Ah, the jape. The postmodernist itch to reduce cinema to a wink, a bubbling cauldron of bits, an acrostic for audiences, a cockeyed shrine to childhood memories. Bud Spencer. The Five Man Army. Manmohan Desai. Iftikhar. Dost dost na raha. Mahendra Sandhu. Ajit-ready lines of dialogue like, “Agar main bach gaya to tujhe fursat se maaroonga.” Charlie Chaplin. Yeh chand sa roshan chehra. Boney M. Prem Chopra. Raakkamma kaiya thattu (though I would have appreciated a nod to some other Ilayaraja hit, something from the Kamal Haasan-starring Vikram perhaps, acknowledging that quarter-century-old straighter-than-straight attempt to transplant 007 into the fertile grounds of the great Indian drama, with Tracy Bond taking a bullet to the forehead in place of a bindi). Sriram Raghavan has, no doubt, watched a great number of films and, on some level, I was thankful that a great number of these films, these formative influences, are unabashedly lowbrow. Imagine sitting through a Hindi movie that kept tipping its hat to Godard (though there is, at one fleeting instance, a look towards Ashes and Diamonds.)
This borderline-trifling approach brings with it a few enormous problems. One, the audience has to be in on the joke, otherwise you’re making a movie for yourself and for the gut-thickened middle-aged men who accompanied you, in half pants, to the local theatres all those decades ago. More importantly, you need to be, like Quentin Tarantino, an amazingly gifted writer-director, so that the chuckles inside your head, as you hammer out the screenplay, translate to the screen in a fashion that doesn’t discredit the narrative, becomes an organic aspect of the narrative. It’s a tricky tightrope – all eyes on you and no nets below. When, at the beginning of Agent Vinod, we catch sight of swarthy faces in a dust-brown desert, when our ears latch on to the harmonica’s plaintive wheedle, we are coaxed into the playground of the pastiche. With this unrepentant worship at the altar of Sergio Leone (the film opens with a quote from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Raghavan announces himself as a prankster, his film as a prank.
And so, subsequently, we step without question into a world far removed from the spaghetti Western, a world of globe-trotting and secret-agent intrigue, where gold-foiled bars of chocolate are actually slabs of Grade-4 Semtex, a world with a pre-credits action sequence followed by a stylized song, after which we are swept past adoring secretaries and deposited beside brusque bosses who allude, without preliminaries, to the task at hand – the world, in other words, of James Bond. The tone is still silly, with a voiceover unraveling – to the unwashed masses, in Hindi reminiscent of Doordarshan newscasts that thrust us into a surreal universe whose denizens spoke like characters from our great epics – the film’s premise involving a suitcase bomb and all-annihilating radiation. At this point, we’ve settled into a movie that we don’t want to take too seriously, especially as the characters, in deadly earnestness, keep breaking into pidgin phrases like “Interpol ke aankhon mein dhool jhonkna.”
But that’s what Raghavan wants us to do. A little into Agent Vinod, we begin to get the feeling that we’re meant to actually care, that the director has switched gears from a Bond-type adventure where nothing is at stake but our enjoyment, even with threats of the world collapsing in a mushroom cloud, to a Bollywood-style action-drama, where everything is at stake, where Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) has to stop terrorists from blowing up a sizeable chunk of the nation’s capital even as he offers redemption to a lost soul. How do you respond to a film where, one minute, the heroine (Kareena Kapoor) is seducing a foolish gangster to the tune of O meri jaan maine kaha (wink, nod, hat tip, RD Burman) , and the next instant we’re asked to sober up with the realization that but for a chance encounter a life could have come to an end? You can’t pull the audience out of the narrative for meta-exercises and then hope to pull them back in for serious storytelling.
Or maybe you can, and maybe Raghavan just cannot pull this off in the first half, where long scenes paced with the solemnity of deep drama drain the pulpy premise of all juice. The action, too, is perfunctory, as if the director just updated the action-film memories of his childhood with better gadgets, and without the poetry of motion that we find in the best stunt sequences today. But post interval, we get a snappy stretch involving a couple of joggers in a park, and from there, the film truly takes flight. What happens, I think, is that once Raghavan stops striving for sophistication, once he stops winking at us and fully embraces his story’s emotional possibilities, we begin to take the whole thing seriously. The villains, now, are no longer pop-cartoony figures like the great hairy bear that Ram Kapoor played (hilariously) early on, but a smart and utterly unflamboyant individual who could be stepping into a Mumbai train with a briefcase and a lunch box to reach his office by 9 a.m. The film steps down from its heightened perch and we finally get a glimpse of the pulp grandeur Raghavan was going for, the kind of lurid tension that writers like Robert Ludlum manufactured so well, with their plots about world-dominating secret organizations devastated by emotionally scarred men of action.
Like any well-intentioned Bollywood narrative, Agent Vinod finds its footing when the love angle locks into place, between Vinod and the woman introduced to us as Ruby (Kareena Kapoor, grabbing a good part and doing the kind of good work that girls in secret-agent movies don’t often get to do). The film’s finest stretch is an emotional sequence where the two leads trade information about their own war wounds – the scars, of course, are emotional – followed by a love song that’s staged (in what appears to be a single unbroken take) as an action sequence. This is not a couple destined for duets in distant dreamlands (despite the film’s incessant name-dropping of exotic locations): the prospect of death always lingers between them. For someone not really known for his interest in (and talent for) song picturizations, Raghavan really comes into his own here, channeling the silken segues of Vijay Anand (and possibly a song from Blackmail).
Even the mandatory item song that closes the film, over the end credits, stays true to character, the film’s character as well as the protagonist’s – it has a cheeky narrative that feels right for Agent Vinod. And the techno-mujra, harking back to numbers like Piya ki gali with two women-dancers partnering up, is an unadulterated treat. Why do filmmakers who work so well within the confines of Bollywood mandates feel pressured to set course for western horizons? Is it simply not enough, anymore, to tell a solid story in an emotionally engaging manner, without stopping, periodically and apologetically, to unburden a guilty conscience? “I’m sorry, young people of shining India. I’m actually a really cool filmmaker, and I make these really cool multiplex films. It’s just that I grew up with a Hindi cinema that was very different. I hope you don’t mind me indulging in a bit of that while I still give you what [I think] you really want.”
The trouble with this thought is that the audiences that patronize (in every sense of the word) the multiplexes aren’t really into film lore, leave alone references to an era of hand-painted posters and silver-jubilee runs. (Serve it up as spangly kitsch, everything on the surface, like in The Dirty Picture, and they’ll lap it up.) There’s a bigger then-and-now contrast in Saif Ali Khan, who began his career looking like his mother in pants (that wavy hair didn’t help) and has now completed a trajectory to the other end, where all the rosiness and cheer has been stripped away from his face. Even as late as Kal Ho Naa Ho, he was the cream puff of screen actors – sweet, lightweight, utterly pleasant and non-nourishing – but now the features have hardened into stone. With that predatory beak and that deepening furrow between his brows, he’s completely convincing as a cold killer. No one who sniggered through Aashiq Awara could have foreseen this.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.