Before it released this past Friday, Agent Vinod – the latest vanity project from Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati Films – had been in production so long it had earned the nickname “Aging Vinod.” The long production time suggested that the final product could be one of two things: a great movie carefully and thoughtfully put together, or a disjointed mess. I’d been looking forward to the film, because the espionage genre is one of my favourites – I can’t resist its combination of stylishness and intrigue – and it’s a genre that is sadly lacking in Indian films. Unfortunately, I found Agent Vinod to be closer to the ‘disjointed mess’ end of the spectrum – a classic case of style over substance.
[Content Note: this post contains discussion of rape]
In my experience, Indian cinema tends to be really hero-centric. Although this is starting to change in Bollywood, it still holds true in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, where the overwhelming majority of mainstream films are built around and designed to showcase the hero’s persona. Occasionally, however, heroine-centric films do appear. Two of these that I’ve seen are Mysamma IPS (2007) and Arundhati (2009), and what these two films have in common suggests an implicit message about what is (or should be) considered most important to women.
Vidya Balan is on a roll. Kahaani (directed by Sujoy Ghosh; screenplay by Sujoy Ghosh, Suresh Nair and Nikhil Vyas) is arguably the fifth movie in a row in which she has played an interesting, unconventional character. Kahaani as a whole is an interesting and unconventional movie – a thriller not only with a female character in the central role (also called Vidya) but a heavily pregnant one at that. The pregnancy increases the tension in the film since it augments Vidya’s physical vulnerability, while at the same time it highlights her inner strength as she perseveres in her search for her missing husband, who disappeared during a business trip to Kolkata, despite the physical challenges.
I think it’s wonderful that they have written a woman-oriented movie like this, and wonderful (if not surprising) that Vidya chose to star in it. I can’t imagine anyone else doing justice to the role. Vidya is just so good in Kahaani – gorgeous with hardly any make-up on and sporting a series of de-glam floral maxi dresses, and totally convincing whether she’s charming shy little boys, standing up to condescending men, crying in the privacy of her room, or teasing Rana. As Rana, the young Kolkata police officer who helps Vidya in her search, Parambrata Chatterjee also delivers an excellent performance. His slight baby-face works to his advantage in the role, and he is a very warm and kind presence on screen, but also convincingly chases down one suspect, and trades punches with another. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including the two boys sympathetically portraying working children, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the hard-nosed Intelligence Bureau officer Khan, and Saswata Chatterjee as the truly creepy ‘insurance salesman’ Bob Biswas. And the city of Kolkata is like a character in the film as well, with its gloomy metro, dilapidated tenements, and abandoned office buildings the perfect, sinister setting for Vidya’s search.
The storylines of South Indian masala movies have some fairly consistent elements. One is a main, ‘action-y’ plot centered on the hero. Another is a comedic side-plot featuring at least one member, but more often several, of a stable of comedians. Then there is the romantic sub-plot, featuring the heroine. Sometimes the romantic sub-plot is tightly intertwined with the action-y main plot. Other times it is simply there as an excuse for the fourth consistent element of South Indian masala movies – the songs. This formula is given an intriguing twist in the 2011 Telugu film Badrinath starring Allu Arjun and Tamannaah.
In the film Arjun plays Badri, a temple guard assigned to protect the Badrinath temple in the Himalayas. Tamannah plays Alakananda, a young woman who hates God, who is brought to the temple by her grandfather to perform some rites for her deceased parents. When Badri, despite Alakananda’s bratty behaviour toward him, aids in the completion of these rites, Alakananda falls in love with him. Badri, on the other hand, as an extremely pious temple guard, never explicitly returns her affection. The romance is totally one-sided, and accordingly the songs, with one exception, are entirely from Alakananda’s ‘point of view.’ As a result the filmmakers have (unintentionally, I assume) made a movie that privileges female desire.