“Vincent: All right. Well, you can walk into a movie theater in Amsterdam and buy a beer. And I don’t mean just like in no paper cup; I’m talking about a glass of beer. And in Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonald’s. And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the f#$k a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a “Royale with Cheese.”
(the above dialogue as we know is from Tarantino’s immortal film “Pulp Fiction”- a film which gave to the American pop-culture as much as it borrowed from it)
At a crucial juncture in this film, the narrative came to a sudden standstill for me- the scene shows an important character, at once, finding herself in the proverbial Hitchcockian motif of ‘the innocent man caught up in a an impossible situation’; the character is stranded, unable to fend off questions asked by our ‘agent’, with his/her only source of proving his/her innocence, seemingly lost. This tense situation in the film, is created by surreptitiously referring to Bachchan’s ‘Don’, wherein another character, who is a Pakistani Army General named ‘Ifthekar’ (the actor Ifthekar played DCP D’Silva in 1978 Don who also created a similar situation there too), is bumped-off….. This scene suddenly opened a pandora’s box of questions regarding the film itself and made me think about this- (1) This particular film, a rare Indian spy thriller which gives homage to a lot of old Hindi as well as Hollywood movies, is itself interestingly caught in the above-mentioned “Hitchcockian web”- the film comes at a time when movie audiences in India lie at a precarious position: they are exposed a lot to so-called superior Hollywood actioners but they still love to watch their native candy-floss cinema, being ‘neither here-nor there’. So, the members of this audience will clap and cheer at most of the sequences in this film but at the end, will come up with their ‘high-brow’ opinion that ‘the makers were trying to copy a hollywood film and they have failed miserably’ (incidentally something similar happened with me when a person sitting beside me, who was enjoying and wolf-whistling the film throughout its duration, at its completion, suddenly declared as if he has achieved nirvana, “dekho saif chalaa tha james bond banane, bakwaas film hai”). The point I am trying to make is that had this smart film arrived in the 90’s or at turn of the millennium,it would have found favour with majority of the Indian audiences as well as critics, as their minds would have remained unbiased, courtesy the less exposure to English films. (2) Similarly I believe that Amitabh’s Don (which is referenced here), though still a huge hit when released, would have been an even bigger deal commercially and critically, had it released during the 90’s when extremely mediocre stuff was being served in the name of ‘masala’. It was a product ahead of its time and so did not realize its full potential………..I brought this entire discussion to prove that a major reason for AV’s undoing would be the fact that it is situated at a very uneven cusp of timeline in Indian cinematic history
Now how much one enjoys this film depends on what one is looking for. Agent Vinod is not a ‘mystery thriller’, i.e. no major revelations (save one at the climax) and surprising plot-twists take place. It is essentially, a fairly straight forward ‘suspense thriller’. Much of the film is derived from foreign ‘pulp-fiction’ novels featuring ‘hard-boiled detectives’. I felt that apart from the 70’s bollywood thrillers, it also gets a part of its calculative tone from the works of eminent British writer, John le Carre (Tinker,tailor,soldier,spy). There is not much of Bond or Bourne here (except for certain references here and there, and the use of rapidly changing locations). But at his heart, our agent is completely ‘des’i- he not only has a slightly accented ‘angrezi’ but is also pitch-perfect with his Hindi dialogues-this makes you root for him in spite of not always connecting with his character.
A.V also has an unmistakable comic-book feel and approach towards scenes and events it encapsulates. An ominous scene in Moscow is an example of it- A tall female assassin is standing with a gun in an ‘exterior shot’, where an ‘artificial yet picturesque montage’ of ‘snowfall’ is created around her-the snowfall is intentionally made to look unreal-because it has to give the effect of how Siberian region would have been seen through a man’s eyes who has never gone to Russia and whose views about the country are based only on his comic book of 70’s i.e. the perception of Russia during old times which was limited to KGB, Siberia, Nuclear bomb and tall svelte ladies. We ask, why snowfall? Because, ‘snowfall’ is an iconic image of Russia. And in this image itself Raghavan (the director) deftly shows that he is acting here as the ‘instrument of his received influences from world-cinema and art’. Here he doffs his hat to Tarantino’s Kill Bill, where in Japan, The Bride battles with O-Ren inside a garden, with snow falling down.
Vinod is a ‘man who lives in the moment’. Throughout the movie he never has a pre-planned strategy but always uses his quick-wit and knowledge of the surroundings to come out of trouble. And so, perhaps in a case of poetic justice served, the film revels most in its spectacular, never- seen -before action set- pieces. One occurs in Morocco where Vinod engages in a neatly choreographed hand-to-hand combat with a goon- the specialty lies in the way this scene is filmed- as soon as Vinod sees the goon, both of them realize that they have fought each other before, so the sequence breaks out into 2 scenes with the help of ‘flashback’: the Morocco combat scene plays out in real-time which is simultaneously intermingled with an earlier fight scene set in Sri Lanka, both the scenes keep cutting back-and –forth and are united by the flashback device. The best part here is that when the Morocco sequence is shown, the background plays ‘pop music’ and when the scene is cut to Sri Lanka, a ‘Tamil tune’ breaks out. Also, carefully the director maintains that the fighting styles of both characters remain constant during both the scenes. The action here is rugged and metal-pounding-to- steel kind. Also the flashback sequence tells something about Vinod, that as soon as he knows that he has seen this goon before, he also remembers the tactic of defeating him, so he uses the same combat style to pulverize him and not surprisingly, the villain getting pounded in both sequences ….. The second set-piece is set in a ‘seedy motel’ where our Agent, along with Iram (kareena) ,engages in a 5 minute shootout, shot in slow-mo in a ‘single tracking sequence’ with a soulful ditty being played in the background. Raghavan’s usage of various rooms of the motel stands out with people continuously moving in and out, which adds to the surprise and gives the action an extra edge. As to the logic of musical score in an action sequence- well, it makes the shootout not just a typical slam-bang feature but an ‘exercise in meditation’, it is where the ‘action’ transcends its boundaries and becomes ‘poetry in motion.’ Because as our spy ‘seems to think only while he acts’, one perhaps needed the slow-motion to get a feel of what he is thinking.
Now comes the most interesting and problematic part of the film- and both are due to the central MacGuffin around which this tale is woven. The MacGuffin itself is very innovatively conceptualized and when simply spoken as a MacGuffin, it is doozy. Here the Macguffin is made up of two parts (or rather there are 2 macguffins, which causes most of the problem)-the central one is an oddly designed nuclear bomb (design again has its root in pop-art).the 2nd one is more interesting, it is an Arab Rubaiyat( a book having a collection of sublime romantic poems by Omar Khayyam). This Rubaiyat is actually a detonator of the bomb… This again brings us to an interesting concept-the nuclear bomb and the Rubaiyat- two “defining articles’ of 2 different eras, 2 iconic parts of 2 different civilizations. Both have them have left indelible impression in their own historical timelines and popular-cultures. Sadly one creates love and the other war. Then what is the point behind the amalgamation of two? It is to tell us an oft-overlooked fact- that there was an Arab where romance reigned and now here is an Arab which is produces death in the form of terrorism. To again bring back the era of Khayyam, we require a man who is a synonym of bravery, a man who can bridge nations and their differences, a death-defying spy who wears his heart (and attitude) on his sleeve but is too well-dressed to show it.
Now comes the major problem. Raghavan, who excels in set pieces, fails somewhat in bringing them all together in a cohesive enough manner. The movie never equals the some of its gob-smacking parts. It is as if Raghvan, Saif and the team had set out to win a titanic war which involved winning over different genres like Hollywood noir, comic-book influences, contemporary nation politics, terrorism element and throwback to bollywood- but here the MacGuffin which is supposed to be the mountain around which these Titanic genres are chained, is not grounded strongly in its material. Part of the problem is that there two MacGuffins. The sequence involving the Rubaiyat hooks you completely but the nuclear bomb storyline is a bit of a let-down. ‘There was just too much at stake in this game, by just finding out what 242(part of the macguffin) is one couldn’t clinch this one.’ Sadly our Vinod did not realize it.
The film has a constant tone of underlying humour which is not necessarily ‘black’ all the time. Most of it is attained via Saif’s laconic dialogue delivery-sample this- A police agent, in Latvia, comes to Vinod and Iram telling them they are required to answer certain questions about a certain fellow’s death. Vinod, flatly and impeccably replies-“Moscow aur Morocco ki police bhi hamse poochh-taachh karna chahti hai, aap kataar mein hain” (meaning thereby that police of 2 other countries also want to enquire them, so u will have to stand in the queue). The dialogues are very effective but are slightly below expectation when compared to Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar( a superior but less riskier film) which had gems like “It’s not about the age, it’s about the mileage.” There is also situational comedy and black-humour at its best. A shoot-out in a public place is accompanied by a Charile Chaplin film being shown in that place. After our hero and his partner survive the shootout, a hilarious dialogue appears on screen as if to declare the success of teir escape, this is filmed in a long-shot telling us 3 things we often forget- 1)Tragedy, when viewed by a long-shot, becomes a comedy. 2) A comedy is always someone else’s tragedy. 3) A comedy, in theatrical and cinematic terms, is nothing but a ‘sequence/story which ends happily’. Raghavan teaches us so many through a splendid use of an immortal character-Chaplin
This film, in many ways is a ‘romantic’ film. It tells me to have a romancewith the hero and its style, so that I love him unconditionally without questioning him or the director about the reasons behind a lot of our hero’s actions. If it would not have been for romance, why, during a staged auction in the film, would there be a fleeting mention of the greatest romantic film ‘Casablanca’ and its lead Humphry Bogart. In many ways this film is also similar to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones- because A.V. just like Indie, is more an ‘adventure film’ than an action film, because both films hurtle at a break-neck pace forcing us to invest our faith in their central leads. And more importantly because both films are not ‘entertainment’ but ‘pure fun’ (entertainment is when our cinematic fun is corrupted by things like sleaze and sex,’ fun’ for me will always be unadulterated and pure).
Slowly, bit-by-bit, joy and fun is being sucked out of today’s films. Last year’s ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ and this year’s ‘Agent Vinod’ restored a bit of them because they both had a ‘hero’ in them, one who does not leave his humour behind while saving the world. Agent Vinod , is far from a flawless but then so are most of the films. What matters is that it is ambitious (just like spielberg’s sagas). On this ambition of this film, I will quote Ghalib and end my note-
“bahut nikle mere armaan par phir bhi kam nikle”