Who Killed Shastri, all over again? Critics refusing to review Vivek Agnihotri’s 'The Tashkent Files' must disclose their real reasons

Critics refusing to review a film, calling it 'propaganda' and boycotting it, evokes a bunch of people refusing to do their job. Or to do it with complete honesty.

 |  4-minute read |   16-04-2019
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When it comes to critics, actions tend to lie louder than words.

The recent decision of a handful of ‘mainstream’ film critics to not review Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files is a great disservice to their vocation. Based on some of their statements, tweets, retweets, et al, one wouldn’t be wrong to infer that for these critics, the film was, well, not worthy of their evaluation.

files-690_041519060735.jpgWho Killed Shastri, dobara? Some film critics refused to review Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files. (Source: PTI)

There is nothing wrong in expressing a personal opinion — but letting that very personal opinion stop you from doing what is essentially in technical terms, your job, and metaphysically, your calling, is an entirely different matter.

Some years ago, Agnihotri’s Buddha In A Traffic Jam (2016) too evoked similar reactions from critics. Many of them just refused to watch the film, based on the response it seemed to have generated on social media platforms. It was believed that Agnihotri’s political leanings — he is what some would term ‘right-wing’ — was the reason why some critics steered away.

Ironically, even within the film industry, both the filmmaker and the film hardly garnered any support.

Irrespective of the film’s flaws and shortcomings, it was an intriguing experiment, both on as well as off screen which ought to have been discussed in greater detail.

buddha-690_041519060900.jpgGripping perhaps? A still from Vivek Agnihotri's Buddha In A Traffic Jam. (Source: India Today)

If a critic believes that giving zero stars or refusing to watch a film is a brutal takedown, then they couldn’t be more ill-informed.

Many years ago, Roger Ebert reviewed Meir Zarchi’s highly controversial I Spit On Your Grave (1978), the rape-and-revenge exploitation horror film whose extreme graphic violence left many speechless — and called it “a vile piece of garbage”. One of the most popular film critics of all time, Ebert expressed his utter shock that a movie “so sick, reprehensible and contemptible” was even playing in respectable theatres and how “attending it was one of the most depressing experiences” of his life.

i-spit-690_041519061204.jpgReviewed as "a vile piece of garbage". But reviewed nonetheless: A still from I Spit On Your Grave.

In an era where online streaming platforms have changed the rules of the games, or technological advancements have brought things to a point where the equipment used by an A-List Hollywood director and the neighbourhood indie filmmaker is practically the same, the lexicon of filmmaking is ready to transform unlike ever before. Here, the filmmaking grammar, which in other words, translates into how a story is told, is bound to become of paramount importance. While ‘what’ stories are told form an integral part of the change, for instance, the gradual but perceptible increase in stories from small-town India and ‘how’ they are told also gains importance.

A few years ago, the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat would have made more sense to the trade but today, the tale of Phogat’s daughters becoming globally renowned wrestlers packs in a bigger punch — ergo Dangal the way it was made. In The Tashkent Files, Agnihotri uses the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and the subsequent investigations (or the lack thereof) into the issue to weave a cinematically exciting plot.

The film is not some online video blog, or some bootleg release, or, let’s just say it, porn, which needs to be avoided at all costs. In fact, the film features a few of the best-known faces in Indian cinema (Naseeruddin Shah and Mithun Chakraborty) along with the kind of talent that, in the recent past, has been pursued by Indian filmmakers across languages and spectrums (Pankaj Tripathi and Rajesh Sharma). It has also had a proper pan-India release.

Do publications and critics have no qualms in letting their prejudice, for want of a better term, dictate the course of their professional duty?

the-tashkent-files-6_041519061037.jpgTop-class talent: The Tashkent Files features some leading Bollywood actors. (Source: PTI)

Of late, there has been a practice in India where portals, as well as individuals, have started putting out disclaimers while offering their professional views. Sometimes, leading film critics have also decided to not review a particular film because of some personal or professional association with the people involved. In the same light, shouldn’t then the decision to not review The Tashkent Files be articulated as well? Branding The Tashkent Files ‘propaganda’ or, as the parlance of our times suggest, ‘post-truth’, is a flawed argument because truth be told, every single film practices some advocacy.

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

How often have you seen the same critics refusing to review a Houseful or a Golmaal because it promotes misogyny?

Did any of them offer a disavowal while reviewing Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Asia Laga which had the creative inputs of Rajkumar Hirani — who is accused of sexual harassment?

Did you ever read about a critic who refused to write about a Roman Polanski film because he has been charged with raping a minor?

And when was the last time you skipped a Woody Allen film because your favourite critic rejected the auteur as there are decades-old unanswered sexual assault allegations surrounding him?

Also read: The Tashkent Files: Vivek Agnihotri reminds us how, between Nehru and Indira, we forgot Shastri


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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