The Tashkent Files is an intriguing film because though you are entertained with what appears like a political thriller, you are constantly on edge trying to fathom whether the entire film is a “fake” film. More so when you come to the end of the film which clearly states, on a screen resembled to look like a sheet of parchment paper that the story we have just seen has absolutely no documentary evidence to corroborate the incidents and the reports.

And what have we just seen? This is the ‘revelation’ that Lal Bahadur Shastri who died in Tashkent on January 11, 1966 did not die of natural causes but was poisoned. Really?

This is enough to keep the antenna of the audience up from beginning to end because everyone is alert whenever some news, never mind if it is 53 years after the incident, spells gossip. Is this gossip? No one knows. What one knows is that here is a film that defies genre labelling and that keeps the audience hooked with the acting and the unfolding of different stories, anecdotes, till it gets truly confusing with facts and figures and very vague writings on a white board and video clippings from interviews, clips of documents, photographs and so on which are just too many to digest.

The Tashkent Files is not a documentary so this generous dosage of “documentation” which is fictitious was not necessary. But then, there would be no film either. These frames remind us of daily crime soaps on television, Indian and American.

The sudden, untimely and mysterious death of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri has forever been covered with a shroud not of mourning but of silence. Whether the silence was conspiratorial or tailored or dictated no one knows and I do not think anyone cares. But the premise on which the narrative is based is very weak.

It is based on Raagini Phule (Shweta Basu Prasad), a journalist’s last-minute attempt to hold on to her transfer to the “arts and culture” department or, subsequently, the sack. The editor accuses her of writing fake stories which is news to us journalists because one has not heard of any journalist doing only “fake stories.” Why then, choose to be a journalist at all?

Shastri’s life story is reduced to a few lines that are repeated ad infinitum - he gave up his last name “Srivastava” when he was 12 not because he was an agnostic but because he did not like caste, class, faith associations attached; he was a “gau-sevak” (which can have a different connotation in the present political ambience of gau-rakshaks), was a true Nationalist, did not allow any foreign interests to come in and the slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan was coined by him.

Why it is repeated one has no clue and Raagini’s laptop uses his portrait as the wallpaper which the camera often focusses on. Maybe because the youngsters in the audience may not even have heard of him!

The editor warns her that she must get a “scoop” which means that this entire story around Lal Bahadur Shastri’s mysterious death is a “scoop” and nothing more. The word “scoop” and “fake journalism” is used more than once. This is tantamount to insulting Lal Bahadur Shastri whose death is being “investigated” by eminent experts from different fields whose own “expertise” is in question. Is Lal Bahadur Shastri a “scoop.”?

This also raises questions about the principles and ethics that journalism is founded on because, when Raagini begins to deliver and gets personally and emotionally involved in seeking and finding the truth, she is fired by the same newspaper organization! Now don’t ask how she was keeping body and soul together and from where she found the money to fly to Tashkent and back!

Raagini finds herself appointed on a panel of well-known experts by Shyam Sunder Tripathi (Mithun Chakraborty) who is an out-of-work politician, in turn, appointed by the home minister Natarajan (Naseeruddin Shah) to arrive at a definite conclusion of what really happened. There are others – a noted historian (Pallavi Joshi), who has already written a book on the entire episode of the death and what followed, a pro-Hindu activist Gangaram Jha (Pankaj Tripathi), a retired administrative executive, a socialite who runs several NGOs (Mandira Bedi), an ex-judge (Vishwa Mohan Badola), a very hot-tempered young man who remains unidentified and one more (Rajesh Sharma) as Omkar Kashyap.

They treat Raagini, young enough to be their child, in a derogatory manner but she is not surprised and takes it in her stride, gathering gumption to speak out as the film rolls on. Shweta puts on an excellent performance including the melodramatic twists where we see her crying at Shastri-ji’s tomb or praying to his statue in Tashkent and so on which does not quite jell with her strong exterior or with the film’s serious mood.

Besides the fact that they have different perspectives on the natural death/unnatural death, they have their personal axes to grind as Tripathi points out in the end including himself among this group of “terrorists” of different orders except Raagini herself who is honestly in search of the truth and represents the younger generation. Raagini’s life is under threat and so is her secret informer named Bakshi, once a top journalist who hands a secret file to her and promptly comes under a speeding vehicle and dies in front of her eyes.

There are three superfluous characters in the film. One of them is Naseeruddin Shah who plays the minister whose love for his sick dog seems to be much more than his dedication to his ministry. This was a character which could have been treated in absentia as a frame of reference.. He has a prized, Westernised wife (Achint Kaur) who hardly utters a single word in the entire film.

The Minister has nothing much to do except play his “Naseeruddin Shah” card and the other is a dud-looking tall and handsome guy who, it appears, was once married to Raagini. These three neither add nor take away from the film and the narrative in any manner and the melodrama with the ex-husband is an entirely redundant distraction.

The film makes up with excellent technique what it loses in the loosely structured and logically weak narrative. The acting cast is brilliant except the guy who plays Raagini’s ex husband who is just a block of wood. The art direction mainly focussed on the conference room with its antique furniture, the tea service, the banging on the table by all and sundry is apt. Sadly, poor Vinay Pathak as Mukhtar, the international spy is reduced to a cameo where we never see his face which could have been portrayed by anyone.

The costumes show that winter is setting in in Delhi and the camera captures Raagini jogging in woollens early on a fog filled morning. Why her phone has to ring whenever she is crossing a main road no one knows. The music and the songs are too loud and tend to drown the main story. The editing is slick and finely honed with its cuts and wipes and jump cuts imaginatively choreographed.

The building up of the film is very clever but not intelligent because if you are both clever and intelligent, you will come out and realise you have been fooled. But if entertainment is your sole motive, there is nothing to worry and the money is well spent.

The film is well-made and so it is a watch-worthy film. But if you begin to take the content seriously, it may shock you because in the end, you are left to discover that the entire film is as “fake” as the young journalist who was given a serious talking-to for her fake stories!