment. This film will enlighten you.

BOI: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?

PJ: The audience can expect what is promised to them, that is as simply as I can put it. There is something that we expect in return. Now that we have made the film and presented it, we want the youth of India to take this forward and that justice is done to the family who is still wondering what happened to Shastriji. 53 years have gone by and there is nothing on paper yet. The family needs closure.

SBP: Every once in a while comes a very interesting political film, may be once in a decade. In this film, we have an enquiry commission set up to investigate Shastriji’s demise. For us, as a team, the biggest victory would be if the citizens of the country raise questions and get the files declassified, maybe we can find the answers to Shastriji’s death.

VA: The audience can expect a murder mystery which happens to be that of the Prime Minister of this country. You can expect a glimpse into a truth that was hidden from you for 53 years. I hope the film empowers the audience to realise that they have the right to the truth. This film is for youngsters because I have faith in them. And this film is dedicated to all the honest journalists of India.

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