The reel spy world
It has been a good year for the Intelligence world, courtesy Bollywood. First there was Kahani last year; then came Vishwaroopam, Ek Tha Tiger, D-Day and now Madras Cafe, in rapid succession. Kahani was excellent, Vidya Balan was superb and the story kept you engrossed till the end.
Ek tha Tiger was more sitting through that rather unwatchable James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, with songs thrown in. It is somewhat like an advert join the R&AW and see the world from Turkey to South Africa with mostly implausible escapist stuff that was popular in the 1960s but fun for most of us, anyway. This was a time-pass story where our man came out smelling of roses having won the heart of a Pakistani ISI girl. That was the icing on the cake.
Vishwaroopam was better, with an intricate plot and the R&AW agents cover story as a Kathak dance instructor in New York was a bit novel for some but hopefully everyone appreciated the kind of things intelligence officers have to endure for king and country! This was a film definitely worth watching as it helped enhance one’s feel good factor. It is believed that there will be a sequel to this and one did not quite understand the Tamil Nadu angst about this film.
It got even better with the next film, D-Day. One reason perhaps was that this was based on a well known fact that was thinly disguised in the film — the hunt for Dawood Ibrahim. As always Irrfan Khan’s acting as the R&AW deep cover agent in Karachi and his typical understated power was evident. The pace was fast and it held one’s interest till the end even when there was a tragedy in the triumph and the loneliness of an agent on the run. The death of an agent in an enemy country is a particularly poignant moment for his handler because he cannot ever acknowledge the agent’s contribution.
The last one on the list, Madras Cafe, has perhaps been the best, once again because it is based on some historical facts and an imaginative use of some incidents. The film alternates between the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka and the assassination of a former prime minister. One can always quibble about some detail but the essential point in the film are the tensions and anxieties in the lives of intelligence officers at headquarters or those assigned to a mission and the ultimate nightmare of an intelligence agency — the mole.
When the lead character, Vikram Singh (nice ring to that!) explained to his frightened wife about the protocol for wives in his trade, it touched a chord. This protocol was the rule of not telling one’s wife, children and families about the nature and dangers of assignments for their own safety. A life of several passports and several identities, a life that has its adrenaline moments but can be boring, repetitive, frustrating and heartbreaking far away from fast cars and faster women. The sadness of a personal tragedy and professional disappointment has been portrayed with sensitivity.
There is excitement in the film as the communications surveillance begins to deliver results. It is of course not so simple. In real life it can be excruciatingly dull and boring listening to intercepts, the crackle and the noise that goes for sound, the frustration of the link snapped, the questions not answered, the riddle not solved. But the search must go on. Those were the days of only telephone and wireless intercepts.
Today we have the wide universe of the Internet, smartphones, e-mail, social media and whatever else. Imagine now a terrorist using all these channels for the same message sent in parts and in code. Catch him if you can.
All four films have a larger than life image of the main character but alas this is only the reel image, satisfying though it might be. There is more of Sean Connery or Matt Daemon in our films and not of Alec Guinness or Richard Burton. We have some way to go to catch up with classic espionage stories as in the BBC serial Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and films like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American. These were based on novels written by master storytellers like John le Carre and Graham Greene, both having lived and worked in the intelligence world.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)