Some film titles can be real misnomers. Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW) is not the Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) of our times. Unlike Manmohan Desai’s fun-filled tribute to India’s syncretic culture through his pet lost-and-found formula, John Abraham’s latest is a spy thriller based on true events dating back to the Bangladesh war, where he plays an undercover agent sent on a secret mission to Pakistan by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). No prizes for guessing that the 46-year-old actor plays a master of disguises with three distinct names in the movie. If it sounds uncannily familiar and gives a sense of déjà vu, blame it on Raazi, Alia Bhatt’s 2018 blockbuster, which had a similar plot line.
Faceless heroes buried in the yellow pages of history are the new flavour in B-town. A number of movies with narratives woven around the derring-do of an undercover agent deployed on a covert mission inside a hostile territory or against the enemy within, have unfolded on celluloid in recent times. The huge success of last year’s Raazi is testimony to the trend settling in as another bankable template. RAW has already hit the screens while Vivek Agnihotri’s Tashkent Files, a thriller probing the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death of former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri in erstwhile USSR in 1966, is releasing next week.
Over the years, spy thrillers have come to only sparsely populate the Hindi film landscape despite the seemingly immense potential of the genre as seen in other film industries like Hollywood. Then, what reason could be attributed to this optimistic fresh sprinkle of spy flicks? In a sense, national security has itself become a visual obsession in the digital world, numerous videos watched on our smartphones of the Balakot attack being the most recent example. In this context, Raazi and RAW may not be the trendsetters per se, but they certainly amplify our own desires to see the behind-the-scenes game that we are told of so very often through so many mediums. Of course, another primary factor behind this phenomenon is the ascendancy of the new-age audiences, who are ready to throw all ‘Bollywoodian’ tropes out of the window and choose substance over style. That’s where the filmmakers’ confidence in discarding the fixed formula comes from.
Alia Bhatt in Raazi (2018).
Curiously, these modern spy thrillers are quite different from their yesteryear counterparts. The rise of this genre has also coincided with the popularity of movies suffused with heady nationalistic themes such as Uri (2019), which have cast a spell on the audiences lately. Based on India’s surgical strike on terror hubs in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016, the Vicky Kaushal-starrer turned out to be a big hit despite having no mega star. The more recent Indian Air Force strikes in Pakistan have further given a fillip to such films. Already, there is a mad scramble among producers to register titles like Balakot, Surgical Strikes 2.0, How’s The Josh? and even Abhinandan (after the squadron leader who was captured in Pakistan).
It is like Manoj Kumar-meets-Ravikant Nagaich! In his heyday, Manoj branded himself as ‘Bharat Kumar’ by making patriotic films around the common man while Nagaich dished out spy thrillers with desi James Bonds in the lead. Today, the lines between these two distinct styles have blurred with a common thread of overt nationalism running between them.
This genre’s rise has also coincided with the popularity of movies suffused with heady nationalistic themes.
Trade experts, however, see it merely as an extension of the burgeoning demand for ‘realistic’ cinema. Trade expert Atul Mohan says that movies with patriotic themes appeal to a lot of young people these days and the recent spy thrillers have shown a heavy dose of that. Mohan, who’s the editor of Complete Cinema, adds that today film goers are also rooting more for content based on real events. “Some cinematic liberties could be taken with a real life incident or a character but the basic plot must be as close to the reality as possible,” he states. “That’s why a spy thriller like Raazi turned out to be such a big money-spinner.”
He also points out that unlike the fictional and often comical spy thrillers of yore, a lot of meticulous research goes into the making of such movies. A case in point, according to him, is RAW, which hit the screens worldwide on April 5. Director Robbie Grewal’s espionage drama may have been criticised by reviewers for its sluggish pace, but the painstaking research efforts put in to recreate the 1971 war times have earned him praise. A special screening of the film was organised for RAW officials—including chief Anil Kumar Dhasmana—and their families and it is learnt that the film has impressed the top sleuths. “Meeting the RAW chief and interacting with him has been one of the most fulfilling experiences. I was overwhelmed with their warm and kind-hearted reception,” Grewal said in a statement later, calling the experience surreal.
John Abraham in Romeo Akbar Walter.
Even though RAW has not been touted as a biopic, Abraham’s character is apparently inspired by Ravindra Kaushik, an undercover agent sent to Pakistan by RAW ahead of the 1971 war. It is said that Kaushik stayed back in disguise until the revelation of his true identity many years later landed him in a prison there. Also, Jackie Shroff’s character appears to be modelled on R.N. Kao, the reclusive first chief of RAW. After watching the film with RAW officials, Shroff said that he was petrified to meet the real heroes and their families; wondering whether they would accept him as the reel chief. “But I was relieved when I heard them say, ‘You were perfect to the T’.”
Director Meghna Gulzar had also succeeded in creating a believable character of a Kashmiri Muslim girl in Raazi. The character of Sahmat Khan was played brilliantly by Alia Bhat, who marries into the family of a Pakistani armyman as part of her patriotic mission. The movie was based on the novel, Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka.
Such realism—or one can say, hyperrealism—was, of course, missing in the yesteryear spy thrillers. They, instead, concentrated on humour and that pulp-noir quality. In Nagaich’s Jeetendra-starrer Farz (1967), the hero, a happy-go-lucky secret agent, spends more time cavorting with women and he always resents being called back to his duty for an “urgent mission” as it was an interruption in his amorous rendezvous with besotted female admirers. This trend continued right till the Eighties with Nagaich creating the character of “Gunmaster G-9” in films like Suraksha (1979) and Wardat (1981), which helped Mithun Chakraborty savour the first taste of stardom. In 1982, Nagaich sought to recreate the Farz magic with Jeetendra in Raksha but could not succeed. Director Ravi Tandon also tried the same with Jeetendra in Bond 303 (1985), but to no avail. Evidently, the genre of spy thrillers apparently inspired by iconic James Bond movies like The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) had lost novelty by then and they all but disappeared in the era of romantic musicals spearheaded by the likes of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar from the 1990s onwards.
Though a few spy thrillers like December16 (2002) and Hero: Love Story of A Spy (2003) came in between, it was not until the Tenties that the espionage sagas returned in an altogether different avatar in films, thanks to filmmakers such as Kabir Khan, Neeraj Pandey and Nikhil Advani.
Two films revived the Indian spy hero in 2012: Sriram Raghavan’s suave Agent Vinod—a title borrowed from a 1977 film of the same name—and the Salman Khan-starrer Ek Tha Tiger. The latter had even prompted a nephew of Ravindra Kaushik to serve a legal notice on the producers, claiming that the character bore a striking resemblance to his uncle. The very next year, two spy films were made: Kamalahaasan’s Vishwaroopam and Nikhil Advani’s D-Day. But it was Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (2015) that came to be regarded as a slick example in the genre. The Akshay Kumar-starrer was about a mission by Indian secret service agents who bring a Pakistani terrorist—a Maulana Masood Azhar lookalike—to India for justice. The Saif Ali Khan-starrer Phantom—in which the hero is sent on a mission abroad by the agency to eliminate all the suspects of 26/11 Mumbai terror attack—was also released in the same year. Baby’s success led the producers to make its spin-off, Naam Shabana, in 2017. It had a female undercover agent, played by Taapsee Pannu, who is groomed by RAW for a special mission. The success of such films prompted ‘tiger’ to return to the screen once again for a bigger box office harvest in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017),
Film writer Murtaza Ali Khan says that Raazi may have revived the trend of period films revolving around espionage but “we have had some very interesting spy thrillers in the past as well.” He mentions films such as Samadhi (1950), Ankhen (1968) and Shatranj (1969). “Not to speak of Ravi Nagaich’s movies. In recent times films like Baby and Aiyyary (2018) along with Raazi and RAW can be seen as an offshoot of a strong nationalistic fervour that seems to have captured the youth’s imagination,” says Khan. “So I won’t be surprised at all if this trend continues for a while.”
The Spies We Loved
- Ashok Kumar, Samadhi
The legendary actor was the first to play a patriotic spy in Ramesh Saigal’s Samadhi (1950), based on Netaji’s call to the youth to join the INA and oust the British.
- Dev Anand, Jewel Thief
Dev Anand’s double undercover act made for a thoroughly entertaining spy thriller. It was a resounding hit, needless to say.
- Jeetendra, Farz
Ravikant Nagaich’s Farz (1967) had Jeetendra playing a desi Bond cavorting with lovely lasses until he is called back and packed off for an urgent mission.
- Dharmendra, Ankhen
Inspired by Farz’s success, Ramanand Sagar came up with a racy spy thriller in 1968. And who better than a dashing Dharmendra chasing the action in exotic locales.
- Mithun Chakravorty, Suraksha
Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya (1976) may have earned Mithun a national award but it was his Gunmaster-G-9 films that propelled him to stardom before Disco Dancer (1982).
- Mahendra Sandhu, Agent Vinod
This 1977 spy saga was a surprise hit, long before Saif chose to make a film with the same title.