1967 saw the release of You Only Live Twice, a James Bond movie full of ninjas, hollowed-out volcanoes, egg-shaped monorail pods, and Sean Connery as the world’s most convincing Japanese man. The Eurospy trend was still swinging, and even Japan and Hong Kong were getting in on the fun. The result is that, soaked in the psychedelic, pop-art sensibilities of the mid-to-late sixties, the best spy movies ever were being made. Indian cinema, which has always been packed with insane set decoration, candy coloring, and fabulous outfits, would seem tailor-made to pump out more than a few eye-popping entries into the world of psychotronic spyjinks. And they didn’t let us down 1967 also saw the release of Farz, an Indian espionage thriller that did major business at the box office. A year later, and doubtless under the influence of both Farz and You Only Live Twice, writer-director Ramanand Sagar gave us Aankhen, another great Bollywood spy film, but this time with the budget to trot the globe in classic James Bond style. Well, at least in classic Jimmy Bond style.
India is besieged by terrorists. If you are guessing that the terrorists are conniving, villainous Pakistanis, then you’ve been paying attention. We had our Russians, and India had their Pakistanis, and both sets of stock movie villains were adept at fiendishly twirling the ends of their big Rollie Fingers mustaches whilst wearing monocles. These are the primary traits you need in your sterotypical movie villains. If they can’t twirl their handlebar mustache and if they don’t wear a monocle, then what’s the point of fighting them? This is the great and time-tested truism of international conflict. Look at some of our classic villains. The British? Classic handlebar mustache sporters at the time. The Germans? They practically reinvented the monocle. And have you ever seen Kaiser Wilhelm’s mustache? The Japanese? Same thing. You saw that guy Bruce Lee punched through the wall and across the courtyard in Fist of Fury. Saddam Hussein? Please. The man had the most famous mustache since Hitler.
The Vietnamese, you say? Well, that’s right. Not big on monocles, and not big on mustaches…and look what happened!!! The war was a complete disaster. And anyway, Rambo and Strike Commando taught us that we actually spent most of the Vietnam fighting Russians anyway. Of course, there are scattered exceptions. North Korea under Kim Jong-il eschewed the monocle and mustache in favor of a pompadour and senior citizen sunglasses, but don’t think for a moment that the most infamous b-movie fan in the world, doesn’t have a make-up kit that contains a monocle and handlebar mustache. I assume, at some point, the new guy will find a series of clues that leads him to a cave (next tot he one with the unicorns) where he will find a box containing s monocle and a handlebar mustache. Only then do we truly need to be worried about North Korean bellicosity.
Where was I? Indian is besieged by terrorists, whose primary mode of operation is to stage acts of violence that will incite the Indian populace into riots against the government, who in turn will think the original violence was perpetrated by dissidents within their own society. Thus, the terrorists can limit themselves to a few surgical strikes that turn India against itself, leaving the terrorists plenty of time to recline in their sprawling underground lairs, laughing menacingly as they put their finishing touches on their spiked-wall torture chambers. But the good and righteous Indian people aren’t going to stand by and let their country be torn asunder. Knowing that the government is simply stretched too thin to effectively deal with so insidious an enemy, groups of private citizens have formed their own counter-terrorism and spy rings.
One such group is headed up by Major Saab (Nasir Hussain, the police commissioner from the opulent 1967 Dev Anand heist film Jewel Thief), who has a giant global radio system hidden behind a revolving bookcase, which makes marginal sense at best since every time someone calls him on it, the set makes a deafening beeping noise that can be heard seemingly throughout the entire house. The major’s star operative is the dashing young Sunil, played by soon-to-be superstar Dharmendra. Since as of this review I’m still very early into my schooling on all things Bollywood from the sixties and seventies, I’d never seen a Dharmendra film before this one. Yet still he looked familiar. I assumed it was because I just saw his picture all the time in other reviews. Then I realized he looks familiar because he looks just like eighties-nineties action star Sonny Deol. And why does he look like Sonny Deol? Probably because he’s Sonny’s father. Which is pretty good stuff, since Sonny spent most of the nineties fighting evil, mustache-twirling terrorists from Pakistan.
Sunil is the son of India’s number one spy and great hero of the war. As such, he has a lot to live up to. Not that this is a movie about the son trying to emerge from the shadow of a larger-than-life father. I’m sure you can get that in other Indian films, but the tone of this one is basically, “Sunil’s dad was a total bad-ass, and so is Sunil.” Sunil also spent time in Japan, ostensibly studying to become to a judo master, though we never see anything of his training. I always thought that becoming a master of any martial art demanded that you train twenty hours a day and spend the other four sitting shirtless underneath a waterfall, but Sunil seems to spend most of his training time joyriding around Japan as part of various tourist groups. This gives the movie an opportunity to do two important things: show off lots of travelogue footage of Japanese locations (and I assume Japan was chosen because of You Only Live Twice) and allow for Sunil to meet gorgeous Meenakshi (Mala Sinha, who was actually the top billed star for the film since Dharmendra was still something of an unproven commodity as a leading man). Meenakshi happens to be half-Japanese, half-Indian, with a perfect command of Hindi. It seems pretty unlikely that a suave Indian spy could run into what must be the one Japanese-Indian girl living in Japan, but this is a spy film.
Meenakshi falls instantly in love with Sunil, because that’s how Bollywood rolls, and in a change of pace, it’s she who relentlessly pursues the coy object of her affection through a musical number which showcases one of the worst ensembles any woman in a Bollywood film has ever worn. Now let’s get a few things on the table. First, there is no shortage of mind-blowingly atrocious costuming in Bollywood. However, most of it is so insanely over-the-top that even the absolute worst take on a sort of sublime transcendence and become wonders to behold. And then there’s the giant floppy green sombrero.
I can almost always see what the costume designer was thinking, even when they made what I feel is a bad decision. But I am utterly baffled by the thought process that decided a half-Japanese, half-Indian beauty living in Tokyo would be partial to canary yellow Capris and a huge, bright green sombrero. I guess Japan has always been the global capital of gloriously idiotic fashion. I imagine that before she got mixed up with Sunil, Meenakshi spent most of her time hanging out in Harajuku, showing off her sombrero-and-toreador-pants outfit and posing for photos with flabbergasted sightseers while gothic-lolitas in amusing micro-sized tophats pouted and stood pigeon-toed waiting for attention to shift to them. Sorry girls, but your little derbys and poor posture just can’t compete with a beaming, singing, dancing Indian girl in skintight, yellow bullfighter pants and a gigantic, kelly green sombrero. Come back in thirty years, and you and your lace funerary veil will have your chance.
When jumping out the bushes in said outfit and busting out in song doesn’t frighten Sunil away permanently, and when he performs admirably in a scintillating paddle boat chase (at least they weren’t in giant swans), she decides he is definitely the man for her. Although Sunil seems interested in this possibly batshit crazy beauty, he’s also hesitant to commit since he walks a dangerous path that “rubs hard on death.” And so he must spurn her advances and the charming things she does, like stealing his mail and reading all his personal correspondence (“Who taught you how to spy?” the spy asks. “Love!” the insane woman responds back with giddy glee). He soon returns to India, for news comes that his brother has been killed while trying to bust up a weapons smuggling ring that’s been shipping guns and explosives from Beirut to India.
So Sunil and the movie jet off to Beirut, where Sunil will be meeting both with Indian patriot Mehmood (played by a guy named Mehmood, which is convenient) and a spy ring currently operating under the guise of a traveling cabaret dance troupe — because what else would spies in a Bollywood film travel as? Every American female spy must go undercover as a prostitute, and every Bollywood female spy must go undercover as a nightclub dancer. It turns out that the leader of the dance troupe/espionage ring is India’s top female operative — Meenakshi! So it wasn’t love at all that taught her how to spy! Sunil soon learns that Mehmood may be a rat, in league with a beautiful princess, but also that lovely Algerian princesses can be swayed from their evil ways by the swaggering coolness of a manly spy.
Meanwhile, because Bollywood films are full of meanwhiles, the dastardly terrorists are strolling about in their secret underground lair and making plans to cause all sorts of havoc. To make matters more complicated, they kidnap Major Saab’s nephew, or something. It’s some creepy little kid who spends the whole movie goose-stepping around either in an Indian military uniform or dressed as a Roman Centurion. When the villains put him in one of those rooms where spiked walls close in on you, it’s sort of hard to blame them. The kid creeps me out.
As is often the case, Aankhen is a pretty straight-forward film padded out with musical numbers and a multitude of subplots, all of which are pretty good. Aankhen is slower and less over-the-top than later films, but it’s still chocked full of all the great stuff I demand from a superior spy film. There are more secret passages and trap doors than I can keep track of; there are hidden cameras, hidden transmitters, underground lairs, quick-change disguise kits, fist fights, machine gun fights, femme fatale princesses, swank nightclubs, scantily-clad dancing girls, and guys in slim-cut suits and Wayfarer sunglasses punching each other in the face. There’s boat chases and car chases and guys dressed as Arabs. There’s gorgeous travelogue footage of Japan and Beirut from back when Beirut was actually the swinging, hip, liberal capitol of the Middle East. And of course, there’s a villain with a monocle, and he puts a little kid dressed as a Roman soldier into one of those spiked-wall- chambers. Everything drips with that highly stylized pop-art look that defined sixties spy films.
Although they put a lot of money into this film, there are still some pretty noticeable short-comings. Or maybe I’m mistaken, and these are actually clever spy gadgets. Like the opening scene, where a terrorist is able to detonate a cache of dynamite using nothing but a bicycle tire pump. Perfect! The Indians will never suspect a thing! Or there’s the magic guns that don’t even have to be fired. You just sort of shake them as if in pantomime of them firing because you couldn’t afford blanks. And even though there is no smoke or muzzle flash, guys still fall down dead. Pretty cool, huh? And these guns shoot high-tech bullets that are able to wound you without actually putting holes in your fab 60s spy film outfits.
There are also a couple things that set Aankhen apart from other spy films of the period as well as from other Bollywood films in general. For starters, most spy films played it tongue-in-cheek. Politics almost never entered into the picture. Sure, James Bond may have been fighting the Russians, but he wasn’t really fighting the Russians. You didn’t go to a James Bond film to get all worked up about hating the Soviet Union. In fact, real-world politics were nothing but window dressing for an espionage fantasy world, so much so that the Bond movies quickly dropped SMERSH and the Russians as their primary villains and relied on the shady comic-book style secret society SPECTRE for its go-to villainy. The European Bond knock-offs were even more fantastic and less concerned with serious politics. They were escapist adventure, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, but not reflective of any sort of reality and not really concerned with communicating any sort of meaning other than, “Drinking a martini while wearing a tuxedo looks cool.”
Aankhen on the other hand, takes its central patriotic politics very seriously. The action is punctuated by public service announcements about the righteousness of fighting for the glory of Mother Hindustan. They’re never so ham-handed and heavy as they would get in the eighties and nineties, both in India and the United States (why did we really ever take Red Dawn seriously — I mean, Cubans invading Colorado???), but they’re still far more serious about it than, say, Derek Flint films were about teaching us the evils of Communism and the deliciousness of Communist ballerinas. Lucky for me, whatever patriotic bravado that is present might be serious, but it also seems mostly like last-minute lip service, the heroic justification before we get back to guys in sheik robes shooting at each other with machine guns.
Something else that sets Aankhen apart from other Bollywood films is female lead Mala Sinha. Not only is she willing to wear the green sombrero, she also splits her time between shouldering the bulk of the movie’s musical numbers and gunning down evil spies. Bollywood women — and let’s face it, women in cinema from all over the world — were still spending most of their time in action films waiting to be rescued by the hero. Not Mala’s Meenakshi, though. She’s slinking about in a cocktail dress in one scene, then prowling about some ruins with a machine gun in the next. She’s the leader of the spy ring. She’s the one that does the romantic stalking. And although the day is inevitably going to be saved by Sunil, it’s nice to see Mala Sinha busting out the competent woman action chops years before Zeenat Aman became the poster girl for such independent women.
Her romantic obsession might be a bit melodramatic, but that’s just the style of these movies. It doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s a character who manages to be a gun-toting, Capri-pant-wearing ass-kicker, rather than being either the damsel in distress (that role is reserved for Sunil’s sister, who is the mother of the kidnapped kid), the saintly mother, or the sinister femme fatale. Mala (who I believe was Nepalese, or Nepalese-Indian mix) was famous, however, for both being one of the first actresses to demand more from a female character than being window dressing, and for showing a keen interest in using the fame that came her way to help launch the careers of young up-and-comers — like her co-star here.
Starring opposite Mala is Dharmendra, still early in his career. It’s remarkable how similar he and Sonny are, not just in appearance. They’re both fighting the Pakistanis (although this movie only ever refers to them as “our enemies to the north”). They both handle the action well and can’t dance worth a damn. Owing to the fact that Dharmendra got to make this movie in 1967, he’s infinitely swanker than his son would ever be, saddled as he was with bad eighties and nineties fashion — the “casual Friday” look having infected everything from Bollywood to James Bond during that era (Oh, Timothy Dalton — are you wearing a members Only jacket???). Sunil looks every bit the dashing, globe-trotting spy in his array of suits and sunglasses. Dharmendra turns in a credible performance, handling himself well in the movie’s action scenes as well as during its swinging romantic interludes. He’s never quite as cool as Bond, but who was other than Derek Flint and Diabolik?
The rest of the cast performs admirably as well, and everyone dresses fabulously, except for when they’re in disguise, as the disguises are either the aforementioned sheik robes or Sunil’s two choice disguises — the crazy fakir and the Turk in a loud blazer. The villain is absurdly, gloriously evil, and spends the whole movie laughing in an evil fashion while wearing a monocle. He gives a classic arch-villain speech about evil during the final self-destruct countdown. Zeb Rehman, who stars as the evil princess Zehnab, didn’t have much a film career, and though her role here as the femme fatale who is redeemed by the coolness of the hero is relatively small and unchallenging, she’s still memorable.
OK, so let’s review. Hot hero. Hot dames. Villain with a monocle. Kid in a spike chamber. Good action scenes. Exotic, globe-trotting locations. Cool outfits. Big green sombrero. What’s left? Oh yeah, the musical numbers, most of which are staged by Mala and/or her troupe of spy-dancers. most are rather on the sexy side, if I do say so myself. One of the numbers involves Sunil’s sister singing to Krishna to save her missing son. Could have done without that one, really. Mithun’s song to Krishna in Disco Dancer was much better. But the number with Mala and her troupe dressed up as belly dancers makes up for just about anything that smacks of religious piety. The songs themselves are performed by the big names of the time: Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Asha Bhosle. They’re all pretty good, and the background score is a swinging combination of orchestration, cocktail jazz, and twanging guitar spy music.
At 177 minutes (nothing out of the ordinary for a Bollywood film), the film may meander a bit too much for some viewers. I thought it was great and entertaining throughout. Even with the breaks for filler and a woman on her knees singing to Krishna, we still get a film that fills most of its running time with sneaking about, secret chambers, spying, and gun fights. It was a big budget production for Bollywood at the time, and they make sure every penny shows up on the screen. I mean, we’re not talking a Ken Adams hollowed-out volcano or anything, but the film is at least as slick and jet-set looking as your higher echelon of Matt Helm or Eurospy films, and the combination of typically overblown Bollywood opulence with psychedelic sixties pop-art is a sure-win situation.
Aankhen doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, but it executes the sixties spies formula with panache and energy. It’s not quite as deliriously cracked as I had hoped, but it was still pretty damn fun. I had a lot of expectations regarding what a swingin’ sixties spy film from Bollywood should be, and Aankhen satisfied me on pretty much every level.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: India | Starring: Dharmendra, Mala Sinha, Mehmood, Jeevan, Nasir Hussain, Sujit Kumar, Zeb Rehman, Kumkum, Madan Puri, Sajjan, Dhumal, Lalita Pawar, Madhumati, Daisy Irani, Master Ratan | Writer: Ramanand Sagar | Director: Ramanand Sagar | Cinematographer: G. Singh | Music: Ravi | Producer: Ramanand Sagar