Saturday, November 01, 2014

spy vs spy: Ankhen (1968) and Kulla Agent 000 (1972)

Life is very good indeed when coincidence hands you two top-notch prime-vintage spy films. Life is even better when you happen to have an academic paper called "Bodies, Bollywood, and Bond: the Evolving Image of Secret Agents in Hindi  Spy Thrillers Inspired by the 007 Franchise" (by Krzysztof Lipka-Chudzik)* that includes a taxonomy and chronology of Bollywood spies, among other interesting discussions. There's absolutely no reason to compare these two films other than I wanted to say "spy vs spy" in the title of this post, but now that I've made that choice I'm going to stick with it. Maybe I can file this under public service and hope that the list of characteristics will help you decide which one to watch first, because believe me, you're gonna want to watch them.

In the aforementioned academic paper, there's a discussion of a technicality that points out that that many of the Indian movies most of us think of as "spy movies" are not really about spies at all: more often than not, and probably for reasons about the accepted not-terribly-shady morality of heroes, the heroes actually work for the police rather than for an intelligence agency. They may be gathering information while in disguise, but they're doing it to serve and protect communities or families, not dealing in espionage at the level of national governments. The ethically gray world of a spy doesn't fly often in masala, especially without the context of a childhood trauma that justifies everything as revenge and vigilante justice, and the lifestyle that Bond enjoys is out of bounds for the censor board. ** There are exceptions—the Gunmaster G-9 films—but even very recent movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod omit the womanizing.

mission and actual spying
These films have very different tones: Ankhen is the serious one, almost devoid of any comic moments (and even Mehmood manages to get his spying-related tasks accomplished, which is a good thing, because he plays Q), whereas Kulla Agent 000 is one of those projects that blows out as many stops on the fun-o-meter as budget will allow, energetically taking on many standard spy movie elements but never afraid to have its spooks be goofs.

In Ankhen, there's a brief reference to terrorist activities in the northeast, and the song during the opening titles is full of text and imagery about eyes and vigilance (rather than surveillance). Fascinatingly, the heroes of this film are not government agents at all: they're civilians who draw upon their (or their families') past as freedom fighters to do what's right for the country they love. It's an inherited yet also voluntary mission. That sense of duty seems to be missing in Kulla Agent. Dwarakish has signed up for his own fun and adventure. The whole setup of that film is instead comic: the diminutive hero initially fails his attempt to work for a government agency, but they eventually take him on and give him a mission and an ├╝ber-competent partner. The upload I watched has no subtitles, so I don't know exactly what the mission is, but my impression is that it...well...it doesn't seem to be rockets or weapons or assassination or overthrow of governments, so maybe it's smuggling? Anyhoo, I don't know what these guys are up to, and it doesn't seem a any higher-level threat than any standard masala baddie with his crates of stolen statues or gold bars.

gadgets and other accessories
If you read Go Fug Yourself, you'll be familiar with one of its authors sometimes just saying "WORDS" when she cannot express her amazement. I feel very "WORDS" (in a good way) about the gadgets and props in both of these movies. Ankhen has several walls of bleep-bloop control panels, a transmitter hidden in the base of a Krishna idol (used by a villain, interestingly), a mask that changes the identity of its wearer (think "Hrithik" in Don 2), and a cage that drops into a tiger pit.
Kulla Agent is not outdone: a gold-covered car, transmitters hidden in owl statues and terrifying dolls with bird mouths and light bulb eyes, a villain in disguise as a guru leading stoned-looking hippies in "Hare Krishna," and evil dogs whose attacks are clearly voiced by humans going "Rrrr! RrrruFFFF!"

ladies
What's better than a vintage spy film in which a woman has anything to do with the actual mission?  Two such films in which the women have everything to do with the mission! Ankhen pairs Dharmendra with Mala Sinha, an agent so good that he didn't realize in the first phase of their acquaintance that she was an agent. She does her own share of the legwork, she uses weapons, she is injured in the finale fight sequence because she's fighting, not because she's tied up to a post as a hostage. Additionally, Dharmendra's sister in the film (Kumkum) takes dramatic, violent, self-directed action in support of her brother's mission. She has the sort of Mother India role, balancing love of her child with duty to her community (or nation, in this case). Nobody comes to her aid, nor does she need them to.

Jyothi Lakshmi is mindblowing as Dwarakish's partner in Kulla Agent 000. I've seen her in two other films (the KSR Doss projects James Bond 777 and Mosagallaku Mosagaadu), but in those she played was part of the villain crew and did not get quite the attention and vindication that heroines do. Like Mala Sinha, as far as I can tell she's every bit as critical to the mission as Dwarakish, and as one would expect from a Telugu masala action star, she has a ton of physical work, not only dancing and thrusting to moaning cabaret numbers (she's introduced slithering between the spread legs of shirtless men in blackface who later trap her with a net, which is not at all troubling, nope)
but also punching, kicking, flinging men across the room, etc. She's like Helen, Bindu, and Sunny Deol combined. For example, in one particularly amazing scene, she's just flung on a leopard print coat over her Emma Peel-esque black knits and opened her front door to go track down a lost Kulla when a giant Native American (yes, that kind of Indian, complete with braids and tomahawk, and also not at all troubling, nope)

assassin punches her in the face and sends her crashing through a plate glass window on the other side of the room. They fight for several minutes around her bedroom before she finishes him off with a swish of her hair and then hops into her convertible.

gentlemen
The heroes of these two films really exemplify the differences in the projects: there's nothing funny about Dharmendra in Ankhen, but he's relatively restrained, even in his many disguises and wigs, none of which is used for gags or big song sequences. He fights only minimally—his most notable brawl is with a tiger (and now I can check him off of the list of "Hindi film heroes who grunt at stuffed tigers")—and he behaves as the patriotic son of a patriot ought. His father, Nasir Hussain, is the organizer of the mission, but he comes across as an ineffective, doddering grandpa rather than a mastermind.

In a nod to Bond I wasn't expecting, his character is presented as irresistible to women, with both Mala Sinha and Zeb Rehman swooning for him instantly and discussing their attraction out loud multiple times.
The movie presents Dharmendra's sexuality as matter-of-factly as it does the skills or strengths of any other characters. It's not a boast, but it's a resource and for the sake of the mission he'll use it as much as he can. Like Bond, then, Dharmendra can seduce simply by entering a room in a suit. It's great casting—I can't think of any other actor in 1968 who could believably be presented this way (not even Shashi). Unlike Bond, of course this seedha-saadha Hindustani ladka will have none of it while he's on the clock, telling Mala that maybe he'll think about love once his work is done.

Kulla Agent is brilliant at giving its hero a chance to shine as both spy and clown (as it does Jyothi Lakshmi too). I can't think of many other films that let either hero or heroine take their work but not themselves terribly seriously. Bunty aur Babli comes to mind, but all that blend of competence + "wheee!" changes with their romance and pregnancy; fortunately this film doesn't bother with such a plot, so everyone can just have fun scheming and punching and dancing.

villains
As with the gadgets, it's tough to pick a favorite. Kulla Agent's chief bad guy seems to be named Boss and he has big curly hair, wild scarves, and shiny sunglasses, unusual torture techniques, and a lair hidden in temple ruins with giant dragons and a dance floor where we see a snake dancer who wears a cobra-head sock puppet on one hand...and now your argument is invalid. Boss's number two is an eyebrow-waggling, cackling fiend in a variety of disguises whom I'd love to see in a film of his own (he's in the kurta standing next to the gold car in the picture above). But Ankhen has a pretty great enemy too. That vague terrorist-y foreign (or separatist?) power that despises India has Jeevan as the chief on the ground, wearing military paraphernalia and overseeing facilities such as a chamber with spiked walls that close in on victims, pyramids of metal barrels (not full of Steve, sadly), a zillion dudes with machine guns, self-destruct capability, and miles of tunnels connecting the hideout to exit points around town. Jeevan does his usual thing in just the right amounts, but Sujit Kumar gets to be the most interesting baddie; this is the biggest role I've ever seen him in, and he fits the effective-but-not-flashy tone of the project.

music
Just like James Bond 777, Kulla Agent is a movie that you can still relish if it just plays in the background. In fact, you probably should try that, instantly turning your daily goings-on into thrilling espionage. Hints of James Bond music are there, along with Swingle Singers-ish nonverbal vocals and other 60s pop and rock sounds, especially surf guitars. There's even a song by Kishore Kumar, whose sense of fun is perfect for Dwarakish. I'm also lumping dancing under this topic too because I can't talk about Jyothi Lakshmi without extolling her as a dancer. She's wild, exuberant, and unrefined, and it's not clear to me whether she's supposed to be read as sexy or funny or both. Little about her matches today's beauty standards, but her characters don't seem to have time to bother with what society thinks of them because they're too busy enjoying their songs and then saving the nation or taking revenge—and are in much better physical shape than most of their critics, whom they can toss across the room with one hand. She is a warrior, a joy, an icon, and a national treasure.

Ankhen...is just not as interesting to listen to. It's got a solid soundtrack by Ravi but nothing has stuck in my head nearly as much as "Kulla! Agent! Zero zero zero!" Its one standout feature is that the setting in Beirut yields some stylish and appropriate Middle Eastern influence. Oh, and the title song under the opening credits is an exercise in overkill in all the right ways. In case you hadn't gotten the idea from the title, the illustrations and lyrics will make sure you know what this film is about. I don't know why a giant head in the clouds has sunglasses on, nor whether another sky-head with its hand on India's northern border looks protective (as the words indicate) or just plain predatory.

locale and architecture
It isn't really fair to pit the two films, because surely Ankhen has a much bigger budget. It has location sequences in Beirut and Japan,
providing the Bond-esque globe-trotting handily while (to my surprise) avoiding regional stereotypes other than in clothing for disguises. Mala Sinha's character is described as half-Japanese, which also adds "exotic" points; in a mark of true class, her loyalty to India is never questioned, and her skills and contributions to the mission are described as top-notch. She's also affirmed as a worthy partner for the Indian hero, both romantically and professionally. For all their talk of the motherland, these characters appreciate a fairly cosmopolitan world. I also like how the cinematographer has some shots down tunnels or hallways that evoke the Bond gun-barrel.

As mentioned, I'm not sure that the villain and threat in Kulla Agent aren't entirely domestic; if I'm right, there's no need for international travel or locations. Either way, the film does plenty with its local evil, so much so that some of the bad guy's facilities are accessed through a Hindu temple whose columns slide and walls flip around to reveal communications equipment. The action moves out into the countryside a few times, including car chases and a fight in a moving jeep.  

style and class
Both of these movies have tons of ishtyle. Ankhen aims for, and relatively hits, Bond-ish sophistication. There's something about the look of this film that feels like "What if a few of the characters of Waqt took up a side line in espionage?" It has swanky nightclub songs, there are lots of men in dinner jackets, Mala Sinha in particular is often very fashionably or filly-ly attired, and characters slip into undercover roles as royalty. Kulla Agent isn't classy and all because that isn't a relevant yardstick. Kulla Agent is about rowdy fun and cartoony danger. Sauve would be boring to these characters (unless they were in disguise, and even then it's hard to imagine either of the leads looking at home in a tux or satin gown).

So?
Frankly, these are both remarkable films. Kulla Agent 000 is huge fun, especially if you want to see a woman hold her own in a dangerous world as part of some professional drive and not having a tragic backstory/punishment to justify/tidy up her physical glee. I haven't talked as much about the hero because he's just not as compelling to me, but he's perfectly enjoyable, and he's a good entry into any list of diminutive action heroes, at least as their films present them. It reminds me of what a late 70s Manmohan Desai spy film might have been like if someone stopped Prayag Raj from writing the romance and family side plots. It's rock 'em sock 'em focused abandon.  Ankhen is all about restraint, carefully employing elements that often run amok in Hindi masala: comic actors, widows, fathers with weepy stories of the past, unrequited love, patriotism, rambling finale brawls. All of these things are present, but writer-director Ramanand Sagar keeps them all on the mission, so to speak. It would be wrong of me to let you have the impression that Ankhen is staid. It's not. It's just tight, which is quite amazing given everything that is rolled up into the story. And I didn't even tell you about Mala's sombrero and capri pants in Japan
or the little boy whose birthday party theme seems to be historical world leaders (I just don't know who this could be with a small-ish black mustache and his arm thrust out straight),
who is kidnapped directly from it and thus spends the rest of the film getting tortured while wearing his teeny tiny pteruges. How's that for a sentence you never thought you'd read?
B-movie or A-list? Both get an A+ from me.

Big thanks to Die Danger Die Die Kill for putting Kulla Agent on my radar.

* This essay is part of a larger collection titled From Highbrow to Lowbrow: Studies of Indian B-Grade Cinema and Beyond, and a pdf of the whole thing is available here.
** The more I think about this paper's discussion of how mainstream masala heroes can't have the playboy lifestyle and complicated, shifting morality of a spy, the more I think of the rebooted Don films, particularly the second one. But of course he's a villain, or at least an anti-hero, and I wonder if the second film would have had legs at all if the lead character weren't played by Shahrukh, whom we've all been trained to like whether or not we actually like him.
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1 comments :

Amol Patil said...

Very interesting post..one good news for all bollywood lovers peoples think that Bollywood is only a notion, but finally Bollywood finds home..