Clued in to a whodunnit

Considering the contribution of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Vivek Agnihotri feels there is a greater need to narrate a story on the mysterious death of the stalwart leader, writes Purnima Sharma

Tashkent Files

It all began about four-years-ago, on October 2, when on hearing the name of the second prime minister of India, Vivek Agnihotri’s little son asked, ‘Who is Shashtri?’ “The entire focus of the day is on Mahatma Gandhi, which is absolutely fine, but to ignore Lal Bahadur Shastri and his contribution to the country to just a few lines in the news is not acceptable,” says the filmmaker who has Chocolate: Deep Dark Secrets, Hate Story and Buddha in a Traffic Jam to his credit.

So, Agnihotri tweeted a one-liner ‘Today is also Shashtriji’s birthday’. The result was not just the number of retweets but also “a compelling need” within him to make a film not on the life but the mysterious death of Shashtriji. This had happened in 1966 soon after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement between India and Pakistan to end the 1965 war. With not much material available on the incidents that happened, Agnihotri decided to crowd-source the research and file over two dozen RTIs with all the ministries, including the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs and the PMO.

And the recently-released The Tashkent Files attempts to uncover if Lal Bahadur Shashtri had actually died a natural death or was assassinated, as alleged. Vivek Agnihotri answers a few questions on the film.

What has been the reaction of your colleagues in the film
industry to this film?

Well, since I work independently, I really don’t care what others say or feel about my work. But when I wanted to sell the film, the top executives did say that nobody would be interested in a boring and dull subject like Shastriji.

With Mithun Chakraborty, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Tripathi on board, you have a strong star-cast. Was it difficult convincing them to do the film?

Most of the cast came on board without any hassle. But I had to work upon the main actress now played by the brilliant Shweta Basu Prasad. Normally I don’t believe in conditioning my actors but when she came on board, she too didn’t know much about Shashtri so I just gave her all the material to read and asked her how she feels. It was her intellectual and emotional investment into the theme that shows. All I did was to keep telling her to find the honesty of the moment. 

What pains you the most when you think of Lal Bahadur Shastri? Post his death, he didn’t get the attention he deserved. Why?

Yes, he hasn’t got the attention he deserved and has been largely ignored. We must not forget that what Shashtriji achieved in such a short tenure has not been achieved by anyone. What pains me most is that his family never had a closure  on his death.

Everyone is praising the way facts have been presented. You managed to speak to people like Kuldip Nayar who was with him in Tashkent a little before a knock on his door announced, ‘Your PM is dead’. What did he feel about that night and about the way Shastriji’s death was handled?

Kuldip Nayyar claimed most of his life that there was no foul play. But in my interview (just before his death) he confessed that there indeed was foul play. It’s in the film.

What has been the reaction of the former PM’s family to the film? From what Kuldip Nayar had once told me too, when Shastriji’s wife first saw his body she said, ‘He has been poisoned’. So, could they not insist on a postmortem?

True. Since the time his body arrived at Palam Airport there has been a demand for a post mortem but it was denied. Soon after the screening, his family came and told me that they are grateful for this film.

Do you feel that justice will come his way now? And that the general public is going to be moved enough to ask for a probe into his death?

That would be the best tribute to this most honest and humble prime minister we have ever had.

Vivek Agnihotri
Vivek Agnihotri

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