In the 2014 action thriller Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty, Captain Virat Bakshi (Akshay Kumar) discovers and dismantles terrorist sleeper cells in Mumbai. The film keeps you engaged by drawing you deeper into a complex story requiring our hero to solve a series of puzzles before it is "too late."
In the last several years, the spy film genre in India has brought some intelligent and memorable stories to the silver screen. While Hollywood has created films about superheroes to save the world, Indian cinema has looked to their own heroes - members of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). While these films show the strengths of these secret agents, they have also highlighted their human desires and flaws. Time is devoted to developing the characters while watching them decode the opposition's plan through stealth, technology, and gut instinct. The stories are gritty, action packed, and often conclude with a deeper message.
Here are five favorites films featuring characters in the Indian intelligence community.
1. Madras Cafe
Description: Hindi political espionage thriller. Major Vikram Singh (John Abraham) journeys into civil-war torn Sri Lanka to break a resolute rebel group fighting against India's peace-keeping force. He deftly maneuvers his resources to make significant intelligence breakthroughs, amidst a scenario where the enemy has no face and the only advice is "Don't get caught." Along the way, he meets war correspondent Jaya Sahni (Nargis Fakhri). The story unfolds as their quest for the truth reveals a deeper conspiracy, by a faceless enemy, united to seize a common nemesis - India.
Why I Love This Film: Against the backdrop of real events from the late 1980s and early 1990s, this fictional account is a complex, intelligent look at politics, war, and the media. The film highlights the vulnerability of the intelligence community in the face of ideological differences and hidden conspiracies. At one point, Major Singh says, "One man's revolutionary is another man's terrorist." In a Times of India interview, John Abraham explained,
"I clearly remember a day in the early 1990s, when I woke up to see my mother crying. I learnt that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. That moment intrigued me. I like to know about everything around me, not just Kashmir but even Bosnia, Serbia or Africa. This film brings us closer to what changed the political history of our country."
Soundtrack: There are no big musical production numbers here. Instead the soundtrack sets the tone for the story and weaves together both modern and regional sounds to create an intricate musical tapestry. The "Madras Cafe" theme is particularly moving.
Description: Hindi action spy thriller. The story focuses on four individuals - deep cover agent Wali Khan (Irrfan Khan), Captain Rudra Pratap Singh (Arjun Rampal), RAW explosives expert Zoya Rehman (Huma Qureshi), and Mumbai thief Aslam (Aakash Dahiya). Each of these individuals has personal relationships outside the world of espionage. They are brought together on a mission in Pakistan to bring back "The Most Wanted Man in India" Iqbal Seth a.k.a Goldman (Rishi Kapoor). They successfully carry out their mission and capture the man until something goes horribly wrong. As they deal with the aftermath of their initial attempt, they regroup and decide to give it another try.
Why I Love This Film: The film is based on real-life gangster Dawood Ibrahim, and the struggle to bring him back to India. Another gritty spy film, this narrates a different kind of story which is closer to how real spies work. These are individuals who come together and give everything despite having everything to lose. When their initial plan fails, they lose not only their personal safety and support from RAW, but they watch those they love get pulled into a world they know nothing about. Despite tragic losses, they give their all to carry out their mission. In an Bollywood Life interview, Irrfan Khan explained,
When Nikhil (Advani) narrated the script, I could see possibility of D-Day coming close to the level of a Hollywood film – in terms of narrative, technical finesse and credibility. We make films on real life subjects and personalities, but we don’t really delve deep enough or explore it fully and in the correct manner. Nikhil’s intention was to show the lives of RAW agents at close quarters – how they operate and what all they face. The spy genre is liked by all. So I thought it would be an experience doing the film. Plus, Nikhil managed to get on board popular stunt director Tom Struthers (Dark Knight) and he trained us (Irrfan and Arjun) for a couple of weeks. D-Day has action sequences you will have never seen before in any Hindi film.
Soundtrack: The beautiful soundtrack is full of rich regional sounds including the spiritual song "Dama Dam Mast Qalandar" and the resolute "Dhuaan" but the most haunting of the songs picturized in the film is the love song "Alvida" that recreates a tragic and violent sequence.
Description: Tamil action spy thriller. Indian Army Captain Jagadish (Ilayathalapathy Vijay) returns to Mumbai from Kashmir for his annual holiday with his family unaware that his parents and younger sisters are trying to arrange a marriage for him with Nisha (Kajal Aggarwal). While dealing with his love life, he soon faces a greater challenge when he discovers a terrorist network of sleeper cells.
Why I Love This Film: This successful film spawned the Hindi remake Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty. While both films are worth viewing, this initial presentation of the story highlights the skills of film-maker Murugadoss to brilliantly weave an intricate and entertaining tale. The matter-of-fact attitude of this intelligence officer as he single-handedly deciphers plans that become increasingly more complex and intractable in fascinating to watch. With humorous elements sprinkled throughout to humanize our hero, both Thuppakki and Holiday tell a riveting tale you'll not soon forget.
Soundtrack: While I enjoy the music and Vijay's dancing skills in Thuppakki, my personal taste leans more towards Pritam's Holiday soundtrack.
4. Ek Tha Tiger
Description: Hindi action spy thriller. RAW agent "Tiger" (Salman Khan) is sent on a relatively easy and safe mission to Dublin, Ireland to observe a scientist of Indian origin who is suspected of sharing his research findings with the Pakistan defense establishment. Tiger attempts to meet the scientist but is not successful. He tries to befriend the scientist's part time home caretaker, Zoya (Katrina Kaif). As Tiger begins to get closer to Zoya... he uncovers a secret that changes his life.
Why I Love This Film: After establishing Tiger as a master spy, he is put in a situation in which he is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. This adds to the entertainment value as this tough guy and intelligence expert comes across as kind of a bumpkin. As he molds himself into the uncover role he's established, he begins to experience his human side. When Tiger discovers Zoya is his equal in all things, this duo becomes a force to be reckoned with. An unusual tale of spy vs. spy, this is a delightful action-packed film you'll want to watch multiple times.
Soundtrack: This is one of my favorite soundtracks and that I listen to frequently. The item numbers add to the film storyline yet the soundtrack can stand its own as an example of the outstanding music created for Indian cinema.
5. Agent Vinod
Description: Hindi action spy thriller. A powerful bomb that is small enough to be easily smuggled across borders has gone missing, drawing the attention of terrorists around the world. After his partner Rajan Sinha is murdered, RAW Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) is sent on a mission to find out why with only the number "242" to lead him. Along the way he meets Dr. Ruby Mendes (Kareena Kapoor) who provides several clues pointing to a larger conspiracy.
Why I Love This Film: As a James Bond-like agent, Saif Ali Khan steps into the role brilliantly. The story takes you globe trotting to a variety of international locations and clues that lead to more clues that lead to the big reveal - and resolution. In a Digital Spy interview, Saif Ali Khan talked about the Agent Vinod character:
"I think the character is key to this film. There's a real character there. It's not just like a posey cool dude. There's a definite quirky kind of personality. He's quite a quirky character. He's not what you'd expect. He's kind of odd. He's a little unconventional in the sense that he is irreverent and a little mean, and he has a slightly cruel sense of humor as well. He's evil and he's a good guy."
Soundtrack: Much of the music is modern, high-octane and in-your-face - just as you would expect in an action-packed film. And in homage to the James Bond series, you can recognize several notes from the 007 theme in one of the chase sequences.
The following playlist features the official trailers for each of these films.
If you liked this, check out our other Friday Five posts.