The lower end of the bell
Romeo Akbar Walter

As cinema’s favorite spy James Bond returns to screens for the 25th time in No Time to Die (2021), a dialogue from the recent Bollywood spy film BellBottom is worth noting. “Kehne ko toh hum India ke James Bond hain, lekin petrol bhi khud bharna padta hai (I’m the Indian James Bond, so to speak, but I have to pay even for the fuel)”, remarks Akshay Kumar, who plays the most great spy-than-nature. The line is revealing on several levels. From a storytelling standpoint, this is indicative of the obsession our spy movies typically have for 007; the desire to locate him in our agents on reel or at least to refer to him.

In the past just one and a half years, two dozen movies and web series have been released in this genre.

The spy movie craze, driven by box office profits, essentially started with Neeraj Pandey’s thriller Baby (2015).

Director Ranjit Tewari’s 125-minute spy thriller was the first big-ticket Hindi film to hit theaters since the second wave of Covid-19. At a time when most cinemas across the country have remained closed, the film generated a modest, but commendable box office income of Rs18 crore during its opening week. What has worked for this is the genre, said business analyst Taran Adarsh. He added that there is a “growing hunger” for the genre in India.

This has naturally been met with a range of “mind-blowing” offerings – movies, series, short films and more – across all platforms. In the past just a year and a half, two dozen movies and web series have been released in this genre, nearly half of which were released in 2021. And more are in the works. The Kangana Ranaut-starrer Dhaakad is being made on a budget of Rs80 crore and is the most expensive female directed film ever made in India. The directors of Siddharth Malhotra star Mission Majnu, written by BellBottom writers Parveez Sheikh and Aseem Arora, hope to release the film in theaters “as soon as possible.”

The OTT space has also been filled with content based on the intelligence community. Take for example Hotstar’s Special Ops, in which Kay Kay Menon plays an R&AW officer. The popularity of the show was such that the creators announced a multi-series special ops universe. Shivam Nair, who led special ops with Neeraj Pandey, said Indians are rediscovering their love for stories far removed from boilers and “absurd depictions of superhuman spies.”

He said the public now wanted “realistic realism” and not heroes who could fight with half a dozen types of swords or drive like a rally car champion. “They want realistic heroes who can make mistakes and aren’t afraid of failure,” Nair told THE WEEK. He had previously collaborated with Pandey for another spy thriller Naam Shabana (2017). The Tapsee Pannu-starrer showed a young woman’s transition into her new life as an intelligence agent. Although it was a gripping story, it was topped with ingredients from a typical Bollywood boiler.

Over time, Nair and Pandey’s treatment of a spy thriller became sharper and more erudite. Special Ops is more nuanced, tightly scripted, and closer to the ground. “We’ve all moved on,” said Nair. “We want the story to be as real as possible. No unnecessary creative freedom was taken. We met some real officers and I think that made all the difference.

Action Time: Manoj Bajpayee in The Family Man.
Alia Bhatt in Raazi
John Abraham in Roméo Akbar Walter
World of Spies: Kay Kay Menon plays an R&AW officer in Special Ops.

But this is not always easy, especially when it comes to real events related to undercover operations. “After all, what part of the actual operation can we know? Asked Amar Butala, one of the producers of Mission Majnu, which was billed as “The untold story of India’s biggest covert operation”.

“As most of these are covert operations, little is known about them and R&AW will only provide a limited amount of information,” said Butala. “The rest needs to be padded to make it really ready for entertainment.” He added that there are bound to be freedoms taken, although every effort is made to ensure the sanctity of the story. “Or else the public will not accept it,” he said.

Hindi cinema has not always had such clarity regarding the treatment of spy thrillers. “For example, a film like The Great Gambler (1979), despite its element of espionage, is also a romantic film and an action film,” said Harmanpreet Kaur, assistant professor, School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “Having said that, several Hindi films have borrowed elements from the American noir style for crime / thriller / detective films framed in the Indian context. Some films from the 1960s and 1970s have also borrowed elements from the British Bond films in terms of heroes. , wicked and femme fatales. ”

In recent years, a pattern has emerged. Stories are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Those like the Tiger franchise directed by Salman Khan lean toward hyper masculinity, machismo, action, and melodrama. On the other end of the spectrum is director Raazi (2018) of Meghna Gulzar, which is a different genre of spy thriller, a far cry from the boisterous, chauvinistic and glamorous version of spies you usually find in movies. hindis. The protagonist, Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat is gritty, but sensitive. Her transformation from student to patriot is not dramatic, but a natural progression under dangerous circumstances.

Romeo Akbar Walter (2019) director Robbie Grewal said it was the second, most grounded type of storytelling that is now being followed in a big way. “Our spies are mostly rooted in fact and we are able to tell the hero stories of the 1960s and 1970s through more layered and believable storylines,” he said. Romeo Akbar Walter, directed by John Abraham, is set in 1971, but it wasn’t a true story. The plot was filled with predictable tropes, including doomed romance, and didn’t make an impact.

Grewal said that the “true story element” in films like Raazi made them more believable than Romeo Akbar Walter’s fiction. But, he added that the good thing was that there was a better appreciation for the heroism of our secret agents. “So you’re going to see a lot more stories like this and there are so many more out there waiting to be told,” he said. “Personally, I know of several scripts that are circulating that will see the light of day early next year.”

According to experts, this box office-fueled spy movie craze essentially started with Pandey’s fantasy writing for the seat-board thriller Baby (2015). The film’s success paved the way for a number of other gripping and less gripping thrillers. In fact, Naam Shabana was a spin-off set in Baby’s universe. Nair said that now with OTT platforms it is much more rewarding to watch content like this. “An episodic series gives you enough space to explore the complexity of your characters and develop them,” he said.

This is how the Amazon Original The Family Man, along with Manoj Bajpayee, came to command a cult. Aparna Purohit, head of India Originals, Amazon Prime Video, said the secret to The Family Man’s success is pretty straightforward. “We haven’t recreated an Indian 007 clone or adapted a format for a worldwide hit spy thriller,” she said. “We envisioned an ordinary middle-class man, Srikant Tiwari, who also happens to be a spy, and we stuck with that vision. A father of a family who eats pav vada, with a zeal to serve and protect his country.

So what’s the recipe for an ideal spy thriller? Unpredictability, an exciting adventure and relativity are aspects on which most stakeholders agree. Director Ken Ghosh said: “When Ian Fleming wrote James Bond novels it was after WWII when there were already stories of spies, secret agents and people working behind it. enemy lines. ” People in the US and UK knew about these stories, he said. “In India, there have been a lot of unsung heroes in the intelligence community,” he said. “They weren’t part of our psyche so we borrowed from the western world. It is only now that we hear stories of [people] who played such a crucial role in intelligence and therefore we are now ready to accept these films and watch them more.


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