I was excited when I heard that Saif Ali Khan was remaking Agent Vinod, a film of the same name as one I had seen as a child, starring Mahendra Sandhu and Asha Sachdev (1977, dir. Deepak Bahry). The new film certainly pays homage to this earlier movie, although after seeing the trailers I was hoping for a slick and cool update of the tales of an Indian agent setting the world to rights. And in parts, this is what I got.
Agent Vinod, played by Saif Ali Khan, (we never learn his full name, and there are some playful moments where his true identity is in danger of being revealed) is an Indian RAW agent who discovers that a nuclear bomb is going to be set off in New Delhi. His adventures see him travel across international borders, meeting and disposing of gangsters and terrorists along the way. He crosses paths with the beautiful Iram Parveen Bilal/Dr. Tanya Ruby (Kareena Kapoor), who becomes his partner – she’s also a secret agent, but for Pakistan. It’s a nice touch that: an on screen Indo-Pak pairing by an off-screen real life Indian star couple (although there isn’t much chemistry between the two on screen, at least).
So what worked? The opening was a good action sequence in which Vinod breaks out of a terrorist prison and blows up his adversaries in front of some cartoon-esque graffiti of an Osama bin Laden-type character. The title credits roll, and they are ultra-stylish, with animation capturing scenes from the film itself. These titles aren’t wholly original – we’ve seen a version of the same technique in the film Tashan (2008, dir. Vijay Krishna Acharya), also starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Interestingly, Tashan’s credits were a pastiche of the credits of the Italian Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone), and this is a film that Agent Vinod directly references.
Interesting, too, is the Freddie Khambatta character – another name play on Agent Vinod’s identity and masquerade – only this time our lead action hero woos a gay flight attendant and grabs his identity. Saif is convincing and comfortable playing this role of a metrosexual, which is miles removed from earlier camp, sometimes derogatory, gay representations that we’ve seen previously in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The real excitement in this film, aside from some of the better action sequences, is the soundtrack, particularly the mixture of 1970s Hindi disco funk and Shaft-esque Blaxploitation genre music. The music is a real tour de force that ushers us along, almost jump cutting us through the sequences and histories in the film better than some of the editing itself.
The hotel room scene where we learn why Vinod chose to become a secret agent, and why Iram wants her everyday life back, are warm and touchingly delivered by our two leads. Audiences are also likely touched when they realize that although everyone in a movie theater might be strangers, what unites us with each other is a love and affection for Hindi cinema and songs from yesteryear, whether it’s the songs of Raj Kapoor or the Teri Rab Ne Banadi Jodi track from Suhaag (1979, dir. Manmohan Desai).
The only problem for me really was that the movie didn’t quite hang together as a coherent whole – it just doesn’t quite live up to the cool expectations that the trailer and gloss promise. Still, stay until the end credits if you can, because the Pungi track is both a wonderful assault on our surveillance culture as well as a masti-filled song and dance sequence performed with gusto by Saif Ali Khan.
Rajinder Dudrah is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Manchester, U.K., and author of ‘Bollywood: Sociology Goes to the Movies.’