From Bombay, With Love

A Bollywood spy thriller featuring corrupt international businessmen, nuclear terrorism, and a rogue operation run by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency; perhaps unsurprisingly, Agent Vinod was banned in Pakistan. In this piece, a writer in Lahore’s Daily Times suggests that Pakistani censors overlooked the film’s efforts to portray India’s neighbor in a better light.

Bollywood kitsch has the remarkable quality of expressing the subconscious thoughts of Indian viewers, their secret fantasies and fears, and their perpetually changing perceptions about India-Pakistan relations. You realise this as you watch the spy-thriller Agent Vinod, tapping your feet to its music, following its protagonists around the globe as they try to wrest from a shadowy terror group a miniature nuclear device, admiring as well as recoiling from their chutzpah, and ultimately being left breathlessly bewildered at the bizarre twists in the story. You can’t help but ask the question: did the Pakistani establishment err in banning Agent Vinod? (Those who haven’t seen the film, stop reading here. This piece discloses the plot.)

Decidedly Agent Vinod borrows from the dominant global narrative to portray the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as torn between the hardliners and those sane, as much willing to sponsor jihadi groups as it is prepared to cooperate with India’s premier external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and though a few officers are shown playing footsie with the underworld and conspiring to rain destruction on Delhi, their chief is sagacious enough to comprehend the horrific consequences of a nuclear exchange. Against Bollywood’s shrill jingoistic standard, Agent Vinod is an improvement on the depiction of the Pakistani state.

In an astonishing leap of imagination, in sharp contrast to the dominant global narrative, Agent Vinod projects the terror group Lashkar as the victim of machinations of the powerful whose mission is to profit from wars. The masters of mayhem are global tycoons belonging to the quaintly named group Zeus. Likely as you are to read the Zeus group as synonymous with the west, the story shows its principal provocateur to be Sir Metla, a British businessman of Indian origin. No doubt, the character of Sir Metla draws inspiration from the growing number of non-resident Indian billionaires whom the Indian media regularly fetes. But Agent Vinod asks the audience to fear them, for they are capable of betraying their country.

Other strands of Agent Vinod too subtly attempt to forge new perceptions about Pakistan and its people, albeit partonisingly, and in a tone quite didactic, a voice India often adopts in speaking to its smaller neighbours. But to fathom it you will need to know the story of Agent Vinod. The film’s opening shots chart out the escape of Agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) from a fortified camp in the inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan, which an ISI officer, Colonel Huzefa, who is jihadist in his orientation, oversees. On his return to Delhi, Agent Vinod is assigned by RAW boss Hassan Nawaz to track down a miniature nuclear device a Russian has fabricated. This sets the film rolling as Agent Vinod flies to Russia, where he confronts underworld baddies, and eventually lands in Morocco, where mafia don David Kazan (Prem Chopra) is due to receive $ 50 million for purchasing ‘242.’

At Kazan’s mansion is his personal physician, Dr Ruby Mendis (Kareena Kapoor), whose real name is Iram, a Pakistani-British undercover operative of the ISI. Later in the film, we are told Iram and her family had migrated out of Pakistan 15 years earlier, and that she’s the recruit of the ISI chief. In a flashback, the film represents the ISI boss as responsible and reasonable, but not in control of his organisation. When he is asked over the phone by RAW’s Hassan Nawaz why the ISI wants to acquire a nuclear device, he expresses ignorance and promises to investigate the issue. But the ISI chief is bumped off by Colonel Huzefa. The jihadi faction in the ISI has triumphed.

Agent Vinod in Morocco manages to decipher the 242 code – it is a detonator for the miniature nuclear device, and has been disguised as an antique volume of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, that is scheduled to be auctioned. Let us cut out all the details; they can make your head spin. But this much needs to be said – the nuclear device reaches India and the detonator lands in Karachi, where Colonel Huzefa takes the assistance of a fugitive underworld don to transport it to Delhi. Agent Vinod and Dr Ruby/Iram band together to save the city from catastrophe; it is Iram who guesses the password to deactivate the detonator.

At this point most Bollywood films would have ended, but not Agent Vinod. In a rush of sequences, Sir Metla is exposed as the unrepentant mastermind who had India and Pakistan teetering on the brink of nuclear war. Horrified at being manipulated, a Lashkar suicide bomber kills Sir Metla through an explosion. Perhaps you could take the denouement as a more nuanced approach to the world of terror. Perhaps you need to ask the Lashkar leaders whether their hackles will be raised by a film that portrays them as mere puppets of global tycoons.

Such fantasies about India and Pakistan abound in Agent Vinod. For one, the film simplistically echoes those commentators who believe the prickly nature of Indo-Pak relations is because of the dangerous games RAW and the ISI are perpetually engaged in. In Agent Vinod, though, the Indians are not to blame. It is the ISI’s rogue elements. The film, in a way, also endorses the current global fears about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

The film’s blueprint for peace is cooperation between the officialdoms of the two countries, best exemplified through the partnership between Iram and Agent Vinod. It is fleetingly reflected in the readiness of the ISI chief to pursue the tip-off from the RAW chief about the plan of ISI’s rogue elements to provide nuclear sinew to the Lashkar. It is again glimpsed in the depiction of the Pakistani diplomat who worked the phone to reveal to the Indian foreign office where the bomb had been placed in Delhi. But the diplomat isn’t innately sensible – he’s frightened into cooperation as he is made to realise that his wife and children could die in the nuclear explosion.

Yet unlike say, the film Border, Agent Vinod doesn’t portray the Pakistani as an inveterate evil who must be fought and liquidated. Iram, the ISI chief and the diplomat are virtuous, humane and responsible. On a closer reading though, you do perceive the creeping shadow of stereotypes – the good Pakistani is one who doesn’t reside in Pakistan (Iram), either driven out or killed (the ISI chief), or posted to Delhi (the diplomat) where he can be persuaded to behave rationally. In contrast, most Indian baddies, barring the Lashkar mole in Delhi, do not reside in the country.

Such stereotypes don’t appear revolting because Agent Vinod deftly does the balancing act through the complicity of Sir Metla in the Lashkar plan. For the Indian audience, the most poignant fantasy of Agent Vinod is the depiction of a Muslim officer as the head of RAW. This is ahistorical: never has a Muslim headed the intelligence agency, nor is he expected to in the immediate future. It is common knowledge in India that Muslims are rarely recruited or deputed to intelligence agencies. Perhaps Agent Vinod seeks to recreate the ideal of secular India, where people of all religious persuasions are treated equally. Perhaps through this fantasy about the Muslim RAW chief the film is protesting against the absence of Muslims in intelligence agencies.

It is impossible to tell whether the depiction of the ISI demanded a ban on Agent Vinod. The question to ask is: would India have allowed the screening of a Pakistani film in which RAW had been shown divided between the hawks and doves, and the nationalities of Saif and Kareena had been switched? Perhaps the clue lies in yet another recent thriller, Kahani, in which the Hindu intelligence chief is shown as a traitor who is exposed partly through the efforts of a Muslim officer. The Indian censors cleared the film. Perhaps you can argue that fiction not grounded in reality rarely offends.

Ajaz Ashraf , The writer is a Delhi-based journalist