When one writes about international spy films, one eventually grows weary of typing the phrase, “In the wake of Goldfinger…” and yet one must do because the impact of Goldfinger sent shock waves across the globe.
At the risk of sounding even more like a broken record than I usually do, allow me once again reiterate a common theme for much of what we discuss here: exploring the vast world of international cult cinema is as frustrating as it is rewarding. Rewarding because, obviously, it opens a whole world — quite literally — of totally outrageous movies that will completely blow your mind, that the average “man on the street” has no idea even exists, and that are packed to the gills with glorious outlandish beauty. Frustrating because, just as obviously, so many of these films — especially one from outside the United States, Europe, and Japan — are so very hard to find even in their country of origin. Similarly, even finding the most basic information on many of these movies, either in print or online, is often almost impossible.
Despite the success Farz enjoyed in 1967, about the best you can hope for if you search for the film online is a one- or two-line review on the IMDB that goes something like, “This movie is old.” If I go to the few English-language books on Bollywood, which all tend to be overly academic and humorless, there is an even greater dearth of information on this or just about any other “popcorn” film. As it is still in its infancy, despite the longevity of the industry, English language books about Bollywood tend to be dry, intellectual studies of the same crop of “usual suspects.” They turn their collective noses up at giving much time over to films like Farz in favor of printing yet another chapter that provides the same analysis of Mother India as was given in the last four or five books. We get it! Mother India was an historic movie, a landmark of Indian cinema, and the mothers in Indian films often represent the country itself. Can we movie on now to something a little fresher and less commonly flogged? Like, I don’t know, dudes in white Chelsea boots doing judo and fighting arch-villains?
It’s especially odd to me, though hardly surprising, that so much of what is written about Indian cinema in English is so bland and academic when the cinema itself is so dedicated to populist approval, melodrama, and celebration. If anything, this dedication to eliminating the popcorn film severely limits the quality and variety of discussion, and thus our understanding as a whole, in deference to making everyone think the history of Indian cinema is comprised entirely of Mother India, The World of Apu, Deewar, and Devdas. Plenty to write about many other stars, yet almost none of the books so much as mention, for example, Mithun Chakraborty, though he was wildly popular. I mean, you don’t have to praise the guy, but pretending a huge hunk of popular cinema doesn’t exist just because it doesn’t jibe with some overly romanticized and over-intellectualized delusion of what an industry is hardly sounds like solid historical work to me. Somewhere, a spirited, good-natured book about crazy Bollywood action films, swank spy movies, and horror films is waiting to be written. And Mithun will be on the god-damned cover.
Of course, things are not as bad now as they used to be. The rise of DVD and the Internet means that more people know about Bollywood than previously (when only a little over a billion people knew about it), so much so that it became a trendy buzzword among Hollywood stars, all of whom started claiming they wanted to make Bollywood films, though none of them actually want to. And while the world of print may still be thin (disregarding all the celebrity gossip tabloids), there have been several exceptional Bollywood-related film review sites launched over the past few years. But even among cult film fans, Bollywood is a cult. In a world that offers you up something like eight million reviews of Zombie Lake, you’d think you’d be able to find at least one review of Farz. And yet this is not the case. Not online, and not in print, where the only information I could find on Farz was an entry in the title index of the mammoth Encyclopedia of Indian Film, which I shall now reprint in its entirety: “Farz (1967).”
There are plenty of reasons that explain this. First and foremost, preaching from an English-speaking American standpoint, has been the absence of the movies themselves, which always makes discussing movies difficult. While even the cheapest, most rotten of European sex and gore films often got dubbed and distributed in the United States in one form or another, Indian films were always marketed solely to Indian immigrant populations — with the films of Satyajit Ray and a couple others being the ultra-rare art-house exceptions. Tons of European, Japanese, and Hong Kong productions were dumped into the American market, either as grindhouse filler or for the emerging home video market. And each of these films found a fanbase that built a network of support around the films. Fanzines, fan clubs, so on. This never happened with Indian films. They never came to the grindhouse or the drive-in. They never got retitled and dumped onto American VHS alongside Lucio Fulci, Godzilla, and Bruce Lee. They were always targeted specifically at Indian populations, in Indian neighborhoods, distributed by Indian companies. AIP never bought Farz, retitled it, and gave it a new score by Les Baxter. Maybe it’s because the films were just too foreign, what with these songs and dances and brown people in them. But heck, Japanese movies got distributed. Hell, Lo Lieh was one of the ugliest son-of-a-gun’s in the 1970s, and he got distribution. And it’s not like you couldn’t edit out the musical numbers for the American market.
I’m sure someone who knows more about global film markets can fill in the details, but whatever the cause, the end result was that Indian films never had time to build up a fanbase outside of Indian populations. Hell, maybe that’s all they needed. It’s not like there are only a few Indians in the world. If half of India paid a buck to see your movie, you’d be doing all right. But that’s neither here nor there, and it all started changing, slowly, in the middle of the 1990s — no coincidence that this increased global awareness of Indian cinema corresponds with the increased ubiquity of the Internet and DVD, both vastly cheap ways to distribute information. Suddenly, the world of Indian cinema previously inaccessible to those who did not speak the language was much more accessible.
Bollywood was not entirely unrepresented in the early days of the Web, but it’s only more recently that substantial discussion of Bollywood films has begun to flirt with approaching the quantity and quality of what has been written about other countries. Strange, given that the number of people who watch Bollywood films obviously dwarfs the number of people who would watch Hell of the Living Dead over and over — but not so strange, considering that most of the people watching Bollywood films are just people. They’re not the kind, if they even have access to the technology, to rush out and start a website, any more than my parents might rush out and start a film website just because they go to the movies. Most of what was being discussed about Bollywood was either from mainstream newspaper columnists, or it was from fans discussing the same new movies as these professional critics. India just didn’t have enough weird movie nerds with Geocities pages to drive a full-fledged exploration of their country’s battier film fare.
More times than not, all you will find a generic aggregated page that appears on like a hundred different but identical sites and does nothing but provide extremely basic cast information (usually only a release date and one or two star names). But like I said, things are starting to change. More Indian film fans outside of the elitist community of critics are finding a voice online, and the people writing about the films in English are branching out as older films find their way on to DVD and they run out of new films to review. Cult film fans who aren’t accustomed to the peculiarities of Indian cinema (i.e., the musical numbers and the inclusion of romantic melodrama in almost everything) are also starting to get used to things. The next couple years, especially as India’s middle class continues to grow, will be interesting as Bollywood begins to find its nerdy cult movie culture legs.
Farz was India’s first real attempt at making a James Bond style espionage thriller, and while it hardly lives up to the production values of a Bond film, it manages to achieve, at the very least, the level of some of the lower tier Eurospy films from the same time period. And calling any of these films “lower tier” is absolutely not a reflection of their potential to entertain. Farz, for example, obviously suffers from a low budget (though it’s hard to tell whether some of the film’s crudity — abrupt music cue changes, choppy edits, etc — is actually part of the film, or whether it evolved after decades of the print being abused and spliced), and it takes several missteps, but it’s hardly an unenjoyable film, though at times it just barely manages to be so.
Actually, Farz really only takes one big misstep, though it’s enough of a misstep to kill the film dead in its tracks any time it happens. I am speaking of the odious slapstick comic relief that comes in the form of a couple of bumbling brothers who become the loyal sidekicks of our main hero. Their sub Franco and Cicco quality shtick is unfunny within five seconds of making itself known, and from time to time when the film needs to pad itself out and they don’t have a musical number handy, they’ll cut to five minutes of these dips walking into walls or grabbing each other by the shoulders and falling down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and thinking about the comedy in this movie, as in most movies, is going to make me mad when, in fact, I thought Farz was all right. Even though it features a pie fight. Where did all those pies even come from? Did every single person have a pie?
No, no — getting ahead of myself again. If I get too mad about the pies, I’ll never get to the part where the guy with Khrushchev eyebrows leads a guard on a chase that does that thing where they keep running in and out of various doors, and they run into one door but out of another. Oh ho ho ho!
Anyway, we kick things off with a dastardly plot already in progress. Seems some terrorists in ill-advised scarves are trying to blow up a dam. Luckily, heroic Indian secret agent 303 is on the case with his trusty camera to capture the bad guys red handed. He could have also considered shooting them or perhaps arranging ahead of time — since he obviously knew where they were going to be — for some sort of security force to swoop in and capture anyone. But I guess these were simpler time, and so instead he takes pictures of them and their car, shoots a little, then rushes off to…file his report? Develop his secret film? No. He rushes off to visit his younger sister, Kamla, though he does at least take time out to call his superior officer and tell him he has some important information, though apparently not important enough to tell right then and there. And he drops the film off to be developed not at a secret spy facility, but at a photomat down on the corner of the street. I’m starting to think our hero here not only isn’t James Bond, but he’s barely even Johnny English.
The terrorist organization consists of five guys — two of whom wear scarves even though their short sleeve shirts indicate that it’s not scarf season — who are constantly berated by a guy who, in a European film, would have been played by Timothy Dalton. The guy’s secret underground terrorist lair leaves a considerable amount to be desired, consisting as it does primarily of some cool Mario Bava-esque lighting and a folding card table with a rotary phone on it. Here’s a tip for all of you who aspire to be a henchman for some megalomaniacal would-be world conqueror. If, on the day of your interview, you get a tour of the secret underground lair and it is furnished entirely with folding card tables and rotary phones, pass on whatever offer you are given. In fact, don’t join up with any secret globe-conquering society that has a folding card table anywhere, let alone in the main control room. And if the main control room also doubles as storage space for crates and boxes…I don’t know. Maybe the guy is new and villainy and just hasn’t had time to unpack. He probably just bought Blofeld’s former secret lair off the EvilBay online auction site, and he doesn’t get five minutes to set his stuff up before he’s having to slap around incompetent henchmen. Speaking of which, if you are a would be world conqueror who just bought a new secret lair and are looking for a goon squad, don’t hire anyone who wears a scarf in the summer, unless that person is a World War One flying ace or something.
The terrorists pile into their station wagon and track Agent 303 to his sister’s house, where they plant a time bomb in the engine of his car. They could have just shot him, but I guess they figure he went easy on them back at the dam, so it’s the least they can do. The bomb is apparently set to go off eight million hours later, because 303 drives around, takes care of a few errands, returns his copy of Doctor No to the video store, and finally abandons his car at a dead end before the bomb goes off, leading to a shoot-out in which our noble hero and defender of Hindustani is gunned down and stabbed by a sexy femme fatale. Man what a way for the hero to start a film.
Oops, wait. He’s dead. I guess he’s not the hero at all.
No, the hero is Gopal, aka Agent 116, played by future superstar Jeetendra in his first real lead role. When we meet Gopal, he is going what all good spies do during their off time, which is frolic through the hills with a sexy woman in cool 60s fashion. The call of duty interrupts their courtship, however, which is at least better than a courtship being interrupted by the call of nature, and soon Gopal is assigned to pick up Agent 303’s case, track down the killers, and spoil whatever nefarious plot they might be hatching. En route to doing this he meets a gorgeous socialite named Sunita, played by yet another future superstar, Babita Kapoor, who is also the future superstar mother of superstar daughters Karisma and Kareena Kapoor. And my goodness, what a beauty! Jeetendra plays Agent 116 a little less Bond, a little more Elvis, especially in his signature slim cut white suit with matching white Chelsea boots. When he wears a tuxedo, he even accessorizes with a Kentucky Colonel style ribbon tie. Now that’s class. Plus, he’s got Elvis’ pompadour, and the musical nature of Bollywood cinema means that this is probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to an Elvis swinging spy movie.
Naturally, Gopal falls instantly in love, but in all honesty, if you could see Babita, you would too. The only problem is that her father happens to be that evil guy who yells at other evil guys! And so begins a series of action set-pieces that require Gopal to run up and down a whole lot of stairs, fight big fat guys, and partake in lavish party dances. Along for the ride are a couple of bumbling comic relief brothers who manage to be so far away from funny that they circle all the way back around to funny, but then pass that and jet still further out into the very nether regions of unfunny. One of them is short and has giant Khrushchev eyebrows. The other is blind as a bat and thus serves as Gopal’s driver. Gopal must think they’re about as useful as I do, because he frequently sends them on off-screen tasks, and thank God for it, because when they are on screen, this movie screeches to a halt. Oh, they are just awful! I mean, the annals of unfunny comic relief are stuffed to bursting, but these two really reached those rarefied airs of unfunny that only the most odious of odious comic relief can hope to attain. They achieve total unfunniness nirvana.
Most of Gopal’s mission revolves around recovering the lost film, which seems rather a moot mission considering that about five minutes into the assignment, the goons are attacking him over and over. You’d think that after you’ve seen each of them several times, shot a few of them, and seen them constantly piling in and out of the same station wagon, the photos of them would become needless. But I guess Gopal needs something to do in between Sunita’s various parties and trading witty barbs with her father, so he goes after the film. To get it, he makes contact with Agent 303’s sister, Kamla, who unfortunately has already been tricked by Sunita’s father into thinking Gopal is the villain. This leads to her, through typically convoluted Bollywood fashion, attempting to seduce Gopal by dancing around his mod hotel room whilst wearing…Christ almighty; I almost don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like this, well, you see…OK. She has these leopard print bell bottom pants, right? And they’re skin-tight, only they seem to be padded or at least cut Jodhpur style so that they make her ass look the size of the entire Indian subcontinent. And then she has a shiny pink top trimmed with leopard skin, and the whole thing is topped off with a sort of floppy pink and leopard skin pimp hat that would have looked right at home on Rudy Ray Moore’s head. It is quite possibly the most astoundingly awful and yet hypnotic women’s outfit I’ve seen this side of a Jess Franco film.
Eventually, we learn that Sunita’s father is naught but a pawn of some sinister shadow organization, and in a dramatic turn of events, it doesn’t turn out to be Pakistani in origin. At least, I don’t think they’re Pakistani. I’m pretty sure they’re Chinese, but it’s hard to tell, because a grimacing Indian guy in fake eyelids and yellow face make-up is scarcely any more convincing than a Caucasian in the same. Back when I watched Fritz Lang’s exciting “Indian Epic,” I thought about guilt that may arise from watching a film in which Germans slap on some brown powder and pretend to be Indian. Well, no fear, because as soon as the grinning mastermind of Farz is revealed, India loses any moral high ground it could have ever hoped to claim. The villain is Chinese (I bet somewhere he’s described as Chinese-Pakistani because, well, you know. Pakistan, right?) because he has to be, since the finale of Farz is a low-rent rip-off of Doctor No. It’s also pretty awesome.
Despite the cringe-inducing comedic scenes, Farz is a pretty good first attempt for India at a Bond style espionage adventure. Like the superior Aankhen that came shortly after, Farz takes its nationalism far more seriously than Bond or any of the Eurospy films would have ever dared. While Europe had entered a phase in which such flag-waving patriotism was considered silly, at best, India was still pretty serious about it. That said, however, Farz is hardly a deadly serious film. It may not be Bond, but it’s certainly not The Day of the Jackal, either. Jeetendra makes for a bouncy, likable secret agent with a spectacular wardrobe, and Babita Kapoor is drop dead gorgeous as Sunita, even if she has almost nothing to contribute to the film other than herself in an array or gorgeous 60s outfits. That’s enough for me. She certainly doesn’t contribute much to the dancing. Babita, it turns out, was famously flat footed when it came to this most crucial aspect of Indian cinema. No less that Shammi Kapoor publicly marveled at her inability to learn even the most basic of steps, though he probably did that before he ballooned out to eight thousand pounds.
But if Babita wasn’t a great dancer, it was made up for by the fact that she wasn’t a great actress, either. She realistically described herself as a flowerpot in her films, paid to look pretty and get rescued by the hero, who is busily dancing his heart out and judoing fat guys. Babita’s performance is hardly terrible here, and it’s not like she has a lot to work with given the script, but she certainly doesn’t carry the weight of the film the way Jeetendra does, with his jumping all over the place and giving rock and roll looks to the camera as he flops his pompadour down into his face in that way we all know drives the gals wild. His youthful enthusiasm mixed with Babita’s two left feet (it only makes me love her more) necessitated the development of a new style of dance. Thus was born the more aerobic format we still see in many of the films today, with less dancing and more just sort of running around, jumping, and tumbling.
If you are looking to explore India’s contributions to the 60s spy craze, then Farz is important because it was more or less the first. For that reason alone, you should give it a go. And if you need other reasons, there’s Babita looking dreamy, Jeetendra looking steamy, and that one chick in her nightmarish leopard woman pimp attire. But as is often the case, first rarely means best, and Farz is far from the best India has to offer. In fact, the movie directly inspired by Farz’ success, Aankhen, is a far better film that uses many of the same elements but does them better and without a lengthy pie fight. And seriously, man, all of sudden there are like ten thousand pies in that scene. Why were there so many pies? It just doesn’t make any sense at all!
If you have a high tolerance for low-rent European spy films, then you’re probably going to be able to get through Farz and, like me, wring a little enjoyment out of it. It has some trippy lightning and camera work, some decent, if occasional, action, a great finale and villain, and good music and musical numbers. In fact, people who don’t care for Indian films are often told to just fast forward through the musical numbers, but let me suggest this instead. Since the music here is awesome, watch the music numbers, and instead fast forward through any scene involving the bumbling brothers. You’ll be much happier watching Babita pose than you will watching those two bump their heads and fall down.
Despite its sundry short-comings, Farz managed to become a pretty big hit. Jeetendra became a bona fide leading man, and Babita sustained a decent career despite her limitations, until she finally retired to become a business manager for her even more successful daughters. If you are unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Indian cinema, a film like Farz might take some getting used to, but once that happens, it’s at least as enjoyable as many of its European brethren. Aankhen is still the better film to watch, but Farz is important historically and worth a look. Just don’t look too long at the leopard outfit, or it’ll turn your eyes to ash.