With Bard of Blood, The Family Man and War up for release, tracing the evolution of the spy genre in India

Karishma Upadhyay

Sep 18, 2019 08:32:20 IST

Amazon Prime gets its first desi spy drama this month (The Family Man, 20 September) and so does Netflix (Bard of Blood, 27  September). After binge watching these two shows over the next two weekends, you can then walk into a theatre the following Friday and catch some more spy action with Yashraj Films’ War releasing on 2 October.

They’re vastly different stories but they’re all spy tales. Just the way all high profile action drama in Hollywood seems to have slipped into the superhero and science fiction genres, the last decade has seen a huge percentage of action drama films in Bollywood being loosely in the ‘spy’ genre. 

 With Bard of Blood, The Family Man and War up for release, tracing the evolution of the spy genre in India

Posters of YRF's War and Amazon Prime Video's The Family Man

Growing up, espionage typically conjured up images of James Bond, and maybe Jason Bourne. You’d think of someone suave, driving fast cars with access to unheard-of-gadgetry; someone who gambled with billionaires in Monte Carlo and woke up the following morning next to a beautiful woman, two continents away. This was all larger-than-life and had ‘foreign’ written all over it. It’s no surprise then, that 20th century Bollywood barely dabbled in this genre of films. The earliest half decent attempts at making spy films were Jeetendra’s Farz (1967) and Dharmendra’s Aankhen (1968), both of which relied heavily on Bond-esque tropes.

It’s interesting to note that this was the period between two wars (1965 and 1971), when we had a spate of patriotic films. Manoj Kumar built an entire career living up to his “Bharat” nametag with films like Shaheed (1965), Upkar (1967) and Purab Aur Paschim (1970). One would think that military intelligence would be a natural extension and sub-genre that filmmakers would explore during a period like this but it remained largely foreign territory to Bollywood.

The following decades saw a few more attempts in the Bond genre of spy films, but these were mostly unoriginal desi versions of 007, with ridiculous codenames like Gunmaster G9 (Surakksha, 1979). These were also the decades that belonged to the “angry young man.” A hero that fought the system rather than invisible foreign powers was easier to connect with for our large, struggling middle class.

(Clockwise from left) Poster of The Hero: love Story of A Spy, still from New York, Bang Bang, Ek Tha Tiger poster

(Clockwise from left) Poster of The Hero: love Story of A Spy, still from New York, Bang Bang, Ek Tha Tiger poster

It would take JP Dutta, Sunny Deol and another war towards the end of the century for patriotic films to come back in vogue. Sunny Deol’s newly found ‘son of the soil’ status after Gadar might have something to do with it, but India got its first on-screen RAW agent in 2003 with The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. The film’s 35 crore budget made it an expensive film for the time but decent returns at the box office opened up a possible new genre for the big budget masala film. What also began to change towards the end of that decade was the influx of corporate funds into Bollywood and a higher propensity to spend on marquee projects. That spawned movies like Mission Istanbul (2008) and New York (2009), vastly different films but with themes of espionage. 

We were now finally able to do justice to our own versions of Bond films, and it’s what we did—with very little originality. Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger broke box office records in 2012 and became the first Hindi film to gross Rs 300 crore. The film leaned heavily on slick action and the ‘spectacle’ factor, something we also saw in films like Agent Vinod (2012), Bang Bang (2014) and Phantom (2015). The Hollywood secret agent film, after all, is all about beautiful people in beautiful locations doing breath-taking stunts and fighting super-villains. Why should we have been any different?

In recent years, however, another brand of desi spy films emerged that relied less on spectacle and more on the nationalistic fervour that was beginning to grip the country. This marked our second wave of patriotic films but this time around, we were prepared to tell more sophisticated tales of our intelligence community. Many of these claimed to be based on true stories and brought in an earthiness to their characters. These agents were more real, and did what they did for the love of their country. But these weren’t necessarily low budget films; they found takers with some of the biggest names in the industry. Akshay Kumar had Baby (2015) and did a cameo opposite Taapsee Pannu in Naam Shabana (2017), John Abraham had Madras Cafe (2013) and R.A.W. earlier this year, while Alia Bhatt did Raazi (2018). 

It’s this earthy, ‘every man’ undercover agent that’s arguably been the driving force for the sheer volume of content we’re beginning to see in the genre. The lines of differentiation have increasingly become clearer: You don’t need Ferraris and roulette tables to make a compelling spy film, you just need a good story. India’s Most Wanted that released earlier this year cemented the idea that spies can also be a broke lot, going about their ‘government’ jobs quietly and without any fuss. The film had its flaws and didn’t work at the box office but that idea is firmly here to stay. 

Raj And DK, the directors of Amazon Prime’s The Family Man describe Manoj Bajpayee’s Srikant Tiwari as ‘James Bond from Chembur’. He is a super spy who juggles his middle-class existence with catching terrorists. You see him getting a scolding from his daughter’s school principal in one scene of the trailer while he’s applying for a home loan in another. In contrast, Siddharth Anand’s War promises to be a spectacle like no other, with car chases on ice and bike chases in the Alps. Netflix’s Bard of Blood lies somewhere in between, and is the story of a Shakespeare-spouting English teacher who gets recalled into the service—this show also depends on its high-octane action. 

Whether your allegiances lie with gritty realism or Ian Fleming’s ostentatious brand of espionage, there’s suddenly something for everyone; it’s for you to choose your poison.

Updated Date: Sep 18, 2019 08:32:20 IST