Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Prem Chopra, Adil Hussain, Dhritiman Chaterji
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Runtime: 156 min.
Verdict: A smart smart uber-stylish film that could’ve easily been so much more. And it comes with a killer title sequence.
Genre: Thriller, Action
You could be charitable and give Mr. Raghavan the benefit of the doubt by ignoring the snatch-and-grab (do read all the links) action sequences as an attempt to hide their weaknesses, or you could be critical of the choppy barely-comprehensible filmmaking, where the geography doesn’t make a lick of sense, where close scrutiny of those fragmentary moments betray cars ambling along in a chase who kinetic energy is barely an illusion. Mr. Raghavan, in his turn, replies with a most beautifully constructed corridor-setpiece, and coming on the heels of the film’s most romantic moment – her confession a tad clichéd and his probably as bittersweet (blunt and honest) a reflection anyone as opaque as him could muster courage to give away – the poetry of their relationship’s conception amidst all the violence and danger, and the resulting shootout, where the smooth thuds of silencers from his gun give way to a camouflaging hug that turns out to be something real for her, might cause John Woo to shed a tear or two. There’s a blind woman, and another with a tiny baby, and you’re laughing too. I was. So was my wife. At the sheer joy of it all. There was a song playing in the background that felt sweet and sad and happy and breathless at the same time, and in keeping with my density with anything that is in verse-form, it might as well have been in Swahili. I listen to it now, with that sequence playing and replaying itself in the background, with both hindsight (plot) and meaning (song) at my disposal, and I realize Mr. Raghavan didn’t even need words there. That is music action-style, or if you want to put it the other way round, it is action music-style. And aside from the fact that it is both, it is pure.
Unlike the melodrama of the ending, which is fake any which way you look at it. A clear and present problem in our urban/global action movie that needs immediate attention is the general dose of English in our dialogs, which just doesn’t sound right. I cannot at the moment put my finger on it, but stuff like “I can’t make it” or “Why can’t we diffuse the bomb” or “that bastard shot me” simply melts before the bullshit detector, and pulls you out of the proceedings. The drama feels tacked on, the stakes with the bomb and all feels unnecessarily high, almost a part of a different film, and the Inver Brass-esque ending, with its summarization of the scenario around the subcontinent feels like an advertisement for The Hindu. From a plot involving colorful cinematic utterly fictional characters, we’re suddenly in the firing line of such cool-sounding things as “Beijing stock market crash” and “Iran-India pipeline” and “civil war” and “senators” and “NATO”. In a way, it is an implication of every adolescent reader like me who actually took those scenarios in Robert Ludlum’s novels seriously. Knowledge sometimes can be a very bad thing.
But then, Mr. Ludlum’s novels had the luxury of packing that lethargic prose and convoluted plot into incredibly bloated books running anywhere from 500 to 800 pages. There’s only so much plot and so many sequences that could go into a commercial length narrative feature. It is just an approximation but by my count Agent Vinod has close to 50 sequences, which is quite a large number for a film of the whoisbehindit and whyisbehindit kind, where cause and effect ought to be clearly explained to the audience so that they gain some sort of foothold on the proceedings. The keywords here are goals and obstacles, and in an out-and-out post-modernist thriller as Agent Vinod, where the dramatic tensions are near negligible when compared to the “larger” scheme of things, which in turn are forsaken for some nudges here and winks there and a general level of we’re-having-a-ball-making-this attitude (which sometimes is infectious), the audience’s understanding of G&O attains considerable significance as far as their interaction with it is concerned. Interaction is another keyword. I mean, you don’t cause interaction you might as well show the grass grow, no? Consider Mr. De Palma’s Mission Impossible, a film which received much flak from the critical fraternity for its convoluted plot, but one that is an ideal example here – the kind that creates a perfect illusion of involvement, the kind that feels coherent in spite of unleashing excessive amount of exposition within a short span of time, that kind that creates willingly dumb terminals with a false sense of interaction with its long setpieces threading together the narrative. Between the Hitchcockian pleasures of the mission in Prague, to the Rififi-inspired CIA NOC-list theft, to the CGI-awesomeness of the train chase, the film unloads upon us a whole lot of cockamamie masquerading as plot. These are interim goals the narrative leads to, and we are under the totally false impression that we’re engaging with the didactic narrative when we’re merely following it.
Agent Vinod has little by way of these clearly set goals. Neither are they properly set-up as a big event (narrative pit-stop), nor are they anticipated in advance. It is not modeled on the heist movie pattern of the Mission Impossible movies films but instead follows the hooking strategy of the adventure film ((in a way, all Bond movies could be classified under here, as far as I can recollect), where everything is unknown, and breadcrumbs lead the way through the narrative. And although Mr. Raghavan sets his narrative far more intelligently than most of the Bond films, there is little to no respite from this incessant trail (plot). Respite here refers to a strategically placed action sequence (unlike the obligatory ones in most Bond films that only serve to aggravate the detachment) where the dramatic stakes take over the narrative stakes, like for instance amping up the matter of Kazan’s death or Ruby’s (Ms. Kapoor) predicament, where we care for something other than the smartness of everyone around. You could say the film is too clever for its own good.
But an absence of such a delimiter is not the main concern, and is in no way the deal-breaker. Now, 242 is the perfect hook for an adventure thriller (the Ark) Mr. Raghavan has at his disposal, but he never ever sets its status as the object we desire. We already know about the existence of the nuclear bomb, which is a clear mistake if you ask me, a decision that significantly dilutes the film’s chances of being a thriller and instead adopt the ways of an action-adventure. As in, a long get-to-the-bomb-before-it-explodes. Which is clearly not Mr. Raghavan’s area of expertise, considering he likes his narrative to be littered with crosses and double-crosses, and femme fatales, and false identities, and convoluted schemes. And because of the film’s tendencies to deliver punchlines and display a general degree of cleverness, and because of the incessant pacing both by way of plotting and cutting (there’s almost a near excessive usage of jump-cuts here, both in action sequences and general camera movements, 242, despite its presence, rarely gets the top billing.
Incessant pacing. I know, first-world problems. With Mr. Raghavan it is not a case of what’s on screen is ineptly done, which happens to be my gripe with most movies the Hindi film industry serves me. Like Kahaani for instance, that doesn’t even have the aesthetic sense of cinema. You know, basic stuff that at least makes the damn thing watchable. I mean, here I am complaining about the pacing and amidst all of it Mr. Raghavan gives us probably the most nerve-shattering 20-odd seconds of pure genius in recent memory – a low-angle shot from behind Vinod’s (Mr. Khan) head as the angle of elevation looks at the sniper in the distance. A schoolbus comes and goes, and for a few moments, where the tension of the time-bomb is so unbearable you are on your knees pleading for a cut. It is brilliant, precise and pure. And for sure, it is thing is going to be in my kids’ syllabus whenever it is they learn movies. Oh yeah baby, they’ve it coming.
But then, here in Agent Vinod, Mr. Raghavan’s choices seem to be ill-suited to the kind of narrative experience he probably was aiming for. Scenes run into each other, and there’s simply too much motion. Mr. Khan walks real fast. It doesn’t help that Mr. Raghavan seems to prefer a drum-beating retro-soundtrack. Conversations are generally snappy, and a two-shot, at least for the first half, is a rarity. And when all these are mixed together in an essentially expository narrative, it is probably too much information to take. This begs the question. Why don’t modern 0action movies employ the dissolve? Mr. Raghavan uses a whole lot of transitory elements, like flying planes, and moving cars, which basically are shorthand for physical displacement, but which make it all seem temporally continuous and a packet of information in its own right. My movie-viewing system suggests that nothing is as effective as a good-old fashioned dissolve, best used in the Indiana Jones movies through those maps composited over real action, and cognitively it not merely works as shorthand for time passing by but has a calming influence on our processing system. A dissolve feels like a logical end-point, and Mr. Raghavan employs it mostly for some winks (Rajan’s death).
And considering that he gives the nuclear bomb much in advance, wouldn’t he have been better served if he had employed intercutting throughout the early part of the narrative, breaking to us not merely the itinerary of the bomb thereby setting the plot up for agent Vinod to unravel, but also dropping on us much in advance the film’s another major hook Bluebird, instead of breaking it to us at the eleventh hour when it becomes just another cryptic word. And he doesn’t make his job any easier by messing up the narrative through cross-cutting during the final half hour of the chase, where every character seems to be following his own trail and the tension that might have been derived from the unified goal of following the bomb-man never gains the momentum it should have (Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol). I mean, the Colonel could’ve been ejected from the proceedings earlier so that it is just the pursuit of the bomb-man we’re concerned about.
The cross-cutting in the initial part, or the lack of it, highlights a far deeper gripe, and one that troubles Srikanth Srinivasan (who made me realize it) the most, is the irony of Vinod’s predicament, both as the agent of the authority here and as a symbolical figure of the genre. The big reveal implies that Vinod has been unwittingly a part of the Zeus group’s grand conspiracy, aiding them in implicating the ignorant terrorists. That basically kicks his sense of free-will right out of the window, bringing him and James Bond and every such figure right alongside Guy Montag and John Anderton and Rick Deckard. Which happens to be, or rather could’ve been a brilliant subversion of the spy genre, because Mr. Raghavan discourages any such reading by indulging in his referential-punchline one-two, the ending in South Africa basically echoing Casino Royale.
And even in its present state the coda doesn’t sit well with me. I might be significantly dumber than Vinod in Mr. Metla’s eyes, but are we supposed to be turning the terrorist’s weapons on them? What does that make us, and is Mr. Raghavan implying a ultra right-winging stance? How would the stock exchange fall trigger a NATO attack? Would Beijing remain silent and incapable? Would the United States and its allies be capable of going into another war with their economic re-collapse? Does Mr. Raghavan’s Agent Vinod encourage this line of questioning? I mean, why does Mr. Arif Zakaria need to be a suicide bomber when he so easily could’ve been a sniper?
Which is a shame. Because Agent Vinod merely ends up being a smart thriller when it could’ve so easily been a great one. Rare is the genre exercise that doesn’t merely announce the plot but takes great care to be a treat to the eyes. I mean, who would think of quoting Tuco of all the people. Or would bother to serve a closeup of dry fingers playing the organ. Or would employ The Good The Bad and The Ugly ringtone? Or who would bother to indulge in a little exercise for the eye, ala the final sequence in Mr. Haneke’s Caché by having the bombman traverse the length of the frame? Or when we wonder how the hell Vinod knows the Lankan tiger, who would take the opportunity of answering it via a pleasing montage serving both as an explanation of the past and present. The thing is there are two films there – one a Sriram Raghavan film and the other an Illuminati production. Consider Agent Vinod as Mr. Raghavan coming to terms with the demands of the other one. And when he finds himself on the other end, I hope the answer he finds has nothing to do with being fast-paced.
And it probably doesn’t need much of a mention but, Mr. Khan is quite simply devastating. Could he be the best star-actor we have? I wonder.