The Indian Bond, over the years...

action movie

Saif Ali Khan’s home production Agent Vinod, which released last week, belongs to the spy genre that has been mysteriously under-utilised in our movies.

romantic spy A scene from the 1977 movie, ‘Agent Vinod’.

However, thanks to this comparative rarity, the genre has endured the test of time. This genre has been around for over six decades, ever since the 1950 film Samadhi, starring none other than superstar Ashok Kumar with Nalini Jaywant and Kuldip Kaur.

Set in Myanmar, based on the freedom struggle of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose against the British, Samadhi saw Jaywant and Kaur as British spies whom freedom-fighter Kumar manages to turn against the imperial rulers. The sisters finally help Kumar blow up a bridge that will help the cause of swaraj. With a hit soundtrack by C Ramachandra, led by the cult Gore gore o banke chhore, the film, directed by Ramesh Saigal, proved to be the biggest money spinner of that year.

At a basic level, every secret agent/spy thriller has a simple plotline of thwarting or defeating a conspiracy by the enemies of the nation. India, being unfortunate enough to get a consistently rich choice of antagonists after Independence, is the ideal consumer for a movie laced with action, thrills and entertainment. In the process, if one could also swell one’s chest with patriotic fervour, all the better.

Typically, the Indian film spy/agent was a more emotional counterpart of the cold-blooded Bonds and their ilk. The Bharatiya Bond, so to speak, still believed in family values, usually had a family with elders and maybe a sister too, and was largely a one-woman man, at least after he met the heroine! He even preferred to dance expertly and lip-synch songs rather than sleep with a dozen femme fatales.

He could get emotionally blackmailed in the climax or swear personal revenge when the baddies attacked his family or loved ones. He believed in hardcore physical action rather than Bond-like gadgets. Jingoism pertaining to Mera watan was also usually an innate trait in the climax. He would never first shoot and talk afterwards, but talk first, shoot and then deliver the final punchline!

Of course, there was an exception here in Agent Vinod (1977), directed by Deepak Bahry, who presented a secret agent sans the family background, armed with hi-tech gadgets like cars that flew, guns that fired backwards and other open tributes to Bond.

“I wanted a proper Bond-type action drama that had never been done here before,” the director states about his silver jubilee hit, which though essentially a small film, was enterprisingly innovative keeping in mind the primitive technology-driven special effects of that time. And yet, the Indian element was clearly maintained — with a comic side-plot that occupied considerable screen time, and a Bond who indulged in spouting extempore shayari and songs galore!

Oddly enough, after Samadhi¸ there was a long gap before we got the next spy thriller. It was only after the mid-60s, when India had been betrayed twice and faced two wars, that patriotism was blended with entertainment in a heady combination. The first such film was Farz, directed by Raveekant Nagaich, which saw Jeetendra as Hindi cinema’s first secret agent Gopal, coded 116, who is assigned an anti-terrorist mission after the murder of a colleague.

The film had blockbuster written all over it with Jeetendra’s trendsetting breakthrough as the ‘Jumping Jack’, a chartbuster Laxmikant-Pyarelal score and some snazzy camera work by the director himself. The film proved to be one of the three top grossing films of that year.

A year later, Ramanand Sagar made India’s first spy thriller shot abroad, Ankhen. Beginning with terrorist attacks in Assam, it moved to Beirut and even had characters named Doctor X and Captain. The Dharmendra-Mala Sinha film with hit music by Ravi did one better than Farz to become the biggest hit of 1968. But in the same year, Joy Mukerji’s own film Humsaya, an imaginative story of how an Indian army officer impersonates a dead Chinese counterpart, with a love angle thrown in, surprisingly bombed.

Interestingly, Ankhen and Farz both had family elements interwoven into the main plot, showing that emotional voltage was mandatory for a spy thriller to succeed in India. In Farz, the heroine’s father is a key suspect, while in Ankhen, we got our first taste of how ordinary citizens rose to fight terrorism, an idea that peaked in the 2008 film, A Wednesday.

John Matthew Matthan’s Sarfarosh was truly a classic, although the hero was not the classic spy but a member of the ATS. Dealing with Pakistani subversion with all its ramifications, the taut Aamir Khan film was a blockbuster, and proved eerily prophetic when Kargil happened just a few weeks later. This was the first film in this genre to openly mention Pakistan as the enemy.

The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy (2003) was like a comic book once again, but the Anil Sharma-Sunny Deol collaboration did not get appreciation. It was Dus (2005) that really raised the bar of the true-blue spy thriller with its international angles and a deadly twist in the tale. As strong in drama and emotion as in technique and grandeur, it was the classic spy drama that Hindi cinema can always be proud of.

Last year’s ambitious Aazaan that starred Sachiin Joshi and South African model Candice Boucher had high-octane action, but it’s disastrous fate proved again that the technical razzmatazz is more like an optional icing on the cake for the Indian audience. Merely globetrotting with chase sequences and action cannot compensate for a story without an emotional connect, even in an espionage drama. Spies and their adventures have to have a heart as well.

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