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Bollywood spies and agent buffoons
In Ek Tha Tiger, Salman Khan is a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent and Katrina Kaif an ISI spy. No, that's not a joke. Suave, clever and brandishing a bad sense of humour, Tiger is a man on a mission. "My friends call me Doordarshan, " he says, acknowledging Katrina Kaif's introduction of him as Zee (shorthand for Zoya). Visibly middle-aged and a touch fatigued, Tiger performs incredible stunts, leaps off trams, chases enemies in speeding powerboats etc. Khan's fans might overlook this suspension of disbelief but others might argue that this kind of superspy doesn't really exist.
For a film about intelligence gathering, Ek Tha Tiger was spectacularly bereft of logic. And it has for company Agent Vinod, Saif Ali Khan's espionage film. Critics found similar inaccuracies in it. While acknowledging the film's occasional burst of humour, one critic denounced it for its embarassing loopholes. "Like a tacky scene in which Vinod spots a familiar scorpion tattoo on a doctor's wrist that helps him deduce that he's actually an assassin, " the critic writes. "Or the ridiculous pre-climax portion in which a grievously injured character is gasping out a password to our hero, as he frantically tries to disarm a bomb while flying a helicopter."
As for fans of unintentional comedy, Sunny Deol's The Hero: Love Story of a Spy is manna from heaven. Playing with multiple identities and disguises, Deol makes spying look like a child's play. Worse, Mithun Chakraborty's Surakshaa, which has become a minor YouTube phenomenon, is pure camp. And the less we talk of Jeetendra in Farz, the better. For, when his boss summons him after a cold-blooded murder, secret agent Jeetendra (in 'spy' dress: a red sweater and white pants) is cavorting in a hill station, not so secretly.
Do RAW agents really behave like Salman, Saif Ali Khan and - ahem - Sunny Deol? Amar Bhushan, a former RAW boss who bared much in a thinly-disguised fiction book titled Escape to Nowhere, said in an interview to Outlook magazine, "A spy's family and friends are in the dark about his activities. He can't share his joy or exasperation even with his wife. Many spies become loners. "
Loners? Bollywood's spies are social and uninhibited. They do everything except spying. They're cardboard spies, says writer Anuvab Pal, because there's little logic to what they do. Pal says, "There is no logic in the nature of the crime, intelligence-gathering or foreign policy. The spy might have been a truck driver for all you care. "
Agreeing that a majority of Bollywood spy thrillers present a dumbed-down version of spy stories, screenwriter Kiran Kotrial says that most Indian viewers cannot handle the trade's jargon. "You cannot depict a spy as a brainy guy because the moment any thinking is involved, Indian audiences switch off, " he says.
But is the current spy scene in Hollywood the Holy Grail? Take Argo, Ben Affleck's Best Picture Oscar winner, about a CIA exfiltration specialist who rescues six US diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Though not entirely factual, Argo strikes a compelling note. Same goes for Zero Dark Thirty whose brutal portrait of torture may have earned some thumbs-down but few would doubt its authenticity.
This is not to say that Hollywood spies are a benchmark for authenticity. Debunking some of the popular myths attached with the Hollywood spy genre, the agency clarified recently, "While the CIA may have cool spy tools such as a robot fish that samples water and insect-sized listening devices, the CIA is a lot different than Hollywood portrays it to be. "
And Bond is problematic too. "There's little that is authentic about James Bond - it's more about glamour, locations, stunts and stylised dialogue, " says Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London. "A more authentic Hindi spy film - on the lines of a John Le Carrê novels - would be outside the mainstream. But it's unlikely that this kind of cinema would find the budget in India. " Bollywood lifts so much from Bond that it might be intereting to guess how many Hindi films owe their existence to 007.
Kotrial also says espionage is a difficult subject to engage audiences because few have any insights into a spy's life. "People connected with Jeetendra in Farz or Mithun as Gunmaster G-9 in Surakshaa. Today, of course, a spy doing disco dance is laughable. " The Indian formula, he insists, is to pick the superficial elements of spycraft and apply them selectively. And pepper the script with some witty one-liners.
"If you can't get the research right, get the dialogue right - that's the attitude, " says Kotrial. "For instance, in Agent Vinod (1977), the villain tells him, 'Bakre ko halal karne se pehle uski khoob khatirdari ki jaati hai' (A goat is treated like royalty before being butchered). And Mahendra Sandhu (Agent Vinod) responds, 'Lekin yeh woh bakra hai jo kasai ka maal bhi kha jata hai' (But this is the kind of goat that gobbles even the butcher's property). The audience was in raptures. If Jason Bourne were to say something similar it wouldnt get him much applause. "
Research is the key, says Pal. "The Indian spy doesn't always have to be a superhero. Look at Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Kahaani. He can be just another middle-aged guy going about his work. It just so happens that he defuses bombs and cracks codes by day and goes back home to a family, if you care so much for the human connect. "
"But please, " Pal says. "If you want Salman Khan to play a spy, let him play a spy with a real touch. "
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