Tuesday, May 7, 2013

You Can Call Him Hari, You Can Call Him Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod was released by Illuminati Films and Eros Entertainment in March, 2012. This action spy thriller stars Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor and was directed by Sriram Raghavan. Khan plays the lead role and travels to Afghanistan, Russia, Morocco, Latvia, Pakistan, India, and the UK, in an effort to recover a nuclear device and its detonator before it is armed. 

Note: Although every effort will be made to keep them at a minimum, any major story spoilers will be noted ahead of time.

Sweat and blood from an open head wound mark the face of a beaten man laying on his side in a dark cell. A small glass of water is set down before him. Hands tied behind his back, he strains his neck and is forced to try to balance the glass with his teeth. He loses control and the glass falls over, spilling the precious water into a glistening puddle on the dusty dirt floor. Thus, the audience is introduced to Agent Vinod, the man known by many names, who serves his country as a secret agent for the Research and Analysis Wing (or RAW for short), the intelligence agency for the Republic of India. As Vinod makes his escape, the soundtrack breaks out into a gritty rock song, Govind Bolo Gopal Bolo, juxtaposing live action with a moving comics credit sequence emblazon with the colors black, red and white. It’s bold, catchy, and sets the pace of this James Bond inspired Indian film.

This film is not associated to the 1977 version except by name. Whereas the earlier release takes a decidedly more comedic route and even includes a character named “James Bond”, this version is squarely situated in the spy thriller genre. Filling the role of the Bond equivalent, the suave, handsome Saif Ali Khan plays Agent Vinod. He depends on his cunning assessment of each situation he finds himself in and relies on his ingenuity to utilize what’s at hand to gain control over his enemy. For example, as he is being escorted out of a Russian nightclub in St. Petersburg, he notices a woman’s upswept hair kept in place by a hair pin. He defly slips the pin from her hair and in one fluid motion lodges the pin into the neck of one of the henchmen.  He picks off each henchman and by the time the leader turns around, Vinod is right there with a pistol aimed at the man’s stomach. The way he depends on his wits and less on gadgets, means he is more apt to get battered and bruised along the way. We have seen these qualities in our most current incantation of James Bond, portrayed by Daniel Craig. It provides the audience more opportunities to focus on the agent’s cleverness to navigate out of trouble, then to be temporarily dazzled by a piece of equipment that is rather too good to be true.

So, how will Vinod get out of this circle of iron? 

Like Bond, Vinod travels to several exotic locales that may be unfamiliar and therefore exciting to the viewer. He starts in a Taliban encampment in Afghanistan, then after receiving details from headquarters (in New Delhi) about a missing suitcase sized nuclear bomb and a mysterious reference to the number 242, Vinod heads off to St. Petersburg. The trail leads him to Marakkesh, Latvia, Karachi (Pakistan), and London. Along the way, he becomes acquainted with Dr. Ruby Mendes (Kareena Kapoor), the personal physician to one of the mafia type bosses that Vinod meets when he takes the place of a Russian mob boss’s messenger. Mendes, who has a shady past, eventually aligns her interests with Vinod’s mission and together they work their way up the chain of command. The beautiful Mendes fulfills the Bond girl role well. She’s intelligent and hesitantly helpful due to her own commitments, adding complexity to the blossoming relationship between herself and Vinod as the story progresses.

Farrah and Dr Ruby Mendes assist Vinod in getting critical information

Speaking of women, there are two other women in the film that work both ends of the spectrum. A Russian assassin who steals the nuclear bomb, throws a man into a shallow grave, fills him with several bullets before taking a photo of him. And later, she poisons a contact after he has “served his purpose.” Although beautiful, she’s a deadly mercenary, doling out her services to the highest bidder. Farrah (Maryam Zakaria), on the other hand, is rescued by Vinod while he is making his escape from the Taliban at the beginning of the movie. She reappears later in the film and is able to smuggle Vinod and Ruby into a festival where an important meeting is to take place. She does not think of the harm that may come to her; she is repaying a debt to Vinod for saving her. While they are minor characters, they balance the scale of good and evil.

Russian assassin, reminiscent of Honey Ryder's appearance in Dr. No

Interestingly, like Daniel Craig’s Bond, Vinod has no problem attracting the admiring attention of women. Although Craig does engage in a few liaisons, they are not nearly as frequent as the Connery or Moore eras. For instance, in Quantum of Solace, Craig doesn’t hook up with his Bond girl, Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), but rather they become partners, both focused on seeking revenge for lost loves. Vinod is focused on his mission. There are moments of flirtation, but there is no lovemaking and no kissing, which I thought stemmed from a respect for India’s cultural traditions. However in previews of other movies featured on the DVD, there’s kissing in other movies. Only one flirtation is acted upon on-screen: Vinod overtly flirts with the flight attendant, Freddie, who is also a mob messenger.  They are shown holding hands while they share a taxi. This is the most pointed “intimate” contact between two characters. For Vinod, this is in the line of duty – doing what’s necessary for ascertaining the crucial information he needs to complete the mission. While same sex dalliances were never shown, Craig does elude to such when facing Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) for the first time in Skyfall.

Will a truthful moment jeopardize Vinod's mission?

<SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH> As mentioned above, Vinod is chasing clues for the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb and the detonating device, so for the majority of the film, a man named the Colonel is his target. However, as with most Bond stories, the mastermind is well insulated by layers of mini bosses and henchmen. In Agent Vinod, the mini bosses have interesting character flaws: Abu who likes to shoot blanks at card players who are beating him to scare them; Kazaan, who had a questionable obsession with his dead mother; and General Huzefa, who is hell bent to exact revenge on Vinod for causing him to lose an eye. Once Vinod and Ruby have dispatched the various layers of mini bosses and their henchmen, the viewer learns that the mastermind isn’t some crazed lunatic with a deadly white cat, but a respected, intelligent man who tells Vinod that a “lowly police officer” cannot understand the cause and effect of the global political arena, and that Vinod’s interference was not for the greater good. And, it was detrimental the man’s pocketbook. Vinod did not directly cause the man’s death, but he was instrumental for sharing valuable information with people that could hand out justice. The calmness of the mastermind was reminiscent of Jonathan Price’s media mogul (except when he was crazy obsessed), Elliot Carver, from Tomorrow Never Dies. Both men sought to manipulate world events, one media the other political, ultimately for their own personal gains. Taking a further step, the Zeus Group mentioned in Agent Vinod could be compared to the clandestine organizations of SMERSH, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Quantum groups in the various Bond movies, which sought to control the world in a myriad of ways.

Hey! That number looks oddly familiar?!

There are six tracks that are integral to complimenting the unfolding action on the screen. The title track, Govind Bolo Gopal Bolo or Agent Vinod’s Theme, plays over the opening credits and then periodically throughout the movie, quite in keeping with the James Bond Theme. Most Westerners are familiar with Bollywood films that will “break out in song and dance” but in Agent Vinod that is not the case. While there are songs and dances, they are strictly incorporated within the mise-en-scene and do not seek to trespass beyond that framework. (Note: I'm not including the opening sequence or closing credits.) The logo “EROS” displays in the upper left hand corner when an official song starts during the movie. For example, the second song, I Will Do the Talking, is "performed" while Vinod is at Abu’s dance club in St. Petersburg. The women are on a center stage dancing to the song as Vinod scopes out the club in order to meet Abu, the club’s owner. The music is louder when Vinod is in the same area of the stage, but muffled in the background when he is in the DJ’s booth as he interrogates Abu. At no time do the songs break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The music seems to work quite well and provide a polished soundtrack, which makes sense given all of the songs are performed by established musicians in the business.

Music incorporated into the mise-en-scene

Agent Vinod reunites Saif Ali Khan with director Sriram Raghavan. Their first film together was Ek Hasina Thi (2004), which was a crime thriller. Both men got along well and decided to work together on Agent Vinod. Although I haven’t watched Ek Hasina Thi (I have it on order), I would say that Khan provided a solid performance as the RAW secret agent. As to direction, there were two experimental scenes in which Raghavan’s vision did not come to fruition. In both instances, they were problematic stemming from inadequate setup. It took too long to figure out why the camera’s POV was upside down or that the two fights were two fights between the same two men, one in the past and one in current story time. In a third experimental scene however, Raghavan hits the mark and everything came together. It was a long take in which Vinod and Ruby evade several hitmen in a hotel, all while the pianist plays Raabta in the hotel’s lobby. It’s well executed and gives the audience a moment to pause before the next shoot out. The choreography of action was well done and while the locations were exotic, Raghavan kept landmark shots in check, so the progression of the story was not overshadowed. Since this was only his third feature length film, Raghavan will be a director worth looking out for in subsequent projects.

Not lookin' good for our secret agent! 

The move was plagued by a variety of controversies including the use of music without proper credit, questionable publicity stunts, and the portrayal of the ISI. The movie was considered a flop, which is unfortunate because the while the movie has a couple of instances that run a little long, the movie is a very proficient spy thriller inspired by the best of the Bond franchise. Thankfully, Raghavan and Khan have not been by daunted the criticisms and are planning a sequel. In fact, they listened to the complaints of length (this movie is a hefty 150 minutes!), so they plan to keep the sequel within the two-hour mark. They also plan to keep Vinod globe trotting – sounds like our kind of Bond, indeed!

Post Script: Upon further research after publishing this post, three separate internet sources collaborated that Agent Vinod 2 is not being pursued at this time. - mb

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of industrial music, when I was first watching Agent Vinod and they kept referencing the number "242", all I could think of was the pioneering Belgian EBM band Front 242. Maybe their song "Headhunter" is apropos..

    Another observation about Agent Vinod is the sheer quantity of other people he is working with. While Bond is paired up with other agents or even women, for the most part he operates solo. Vinod is almost rarely without a partner, cohort, or easy access to another agent to report to: his partner he rescues at the beginning, his contact in Morocco when he is undercover as Freddie, Tatiana the Russian, agents in Latvia, or by default - Iram.

    I don't know my martial arts very well, but I want to go on a limb here and say that Vinod is hard core into Krav Maga. There are so many sequences he is surrounded and outnumbered, and through his own prowlessness and using the environment, he manages to disarm, subdue and escape all these sequences nearly effortlessly. The knife escape at the beginning, the disarming sequences at the russian club and at the Pakistan wedding, the hospital escape were he kicks his bed to foible his would be assassin, and so on. Looking at the wikipedia definition and examples, I'd definitely say this is the case.

    I'll confess I became immediately smitten with Maryam Zakaria. Though she plays a small, but integral part of the movie - as far as "Bond girls" go, she's easily the most beautiful in the film. Agent Vinod 2 needs to bring her back for sure! As for Saif himself, yeah he's a good looking dude - maybe even acceptable for us dudes to awknowledge his awesomeness in a "bro" sort of way, the same we all do for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

    I really loved Agent Vinod, and was so pleased with it I am almost afraid to watch other Hindi spy films such as Ek Tha Tiger and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy for I fear they will pale in comparison to this flick. The movie isn't without it's problems - it approaches Die Another Day territory with its long running length and the feeling the movie keeps going when it should have ended.

    Damn isn't that opening credit sequence epically cool!


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