7 April 2012

Film review: Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod is the sort of swashbuckling thriller that Hindi cinema used to do a lot of in the James-Bond-inspired 60s and 70s, but simply doesn’t do any more: a ridiculously flamboyant hero, a toothsome femme fatale (or three) and a whole galaxy of fiendish villains, all moving through a series of exotic locales in pursuit of some deliberately over-the-top Macguffin, like a “secret faarmula” that could save or sabotage the nation.

The original Agent Vinod (1977) featured Mahendra Sandhu as a government spy who stopped India’s defence secrets from falling into foreign hands. In this 2012 outing, Saif Ali Khan is a RAW agent who must save the Indian subcontinent – and the world – from a nasty nuclear bomb that comes in a suitcase.

But there any similarity ends. What Sriram Raghavan sets out to create is far more than a self-conscious, cheesy homage to the lost Indian espionage movie. As he said in one interview, he wanted to make a spy thriller that would “balance the real with the hyper-real, as well as make a film in the Indian idiom.” He’s succeeded, and how.

Right from the very first couple of frames, when Agent Vinod makes his first appearance in the dark dungeon of an Afghan camp, complete with stone-hewn walls and Osama bin Laden murals, we know we’re in a film that takes its sets and its action as seriously as the best of Hollywood. By the time we’re halfway through, the film has managed to traverse foreign locations as stunningly diverse as a Moscow cemetery in a snowstorm, the interiors of the Trans-Siberian Express, the luxurious mansions and pavement cafes of a sunny Tangiers and the squares and streets of Riga, Latvia.

Raghavan’s use of his locations is absolutely terrific, managing to consistently place the action in them while also evoking mood by the dollopful. I particularly loved the Charlie Chaplin film playing on an outdoor screen in Riga, and the smokey blue interiors of the love hotel in which he shoots the marvelously affecting ‘Raabta’ song. It’s an inspired sequence involving couples fighting, kissing and making up while a tender love song and a shootout unfold simultaneously around them.

The screenplay by Raghavan and co-writer Arijit Biswas moves at a fast clip, from one location to another, from one wonderfully satisfying set-piece to the next. Among the smaller (but no less important) pleasures of Agent Vinod is the fact that everyone on screen – the steward on the plane, the man in the square in Tangiers who is asked to take a photograph, the bespectacled man reading a newspaper at the back of the restaurant – is potentially a part of its gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a plot.

And scattered across this world is a superb array of devilish villains: an almost unrecognisable and splendid Ram Kapoor in a St. Petersburg world of cavernous nightclubs that look like they used to be churches; a more familiar Prem Chopra in white and gold robes in a Moroccan mansion; the wonderful Shahbaz Khan as a one-eyed renegade ISI general; the somewhat wasted Gulshan Grover at a glorious Karachi wedding; and the superb Adil Hussain (until now best known as Vidya Balan’s ‘husband’ from Ishqiya, but that is set to change) as the threateningly urbane ‘Colonel’.

And how can one forget to mention Dhritiman Chatterjee, a marvellous actor who proved his mettle in Bengali cinema years ago, but is only now being discovered by Hindi filmmakers. His role in Kahaani and now in Agent Vinod ought to make him indispensable to Bollywood, though one hopes, without being typecast.

What distinguishes Agent Vinod from a straight-up James Bond movie or a gritty copy of the dead-serious Bourne films is the twinkle in its eye. One instance is the use of the O meri jaan maine kaha number in a sequence where Kareena must dance to distract a loathsome fat man for a good cause (evoking Padma Khanna’s energetic faux-seduction of Prem Nath in Johnny Mera Naam). There’s the supremely enjoyable double mujra in Karachi of the kind we haven’t seen in years — where Kareena joins the adept Maryam Zakaria in the wonderful Dil mera muft ka. The greying Moroccan men singing Pyaar Pyaar na raha at a rather opportune moment are wonderful, as are the absolutely stellar Delhi ladies who insist on going to Kinari Bazar in an auto that they don’t realise has been commandeered for quite another purpose. Raghavan makes it abundantly clear that he takes humour and naach-gaana as seriously as anything else.

The man who made Ek Hasina Thi — a chilling Delhi-set thriller which also gave Saif his first bad guy role – now gives us a superbly shot Delhi action climax, involving not just autos and the Kinari Bazaar ladies, but also HoHo buses and rooms full of Godrej almirahs.

The only times the tone of the film wavers is when Kareena – playing a Pakistani woman called Iram Parveen Billal – has her confessional moments, mouthing such unnecessary lines as “Tumne meri jaan bachayi” with a teary-eyed deliberateness that annoyed me. But this is mere quibbling about a thoroughly enjoyable film which displays ambition and style in a measure that we rarely see in Bollywood, especially not in a genre film. Agent Vinod makes not just Players but Don 2 look ridiculous. More, please.

Published on Firstpost.com on 23 Mar 2012

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