Recently, a bunch of self serving critics decided to have a laugh at the bad state of affairs in the Hindi film industry. The next time they give away the awards I would like to see the Indian Critic receive the Bawra Ho Gaya Hai Kya Award. For nobody has truly lost it like the Indian Critic has when it comes to Agent Vinod. The movie got universally panned, flagellated and hammered from all quarters with the lone exception of a trade analyst masquerading as a film critic praising it (Sadly no one takes him seriously). You wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Sriram Raghavan had delivered a turkey or even that proverbial rotten tomato.
I wouldn’t like to go into the details of these reviews but the criticism mostly ranged from calling the movie boring (Do newspapers even need to pay someone to tell us such intellectually fatuous things) and the plot preposterous. Most astonishingly, the same Indian critic who has a geekgasm when he watches Tarantino whip up a conversation around a Big Kahuna Burger has an erectile dysfunction when Raghavan sensationally spikes a fight scene with Rakhamma Kaiya Thattu. It is not altogether clear whether the misdirected criticism was a result of extremely high expectations or incredibly low knowledge of spy movies. We have come to expect a certain brand of cinema from Sriram Raghavan (although he is just two movies old). Fair enough, but shouldn’t this expectation be tempered by the fact that the genre has its own limitations. I mean, look at it this way – When Raghavan started scripting this film he probably had two options; Either to make a spy thriller that focussed on espionage trade craft and the secret lives of the agents and how they do what they do. The precedent for this is, mind you, none. The Bourne movies, with all due respect, were not about espionage in the first place (Bourne is a highly skilled assassin whose cover is blown in an operation and is running around staving off CIA Agents). So the feasible option, and this is also the kind of a script that allows Raghavan his quirks, was to make a homebred spy thriller modelled on the lines of Bond. Raghavan makes it clear at the very outset, even in the trailers themselves, that he is setting the audience up for a cheeky spy agent who is game for action rather than espionage and who at the end of the day unwinds in utterly hilarious fashion (Watch Pyar Ki Pungi,if you haven’t yet).
Raghavan’s spy is thankfully a unique creation who faces the kind of challenges that an emerging Indian nation faces. If Bond worked for a western world which was obsessed with Russia (in a Cold War overhang), Agent Vinod has to function in South Asia’s unique geopolitics (under a nuclear overhang). There is Afghanistan where India and Pakistan are fighting for hegemony. Then there is the decades old distrust between India and Pakistan which refuses to thaw. Then there is also the good, the bad and the ugly ISI (Given a chance Raghavan in his sequel would perhaps bring in the Bangladesh angle too). Vinod operates the kind of espionage system that is efficient and functional (Pick up the scent and trace it to the perpetrators with the help of other agents and contacts). There is none of the absurdity of a Bond gadget. The bottom line is that Vinod has a distinct appeal of his own rather being a hotpotch of other iconic spy agents. Vinod, whose tongue is firmly planted in his cheek most of the times, also shows rare flashes of emotion. In one of the finest moments in the movie, Vinod tells Iram (Played well by Kareena with the right mix of vulnerability and spunkiness) the reason why he became a R&AW Agent. It is almost reminiscent of The Hurt Locker which was a full length exposition on why men like Vinod do what they do.
Like Tarantino, Raghavan is an inveterate pop culture junkie who simply loves the childhood movies he grew up on (His interests seem to range from Zapata Westerns to Charlie Chaplin to Tamil potboilers. Meanwhile, Raghavan’s own style of storytelling seems to be influenced by hardboiled pulp, noir and Hitchcock) but with Agent Vinod he truly creates an identity of his own. There is no attempt to act cool or write something in just to show off. It is all silently infused and realised organically. The technical wizardry, lest we forget, is also there aided magnificently by C.K. Muralidharan’s (Another FTII graduate who has been Raghavan’s accomplice since his graduation film) eye popping camera work.
I have half a mind to just list out the thrill a minute movie references but that would be missing the larger picture. The larger picture is that this movie even shorn of its most amusing references has enough weight to stand on its own and entertain. Yes, the plot needs a suspension of belief (So do most spy movies,no?) but Raghavan (and Arijit Biswas, the other screenwriter) do a splendid job when it comes to the detailing. It is pitch perfect. Take the example of the ISI itself. There is no attempt to villify the Pakistani organisation and straightjacket it as the evil enemy. There are men within the organisation (The Chief himself) who are shown as sensible individuals who do not want a nuclear standoff. The villains are smart and come seconds close to pulling off a nuclear holocaust. They are caricatures, what with Raghavan’s B movie influences coming to the fore, but he seldom writes wholly idiotic characters just so that the hero can sidestep them.
This is also a movie that celebrates villainy like only old Bollywood potboilers did. There is even an artificial eyed Shahbaz Khan playing a rogue Pakistani officer! Right from the hideous looking Ram Kapoor (“Sasha make drink”) to the likable goon in Prem Chopra to the wily Gulshan Grover the movie is choc-a-bloc with such villains.
The screenwriters intersperse this intentional campiness with a kind of hyper realism that is at times too precise for comfort, be it the presence of sleeper terror cells in the heart of Delhi or the global power wielded by influential cliques of businessmen. The implication that a terror attack can carry various other ramifications apart from mere destruction of life and property is the kind of assessment we have to come to terms with, however preposterous the idea might seem. The detailing may be a little toned down to easily feed it to the average movie watcher but I am sure Vir Sanghvi would approve.
The casting is nothing short of a coup. Raghavan fills up the canvass with CID regulars almost as if reminding us of those days when the show actually used to be good (When the other Raghavan, Sridhar Raghavan and others, used to screenwrite). The ultimate tribute however is the casting of B.P. Singh (The creator of CID, no less) as the Chief of R&AW. Saif, as Agent Vinod, is fantastic. He plays it with the right amount of charm, coolness, grit and daredevilry. Anshuman Singh and Adil Hussain, as Jimmy and Colonel respectively, stand out. Dhritiman Chatterjee, as Jagdish Metla, is excellent.
Agent Vinod is a smashingly slick spy movie with fantastic entertainment value. Watch it with a couple of movie loving friends and revel in the nostalgic use of retro music (Daniel B. George’s background score is quite simply the single most eccentric, eclectic and quirky creation since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and movie references. Don’t go by the critics. This is a cult classic in every sense of the word!
PS: If anything the three minute single tracking shot sequence in Raabta should alone be worth the price of admission.
PPS: Those who liked the movie have reason to rejoice. A sequel is on!