Indian spy movies from the 60s tend to be delightful despite themselves. The typical Bollywood film’s emphasis on communal values and lack of irony made them ill suited for portraying the kind of smirky hedonism so often displayed in Western examples of the genre. As a result, big budget, mainstream espionage thrillers like Aankhen featured mother loving, teetotaling heroes who stood out against such decadent trappings as almost a kind of rebuke. Meanwhile, in the genre ghetto of India’s B movie industry, attempts were being made at churning out spy films that hued a little closer to the European model. Unfortunately for these films, while the attitude might have been there, the cash wasn’t. Given that, the end products were frequently films that tested the notion of just how sparely represented the basic tropes of the spy genre could be in a film without it falling short of being a spy film at all.
The 1968 film Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 fits pretty neatly within this last described category. It’s the sort of movie where bare-walled sets are dressed by way of colored lighting (it’s amazing what 1960s movies could accomplish with just a couple lights and some primary colored gels) and a super villain’s high-tech lair is represented by having what looks like the contents of an old Radio Shack “Build Your Own Ham Radio” kit strewn on a wooden table. In another villain’s hideout, the only decoration is a giant inflatable whiskey bottle. People speaking into common household fixtures and furnishings — lamps, radiators, etc. — as if they were communications devices replaces the fancy gadgets that had become prerequisites of the genre by this time. Scientific torture gizmos are so advanced scientifically that they are invisible, their effects only perceptible from the pained grimaces on the faces of their otherwise manifestly unmolested subjects. And yes, as I suggested in this review’s opening sentence, it’s all pretty delightful.
Since Golden Eyes, like most of those few Indian B films of its era that can be seen at all, has been consigned to that precursor to the dustbin of cinematic history known as the South Asian VCD market, I wasn’t able to view it with the benefit of English subtitles. As a result, I really had no idea what was going on in it for a good part of the time. Thankfully, I’m of the opinion that genre is plot when it comes to this type of film, and that all you really need to know in the case of Golden Eyes is communicated by the one English language word spoken repeatedly by various cast members throughout the picture: “microfilm”. “Microfilm, bla bla bla, microfilm, bla bla bla, very dangerous”, say a group of stern faced men in suits – some of whom are addressed as “Professor” – as they sit around a conference table at the beginning of the film. And sure enough, it is not long before said microfilm is stolen from one of those professors, and then stolen again, and then yet again by people representing a variety of interests.
One of the things that make relating the niceties of Golden Eyes’ plot without the aid of translation difficult is that there are an awful lot of bad guys in it. And by that I mean not only that there are lots of bad guys within one large organized group, but multiple large and organized groups of bad guys competing against one another, and, beyond that, a hierarchy apparently containing other large organized groups of bad guys that the respective subordinate groups of bad guys somehow answer to. Such a seemingly obstinate layering on of complexity makes me want to cock my head at Golden Eyes and say, “Really?” Nonetheless, I will respect the effort by doing my honest best to piece together just whom these groups are and of whom they are comprised.
The first group is lead by a bearded, perpetually sun-glassed fellow named Mr. Singh, who runs a nightclub called Arabian Nights. The club employs a quintet of female dancers who double as Singh’s field operatives and hired assassins. I don’t know whether this group of dancer/assassins has a collective name, but I’m going to cut right to it and call them BTAG, the Best Thing About Golden Eyes. Suffice it to say that, as fighters, they are excellent dancers, and, as dancers, excellent fighters. They bring the same amount of enthusiasm to both activities, and a comparable degree of violence. (The choreography in this movie is seriously heavy on the spaz.) They are also, as we will see, a motorcycle gang. Fortunately for us, the makers of Golden Eyes recognize the BTAG for what they are, and, as a result, we get to see a welcome lot of them over the course of the film.
The second group who will stop at nothing – nothing! – to get their hands on the much-vaunted microfilm is the one lead by Mr. Madan, who is played by B.M. Vyas, an actor I’ve seen portraying mustache-twirling evil sorcerers in a couple of different old Arabian Nights-style adventures. While Mr. Madan always seems to have a large anonymous rabble milling around his hideout, the only one of his minions worth mentioning is his right hand woman, who is played by the legendary item girl Helen. Femme fatale/moll roles of this type were familiar territory for Helen by this time, but because she was traditionally afforded a lot more screen time when appearing in B pictures like this, she really gets to sink her teeth into the role. I’m not sure whether Mr. Madan is meant to be the Golden Eyes of the title, but he does have a pair of giant golden eyes mounted on his wall which he uses to spy upon whomever of his competitors or foes he sees fit, complete with close-ups, snappy edits, and moving camera angles.
The third group is lead by a monocle wearing, cackling madman who sputters around a secret island lair staffed by people dressed in colorful but not very protective looking radiation suits. I know that the maniacal criminal genius is a hallowed movie archetype, but this fellow really takes the raving aspect of it to the next level. I’ve seen people on Market Street screaming about the Illuminati who were models of composure by comparison. Menace is one thing, but it’s hard to believe that this guy could get through uttering one monstrous directive without having some kind of Tourette’s outburst. In any case, the group lead by Mr. Madan appears to be taking orders from this lot.
And then the other group is the Chinese. At least I think that’s who they’re supposed to be. I say this both because they are portrayed as glaring Asian stereotypes and because China is number two only to Pakistan as a country to be vilified in Bollywood movies. So nefarious are these Asians that they appear to be trying to make deals with any of the competing parties that will have them in order to get the microfilm. As a saving grace, one of them makes sassy hand and head gestures while he talks, like a black lady from the audience on the Jerry Springer show, so there’s that. Later in the film, the minstrelsy is compounded when our hero and his comic relief sidekick masquerade as two of the Chinese’s emissaries in order to fool Madan and his gang into giving them the microfilm – a ruse that succeeds both in terms of its stated goal and racist hilariousness.
And that hero would be Rakesh, aka Secret Agent 077, as played by the actor Sailesh Kumar. (He bears no relation to the Agent 077 played by Ken Clark in the series of successful Eurospy films, though I’m sure the association was welcomed.) Though the film makes a tepid stab at establishing 077’s caddish cred with the traditional introductory scene of Rakesh answering the phone while surrounded by fawning bathing beauties, Kumar really doesn’t seem to have much of the desired rogue’s charm about him. It’s not that he’s unlikable, really; it’s just that he’s kind of… well, the word “doofy” springs to mind. Given that Golden Eyes is essentially what the Indians would call a “stunt” picture, I suspect that he was cast as much for his agreeableness to dangling from cranes, being almost run over by a succession of motor vehicles, and repeatedly getting beaten up by a gang of moonlighting go-go dancers as for anything else. To his credit, he also proves that he can dance like a man with a live ferret dropped down his slacks.
Opposite Sailesh Kumar is the top-billed Mumtaz, playing Agent 077’s colleague and love interest Meena. Mumtaz, who would have been about 21 by this time, had spent most of her teens playing B movie heroines, and was just a couple of years away from breaking through to mainstream Bollywood success. Among her many credits from the 60s were over a dozen films opposite wrestling star Dara Singh, this due to her being one of a very small number of actresses willing to share billing with an actor of Dara’s lower caste origins. This fact alone makes it easy to like Mumtaz, but the fact that she is radiantly gorgeous doesn’t hurt matters either. Here she essentially plays a more field-ready version of the Bond movies’ Miss Moneypenny, starting off by answering phones at Secret Agent Central, but taking more part in the action as the film goes on.
And that action, as I indicated earlier, consists mostly of the frequently exclaimed about microfilm being handed from party to party like a relay torch, with numerous pursuits and scuffles ensuing as a result. By about the midway point, I’d completely lost track of who had it — whether it was with Mr. Singh and his homicidal hoochie coochie girls, Mr. Madan and Helen, or Agent Rakesh and his bunch – and, as it was certain to change hands again before I figured it out, I couldn’t be much bothered. In contrast to masala-style spy pictures like Farz and Aankhen, Golden Eyes shows its stunt film roots by being all about the fights, the chases (there are very many of both) and the occasional bargain bin action set piece. In a manner reminiscent of Turkish actioners like Altin Cocuk, it covers for it’s dire budgetary shortcomings with brute velocity, delivering a ceaseless barrage of kinetic events at the expense of all logic, coherence or continuity. This is so much the case that when we finally get to that inevitable point in the soundtrack when the producers see fit to insert a stolen bit from John Barry’s Goldfinger score, the cue is actually markedly sped-up in order to keep up with the under-cranked action on screen.
This careening energy, which proceeds apace from the very opening minutes of the film, continues into the first musical number, in which our hero joins the Best Thing About Golden Eyes on the nightclub floor for a tantric display of rock-and-roll meets epilepsy, all frantic head-shaking, hip swiveling and mumble-billy hiccupping worthy of a Hindi Elvis impersonator. The neurasthenic viewer might be tempted at this point to grab their screen and plead for it to stop. It’s like the whole movie has suddenly turned into a child going through a violent seizure brought on by an excess of sugary cereals.
In addition to manic pacing, Golden Eyes also has in its corner the lurid Eastmancolor palette typical of so many Indian popular films of its day, giving the sugar rush tempo an appropriate hard candy shell. I mean, who needs production value when the color yellow is an event in itself? And while it’s true that the ornamentation on the wall of the criminal mastermind’s island lair appears to be a neon sign advertising Kingfisher is Sanskrit, have you ever seen purple and red be more… purple and red? This is indeed comic book filmmaking, but so reckless and rough-edged that it appears to have come from the fevered mind of a South Asian Fletcher Hanks.
Golden Eyes proceeds at such a pace that you actually see it stumble over itself and do a few sloppy involuntary somersaults as it approaches its finale, which has been two breathless hours in the making. It’s so anxious to cram into those last twenty minutes the climactic siege-capture-and-conflagration scenario its genre demands that it ends up practically delivering it in shorthand, the impatient jump cuts from set-up to set-up almost coming across as open acknowledgement of just how completely expected it all is. Yet, of course, it still works. Mumtaz is menaced, 077 is subjected to some kinky torture, the mad villain raves madly, and numerous minions discover the ineffectiveness of radiation suits against machinegun bullets, all before it all comes to a close with the level of breathtaking spectacle that only a rented helicopter can accomplish.
Best of all, this final dust-up gives us one last chance to savor the exploits of the BTAG, who — now having been, to a one, converted to the side of justice by 077’s inside man within the organization, Dinesh – end up fighting alongside Rakesh in his battle against the forces of Mr. Big.
Perhaps someday I will find that I have become unmoved by the sight of shapely, black clad women in sunglasses lustily karate chopping and high kicking men around. But, then again, you’d think that, if that were ever going to happen, it would have done so long ago. In any case, Golden Eyes: Secret Agent 077 is lucky it hasn’t. Just as I am a man of many weaknesses, it, too, is a film of many weaknesses. Happily, the two come together to our mutual compliment.