Only a director who is sure of his craft should attempt to reinterpret the enduring Bond formula from a culturally different perspective. The challenge is to use time-tested clichÃ©s in inventive ways - a task which writer/director Sriram Raghavan has accomplished. Agent Vinod is stylish and Indian, with elements of masala fused to typical Bond.
The masala films of the 70s often displayed Bond influences via gadgetry, techno-equipped fortresses, and bizarre international cartels but Raghavan has concocted a new delight - 30 percent masala, 30 percent Bond and the rest - his creativity. It is a departure from South Indian remakes such as Dabangg, Bodyguard and Singham which have been popular recently. Agent Vinod is different because it is sophisticated in its humour, action sequences and meticulous detail. (This is not to denigrate the broader style of humour simply to point out a difference.) Blessed with ample time, a generous budget and intelligent direction, it has emerged like a well-matured wine - robust yet full of subtle flavours.
Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) is well cast as a RAW agent on a mission to save India and the world from nuclear disaster as he winds his way through a maze of global villainy. Raghavan alluded to 70s crime thrillers in his critically acclaimed Johnny Gaddaar but the period influence is more emphatic in Agent Vinod. We are treated to gaudy villains, a mujra scene, splashes of red (a la Vijay Anand), pointed musical refrains and a curious animal fetish. Gulshan Grover and legendary Prem Chopra appear in their decadent glory but do not overwhelm with the hammy acting as they would have in the past. This is not homage or send-up - just a nod of acknowledgement to sources of Raghavanâ€™s inspiration.
Like Bond, Vinod finds himself in exotic locales. He delivers sharp one-liners and gets knocked about but always rallies. Also in Bond style are Vinodâ€™s engaging, tongue-in-cheek action sequences, which often occur during celebratory events - weddings in Riga and Karachi and a birthday party at Nirmalaâ€™s - an ice-cream parlour in Delhi. Unlike Bond though, agent Vinodâ€™s episodic forays do not present as a series of sexual encounters. He has just one love interest the ambiguous Pakistani agent - Dr. Iram Parveen Billal (Kareena Kapoor).
Although Kareena Kapoor evokes both assured glamour and homespun sincerity effortlessly, she has perhaps been miscast. Her star status spelled out that she would be the heroine before the film was released. It didnâ€™t help that pre-release publicity also harped on this fact, spoiling the twists and turns of the Vinod-Iram relationship. Iramâ€™s intentions should have been more veiled for greater audience engagement.
The editing is amazingly smooth in view of the convoluted plot. There was only a slight glitch - after Vinod had lost consciousness and appeared suddenly on a boat - where my connection with the film faltered through confusion. This was later rectified through flashback but was a little destabilizing at the time. There is much to enjoy otherwise - the visual intricacy of the settings, the clever integration of the songs (Pritam), the humour in the background score and the TV, cinema, in-flight and public screens that feature as background but offer visual counterpoint to the action taking place. On one occasion Vinod awaits a tense outcome whilst Kung Foo Panda is being screened on TV.
High production values, consistent attention to detail, plenty of style and a cracking pace make this worthy of a double dekho. Itâ€™s not surprising that Saif Ali Khan has dedicated this film to his late father - a fitting tribute.