Farz, Aankhen, and the Influence of James Bond on Indian Cinema
It may have taken until 1983’s Octopussy for James Bond to visit India, but 007’s influence on the subcontinent’s cinema stretches back much farther, part of a global phenomenon that produced hundreds of swanky spy films that adapted the Bond template for a specific industry’s prevailing aesthetic, moral tastes, access to locations, and budget. When one writes about international spy films, one eventually grows weary of typing the phrase, “In the wake of Goldfinger…” and yet one must do, because the impact of Goldfinger sent shock waves through the industry of just about every film-producing country on the planet. There were two Bond films before it (Doctor No, 1962, and From Russia with Love, 1963) as well as eleven original novels by Ian Fleming (starting with Casino Royale, 1952, and running through 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Fleming’s twelfth 007 novel, You Only Live Twice, was published in 1964, the same year as Goldfinger the movie was released), but it was Goldfinger that, in the opinion of many, perfected the Bond formula and inspired the wave of imitators (as well as contrarians aiming to subvert or combat the James Bond film style).
Starting shortly after Goldfinger‘s release, the world was flooded with spy films and television shows. Far and away the most prolific industry was Europe, so much so that “Eurospy” has become the term for a whole cycle of films bearing a certain style and usually—but not always—made in Europe (the goofball Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin, for example, are American productions, but they’re very much Eurospy in their sensibilities). European productions had the advantage of easy access to a variety of stunning locations and a cooperative environment in which French, italian, Spanish, and German productions (as the industry leaders) could swap casts, crews, resources, and locales—with Turkey sometimes getting in on the co-production action as well (but also maintaining their own healthy domestic spy film output). In Asia, especially after the release of You Only Live Twice (which opens in Hong Kong and takes place largely in Japan with a cast of well-known Japanese stars alongside Sean Connery), Japan and Hong Kong led the way, producing dozens of candy-colored spy films (such as Key of Keys, Golden Eyes, and Ironfinger in Japan; Golden Buddha, Brain Stealers, and a whole series of “Jane Bond” films starring the likes of Connie Chan and Josephine Siao in Hong Kong) that leaned heavily into the mod-est and most pop art aspects of mid-1960s design. James Bond himself may not have been able to bear the racket of the Beatles, but Japanese and Hong Kong productions both were more than willing to draft the fashion and music of youth culture into their productions.
In south Asia, the film production behemoth India, anchored by Bollywood but composed of sundry production regions with their own distinct flare, certainly wasn’t going to be left out of the fun. However, compared to Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, and the United States, India had a much more complicated national and moral identity to navigate. The sex and violence (of James Bond films may have raised the ire of certain critics and moral watchdog groups, but ultimately, they and most of their imitators were able to get away with quite a lot. In India, by contrast, onscreen kissing—something the other industries didn’t think twice about—was taboo. Even Turkey, where you would think certain Muslim moral imperatives would impact film content, was pretty much a free-for-all during the 1960s and ’70s.
Additionally, the concept of nationalism and patriotism, almost completely absent in most 1960s spy films except as perfunctory window dressing, was serious business in India, which had gained its independence from Great Britain only in 1947 and, at the same time, had undergone an extremely contentious partition which created a second country, Pakistan. Animosity between the two countries, thanks in large part to predictably poor insight on the part of Britain but also stemming from long-standing issues between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority, was instant, and in fact remains a globe-impacting geopolitical issue still today. As such, “king and country”—or “prime minister and country”—was much more important in India than it was in the average Bond film, where the Russians may show up but one hardly gets the feeling that anything important is truly at stake other than 007 and SMERSH trying to outmaneuver one another for fun.
Farz: The First
Farz (1967), India’s first foray into the world of post-Goldfinger espionage films bears many of the characteristics that defined the genre across the globe—cool clothes, slim suits, sexy sirens, handsome heroes, assassins in Wayfarer sunglasses, flashy locales, off-the-wall spy gadgets, and a smirking attitude—but it also has some uniquely Indian elements, such as taking patriotism much more seriously and wearing scarves at all times of year. And yes, it and song and dance numbers as well, but honestly, so many spy films of the era relied so heavily on music and on nightclub scenes that Bollywood’s fondness for musical items doesn’t seem all that out of place.
Aesthetics were one of the most important elements of the Bond films (At the time Doctor No was released, England, and much of Europe was still grappling with the horrors of World War Ii and the grim-post war austerity measures that helped people survive but created a drab existence; it’s snappy, color-saturated style in a world still so grey was a big reason why it succeeded),. Farz may not measure up to the production values of Bond, but it manages to achieve, at the very least, the level of some of the mid-tier Eurospy films from the same period. And calling any of these films “mid-tier” is absolutely not a reflection of their potential to entertain. Farz, for example, obviously suffers from a low budget (though it’s hard to tell whether some of the film’s crudity—abrupt music cue changes, choppy edits, etc.—is actually part of the film, or whether it evolved after decades of prints being abused and spliced), and it takes several missteps, but it’s hardly an unenjoyable film, even if at times it taxes one’s patience. I’m sure many modern viewers, watching Sean Connery swagger across a hotel lobby and go through the entire process of checking in, might feel the same way about Doctor No.
Actually, Farz really only takes one big misstep, though it’s enough of a misstep to kill the film dead in its tracks any time it surfaces. I am speaking of the odious slapstick comic relief that comes in the form of a couple of bumbling brothers who become the loyal sidekicks of our main hero. Their sub-Sammy Petrillo/Duke Mitchell quality shtick is unfunny immediately upon making itself known, and from time to time when the film needs to pad itself out and they don’t have a musical number handy, they’ll cut to five minutes of these idiots walking into walls or grabbing each other by the shoulders and falling down. So steel yourself and keep the faith. If you can endure their bits, the rest of Farz is going to shower you with mod white suits and Chelsea boots.
From Hindustan, Orders to Thrill
Farz kick things off with a dastardly plot already in progress: terrorists are trying to blow up a dam. Luckily, heroic Indian secret agent 303 is on the case with his trusty camera to capture the bad guys red -anded. He could have also considered shooting them or perhaps arranging ahead of time, since he obviously knew where they were going to be, for some sort of security force to swoop in and capture anyone. But I guess these were simpler times, and so instead he takes pictures of them and their car, shoots a little, then rushes off to…file his report? Develop his secret film? No. He rushes off to visit his younger sister, Kamla. He does at least take time out to call his superior officer and tell him he has some important information, though apparently not important enough to tell right then and there. He drops the film off to be developed not at a secret spy facility, but at a photomat down on the corner. I’m starting to think our hero not only isn’t James Bond, but he’s barely even Johnny English. But then, it’ll turn out he’s not our hero at all.
The terrorist organization consists of five guys who are constantly berated by their boss. The secret underground terrorist lair leaves a considerable amount to be desired, consisting as it does of some cool Mario Bava-esque lighting and a folding card table with a rotary phone on it. Here’s a tip for all who aspire to be a henchman for some megalomaniacal would-be world conqueror. If, on the day of your interview, you get a tour of the secret underground lair and it is furnished only with a folding card table, pass on whatever offer you are given. In fact, don’t join up with any secret globe-conquering society that has a folding card table anywhere, let alone in the main control room. And if the main control room also doubles as storage space for crates and boxes…I don’t know. Maybe the guy is new and villainy and just hasn’t had time to unpack. He probably just bought Blofeld’s former secret lair off the EvilBay auction site, and he doesn’t get five minutes to set his stuff up before he’s having to slap around incompetent henchmen.
The terrorists pile into their station wagon and track Agent 303 to his sister’s house, where they plant a time bomb in the engine of his car. They could have just shot him, but I guess they figure he went easy on them back at the dam, so it’s the least they can do. The bomb is apparently set to go off many hours later, because 303 drives around, takes care of a few errands, and finally parks his car at a dead end before the bomb goes off, leading to a shoot-out in which our noble hero is gunned down and stabbed by a sexy femme fatale. Man what a way for the hero to start a film. Oops, wait. He’s dead. I guess he’s not the hero after all.
Farz‘s actual hero is Gopal, aka Agent 116, played by future superstar Jeetendra in one of his earliest lead roles. Gopal is introduced doing what all good spies do during their off time: frolicking in the hills with a sexy woman in cool 1960s fashion. The call of duty interrupts their courtship, however, which is at least better than a courtship, and Gopal is assigned to pick up Agent 303’s case, track down the killers, and spoil whatever nefarious plot they might be hatching. En route to doing this he meets a beautiful socialite named Sunita, played by yet another future superstar, Babita Kapoor (also the future superstar mother of superstar daughters Karisma and Kareena Kapoor).
Like many of the Bond imitators but unlike the Bond films themselves, Jeetendra’s Agent 116 is hipper to modern youth culture—less Sean Connery, more Elvis, especially in his signature slim cut white suit with matching white Chelsea boots. When he wears a tuxedo, he accessorizes with a Kentucky Colonel style ribbon tie. Now that’s class. Plus, he’s got Elvis’ pompadour, and the musical nature of Bollywood cinema means that this makes an excellent double bill with Elvis’ own half-hearted stab at a James Bond film, Double Trouble (also released in 1967). Naturally, Gopal falls instantly in love with Sunita, but in all honesty, who wouldn’t? The only problem is that her father, Damodar (Sajjan), happens to be the leader of the terrorists! And so begins a series of action set-pieces that require Gopal to run up and down a whole lot of stairs, fight big heavy guys, and partake in lavish dance parties. Most of Gopal’s mission revolves around recovering the lost film, which seems rather a moot mission considering that about five minutes into the assignment, the goons are attacking him over and over. You’d think that after you’ve seen each of them several times, shot a few of them, and seen them constantly piling in and out of the same station wagon, the photos of them would become needless. But I guess Gopal needs something to do in between Sunita’s various parties and trading witty barbs with her father.
Along for the ride are a couple of bumbling comic relief brothers who manage to be so far away from funny that they circle all the way back around to funny, but then pass that and jet still further out into the very nether regions of unfunny. One of them is short and has giant Khrushchev eyebrows. The other is blind as a bat and thus serves as Gopal’s driver. Gopal must think they’re about as useful as I do, because he frequently sends them on off-screen tasks, and thank God for it, because when they are on screen, this movie screeches to a halt. The annals of unfunny comic relief are stuffed to bursting, but these two really reached those rarefied airs of unfunny that only the most odious of odious comic relief can hope to attain. They achieve total unfunniness nirvana.
Although much is made of the sex and violence of James Bond films being the primary reason for their appeal and/or moral bankruptcy, it was the gestalt fantasy they offered that made them so much more successful than other spy films. Sure, for British viewers of a certain political alignment, there was satisfaction in a world where England, post-Empire, was still a major global player, but that aspect of the Bond films didn’t mean much to the rest of the world. But those brilliant locations—bright, colorful, exotic—and that amazing sense of fashion…those things had universal appeal. International travel not related to war was still a rarity for most people, as was haute couture. But via James Bond, a viewer in rural Buckner, Kentucky or a marginal working-class neighborhood in Birmingham, England could trot the globe attired in the most stylish of clothes, eating and drinking lavishly and without regard for finances. Farz was India’s chance at the same, and while the movie doesn’t hop from country to country, it certainly goes all in on fashion…but, once again, with a uniquely Indian cinema flare that sports an openness to youth culture and outlandish mod fashion than would ever surface in a James Bond movie.
In particular, there is an outfit worn by luckless Agent 303’s sister, Kamla (Kanchana), who has been tricked by Sunita’s dastardly father into thinking Gopal is the villain. This leads to her, through typically convoluted Bollywood fashion, attempting to seduce Gopal by dancing around his mod hotel room whilst wearing…I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like this, well, you see…OK. She has these leopard print bell bottom pants, right? And they’re skin-tight, only they seem to be padded or at least cut Jodhpur style. And then she has a shiny pink top trimmed with leopard skin, and the whole thing is topped off with a sort of floppy pink and leopard skin hat. It is quite possibly the most astoundingly awful yet hypnotic outfit I’ve seen this side of a Jess Franco film.
Eventually, we learn that Sunita’s father is naught but a pawn of some sinister shadow organization, and in a dramatic turn of events, it doesn’t turn out to be Pakistani in origin. I’m pretty sure they’re Chinese, but it’s hard to tell, because a grimacing Indian guy in fake eyelids and yellow face make-up is scarcely any more convincing than a Caucasian in the same. The villain is Chinese, however, not because Farz has much to say about the state of Sino-Indian relations, because he has to be, since the finale of Farz is a rip-off of Doctor No. It’s also pretty awesome.
Live and Let Pie Fight
Despite the cringe-inducing comedic scenes, Farz is a pretty good first attempt for India at a Bond-style espionage adventure. It takes its nationalism far more seriously than Bond or any of the Eurospy films would have ever dared. While Europe had entered a phase in which such flag-waving patriotism was considered out of fashion, at best, India was still serious about it. That said, Farz is hardly a serious film. It may not be Bond, but it’s not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, either. Jeetendra makes for an energetic, likable secret agent with a spectacular wardrobe, and Babita Kapoor is to die for, even if she has almost nothing to contribute to the film other than herself in an array of gorgeous outfits. That’s enough. She certainly doesn’t contribute much to the dancing, despite instigating so much of it. Babita, it turns out, was famously flat-footed when it came to this crucial aspect of Indian cinema. No less that Indian megastar Shammi Kapoor publicly marveled at her inability to learn even the most basic of steps.
But if Babita wasn’t a great dancer, it was made up for by the fact that she wasn’t a great actress, either. She realistically described herself as a “flowerpot” in her films, paid to look pretty and get rescued by the hero, who is busily dancing his heart out and judo chopping guys. Babita’s performance in Farz isn’t bad at all, though, and it’s not like she has a lot to work with. She doesn’t carry the weight of the film the way Jeetendra does, with his jumping all over the place and giving smoldering rock and roll looks to the camera as he flops his pompadour down into his face in that way we all know drives the ladies wild. His youthful enthusiasm mixed with Babita’s two left feet (it only makes me love her more) actually resulted in the development of a new style of movie dancing. Thus was born a more aerobic form we see still in many films, with less formal dancing and more just sort of running around, jumping, and tumbling.
If you are looking to explore India’s contributions to the James Bond spy craze, Farz is important because it was more or less the first. For that reason alone, you should give it a go. And if you need other reasons, there’s Babita looking dreamy, Jeetendra looking steamy, and Kamla wearing that nightmarish leopard woman attire. It has some trippy lighting and camera work, some decent action, a great finale and villain, and good music and musical numbers. In fact, people who don’t care for Indian films are often told to just fast forward through the musical numbers, but let me suggest this instead. Since the music here is awesome, watch the music numbers but fast forward through any scene involving the bumbling brothers. You’ll be much happier watching Babita pose than you will watching those two bump their heads and fall down.
Farz became a pretty big hit. Jeetendra was transformed into a bona fide leading man, and Babita sustained a decent career despite her limitations, until she finally retired to become a business manager for her even more successful daughters. However, Farz is far from the best Bond-imitation India has to offer. The movie directly inspired by Farz‘ success, Aankhen (1968), uses many of the same elements but does them better and without a lengthy pie fight. And seriously, man, all of sudden there are like ten thousand pies in that scene. Why were there so many pies? It just doesn’t make any sense at all!
All Eyes on Aankhen
You Only Live Twice, a James Bond movie full of ninjas, hollowed-out volcanoes, egg-shaped monorail pods, and Sean Connery as the world’s most convincing Japanese man, was released in 1967. The Eurospy trend was in full-swing by then, and YOLT‘s Asian locations encouraged Japan and Hong Kong to get in on the fun as well. The result is that, soaked in the psychedelic, pop-art sensibilities of the mid-to-late 1960s, a lot of great spy movies were being made across the globe. Indian cinema, which has always been packed with insane set decoration, candy coloring, and fabulous outfits, would seem tailor-made to pump out more than a few eye-popping entries into the world of psychotronic spyjinks. And they didn’t let us down. Farz, an Indian espionage thriller that did major business at the box office, was released in 1967. A year later, and doubtless under the influence of both Farz and You Only Live Twice, writer-director Ramanand Sagar gave us Aankhen, another great Bollywood spy film, but this time with the budget to trot the globe in classic James Bond style.
Aankhen is a straight-forward film padded out with musical numbers and a multitude of subplots, all of which are pretty good. There are more secret passages and trap doors than can be kept track of; there are hidden cameras, hidden transmitters, underground lairs, quick-change disguise kits, fist fights, machine gun fights, femme fatale princesses, swank nightclubs, scantily-clad dancing girls, and guys in slim-cut suits and Wayfarer sunglasses punching each other in the face. There’s boat chases and car chases and guys dressed as Arabs. There’s gorgeous travelogue footage of Japan and Beirut from when Beirut was the hip, freewheeling capital of the Middle East. And of course, there’s a villain with a monocle, and he puts a little kid dressed as a Roman soldier into one of those spiked-wall- chambers. Everything drips with that highly stylized pop-art look that defined sixties spy films.
There are also a few things that set Aankhen apart from other spy films of the period. For starters, most spy films played it tongue-in-cheek. Politics almost never entered into the picture. Sure, James Bond may have been fighting the Russians, but he wasn’t really fighting the Russians. You didn’t go to a James Bond film to get all worked up about hating the Soviet Union. In fact, real-world politics were nothing but window dressing for an espionage fantasy world, so much so that the Bond movies quickly dropped SMERSH and the Russians as their primary villains and relied on the shady comic-book style secret society SPECTRE for its go-to villainy. The European Bond knock-offs were even more fantastic and less concerned with serious politics. They were escapist adventure, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, but not reflective of any sort of reality and not really concerned with communicating any sort of meaning other than, “Drinking a martini while wearing a tuxedo looks cool.”
Aankhen on the other hand, like its predecessor Farz, takes its patriotic politics seriously. The action is punctuated by public service announcements about the righteousness of fighting for the glory of Mother India. They’re never as ham-handed and heavy as they would get in the 1980s and ’90s, but they’re still more serious about it than, say, Our Man Flint was about teaching us the evils of Communism when instead it could focus on the allure of flexible Russian ballerinas. At the same time however, while the patriotic bravado of Aankhen might be serious, it also seems largely like last-minute lip service, the heroic justification before it gets back to guys in bishts shooting at each other with machine guns.
Something else that sets Aankhen apart from many other Bollywood films is Mala Sinha. Not only is she willing to wear a flabbergasting green sombrero (more on that in a bit); she also splits her time between shouldering the bulk of the movie’s musical numbers and gunning down evil spies. Circa 1968, Bollywood women—and let’s face it, women in cinema from all over the world—were still spending most of their time in action films waiting to be rescued by the hero. Not so Mala Sinha’s Meenakshi. She’s slinking about in a cocktail dress in one scene, then prowling about some ruins with a machine gun in the next. She’s the leader of the spy ring. She’s the one that does the romantic stalking. Her romantic obsession might be a bit melodramatic, but that’s just the style of these movies. It doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s a character who manages to be a gun-toting, Capri-pant-wearing ass-kicker, rather than being either the damsel in distress, the saintly mother, or the sinister femme fatale. Mala became famous for both being one of the first actresses to demand more from a female character than being window dressing, and for showing a keen interest in using the fame that came her way to help launch the careers of young up-and-comers—such her Aankhen co-star, Dharmendra.
The Spy Who Loved Dharmendra
Dharmendra, still early in his career in 1968, became one of India’s biggest stars, and was the father of another one of its biggest stars, Sunny Deol. Starring as Aankhen‘s hero, Sunil, Dharmendra looks every bit the dashing, globe-trotting spy in his array of suits and sunglasses. He turns in a credible performance, handling himself well in the movie’s action scenes as well as during its swinging romantic interludes. Sunil is the son of India’s number one spy and great hero of the war. As such, he has a lot to live up to. Not that this is a movie about the son trying to emerge from the shadow of a larger-than-life father. I’m sure you can get that in other Indian films, but the tone of this one is basically, “Sunil’s dad was a total bad-ass, and so is Sunil!”
Sunil finds himself in mortal combat against a group of terrorists whose primary mode of operation is to stage acts of violence that will incite the Indian populace into riots against the government, who in turn will think the original violence was perpetrated by dissidents within their own society. Thus, the terrorists can limit themselves to a few surgical strikes that turn India against itself, leaving the terrorists plenty of time to recline in their sprawling underground lairs, laughing menacingly as they put their finishing touches on their spiked-wall torture chambers. But the good and righteous Indian people aren’t going to stand by and let their country be torn asunder. Knowing that the government is simply stretched too thin to effectively deal with so insidious an enemy, groups of private citizens have formed their own counter-terrorism and spy rings.
One such group is headed up by Major Saab (Nasir Hussain), who has a giant global radio system hidden behind a revolving bookcase, which makes marginal sense at best since every time someone calls him on it, the set makes a deafening beeping noise that can be heard seemingly throughout the entire house. The major’s star operative is the dashing young Sunil, who has been spending time in Japan—ostensibly studying to become a judo master, though we never see anything of his training. I always thought that becoming a master of any martial art required that you train twenty hours a day and spend the other four sitting shirtless underneath a waterfall, but Sunil seems to spend most of his time joyriding around Japan as part of various tourist groups. This gives the movie an opportunity to do two important things: show off lots of travelogue footage of Japanese locations (Japan was chosen because of You Only Live Twice) and give Sunil an opportunity to meet half-Japanese, half-Indian Meenakshi (Sinha herself was half-Nepalese).
Meenakshi falls instantly in love with Sunil, because that’s how Bollywood rolls. In a change of pace, she’s the one who relentlessly pursues the coy object of her affection through a musical number which showcases a pretty amazing outfit capped by a giant floppy green sombrero. When jumping out the bushes in said outfit and busting out in song doesn’t frighten Sunil away permanently, and when he performs admirably in a scintillating paddle boat chase (at least they weren’t in giant swans), she decides he is definitely the man for her. Although Sunil seems interested in this possibly batshit crazy beauty, he’s also hesitant to commit since he walks a dangerous path that “rubs hard on death.” So he must spurn her advances and the charming things she does, like stealing his mail and reading all his personal correspondence (“Who taught you how to spy?” the spy asks. “Love!” the insane woman responds back with giddy glee).
News comes that Sunil’s brother has been killed while trying to bust up a weapons smuggling ring that’s been shipping guns and explosives from Beirut to India. The villain is absurdly, gloriously evil and spends the whole movie laughing in an evil fashion while wearing an evil monocle and giving evil arch-villain speech about evil. So Sunil and Aankhen jet off to Beirut to defeat this guy. Sunil meets with Indian patriot Mehmood (played by Mehmood, which is convenient) and a spy ring currently operating under the guise of a traveling cabaret dance troupe, because what else would spies in a Bollywood film travel as? Everyone dresses fabulously, except for when they’re in disguise, as the disguises are either the aforementioned sheik robes or Sunil’s two choice disguises: “crazy fakir” and “Turk in a loud blazer.” It turns out that the leader of the dance troupe/espionage ring is India’s top female operative—Meenakshi! So it wasn’t love at all that taught her how to spy; it was being a spy!
So let’s review. Two sexy heroes. Cackling villain with a monocle. Kid in a spike chamber. Good action scenes. Exotic, globe-trotting locations. Cool outfits. Big green sombrero. What’s left? Oh yeah, the musical numbers, most of which are staged by Meenakshi and her troupe of spy-dancers. One of the numbers involves Sunil’s sister singing to Krishna to save her missing son. Could have done without that one, really. Mithun’s song to Krishna in Disco Dancer was much better. But the number with Mala and her troupe dressed up as belly dancers makes up for just about anything that smacks of religious piety. The songs themselves are performed by the big names of the time: Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Asha Bhosle. They’re all pretty good, and the background score is a swinging combination of orchestration, cocktail jazz, and twanging spy guitar music.
Even with the breaks for filler and a woman on her knees singing to Krishna, we still get a film that fills most of its running time with sneaking about, secret chambers, spying, and gun fights. It was a big budget production, and they make sure every penny shows up on the screen, even if there are occasional shortfalls. I mean, we’re not talking a Ken Adams hollowed-out volcano or anything, but the film is at least as slick and jet-set looking as your higher echelon of Matt Helm or Eurospy films, and the combination of typically overblown Bollywood opulence with psychedelic sixties pop-art is a sure-win situation. Aankhen doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but it executes the sixties spy formula with panache, energy, and while wearing canary yellow toreador pants and a giant green sombrero.