I spent part of last week reading fellow blogger Todd Stadtman’s book, Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema (more on that, along with a link to my review of it, at the end of this post). Todd’s book discusses, in affectionate detail, all the iconic action films—spy thrillers included—of the 70s. In a fit of enthusiasm, brought on by Todd’s book, I told my husband, “I want to see Gunmaster G-9”. To which he replied, “I didn’t like that. What I really liked was Aankhen. That was fun.”
I had to agree about Aankhen, because this was the first Hindi spy film I ever watched—probably when I was about 11 years old. I was so totally bowled over by it that it became the benchmark for Hindi thriller films as far as I was concerned. (Of course, with far sleeker films being made in the recent past, Aankhen does take a bit of a beating, but it still remains a favourite of mine, no matter how many flaws and totally goofy stuff I spot during rewatches).
As the opening voiceover-turning-into-a-song goes, Us mulk ki sarhad ko koi chhoo nahin sakta, jis mulk ki sarhad ki nigehbaan hon aankhen (‘Nobody can touch the frontiers of the land, the frontiers of which are watched over by eyes’—the eyes in this sense implying keen, watchful, patriotic eyes).
The eyes in question, we discover in the first scene, are those of people like Major Sahib (Nasir Hussain), who was a major in the Indian National Army and had worked with Netaji himself; Major Sahib’s son Sunil (Dharmendra); and their colleagues. These men, while not part of the government, are zealous patriots and have the support of the government.
In the meeting which begins the story, a newcomer—Akram—expresses skepticism (why should civilians be fighting the government’s battle with enemies of the state, he asks), but is silenced by a melodramatic speech from Sunil.
Later, it emerges that Akram’s elder brother Salim has been working for the organization for a while and is right now on an important mission: he’s aboard a ship, stuffed to its gills with weapons and ammo and ‘enemy agents’ headed for India. It is Salim’s job to keep an eye [those aankhen!] on the enemy, and to put a distinguishing mark on their consignments, so that when they dock in India, Indian customs/intelligence/whatever can nab them.
While that’s happening, the film moves on to the love life of its hero, Sunil. Sunil’s sister (Kumkum) and her little son have been staying with Sunil and Major Sahib, since her husband is away in England on work.
Sister [in the usual nosey parker style of Hindi movie sisters] wants to know more about a Japanese girl who had once been in love with Sunil. Sunil, cornered, is forced to tell all…
…and thus emerges the tale of Meenakshi Mehta (Mala Sinha), a half-Japanese, half-Indian girl who’d been besotted with Sunil when he went to Japan a few years earlier to learn judo. Meenakshi saw him, fell in love, and began stalking him until she’d learnt all there was to know about him [a pleasant change, this, to find the man at the receiving end of the stalking].
Meenakshi trailed Sunil, even going to the extent of joining a tour group for which he’d signed up. After pestering him a bit [and, stalkerish Hindi film hero style] singing a song, Meenakshi was able to strike up a friendship with Sunil. She told him that her father had been in the INA too, and that he had trained her to help him in espionage when she was a little girl.
All of Meenakshi’s confessions of love and her general prettiness weren’t enough to get Sunil to agree that he loved her. This is too dangerous a life, said Sunil. He could get killed any moment, and then what about her? She would be left behind with a broken heart. Which, of course, had the opposite effect: why, said Meenakshi, should he be so worried about the condition of her heart should he cop it? Surely he must feel for her.
Sunil, however, would not be persuaded—even though he obviously did have a soft spot for Meenakshi—and they ended up parting ways, with a teary-eyed Meenakshi saying that their paths would certainly cross again. Destiny [and your average Hindi film script writer] cannot be so cruel as to prevent that.
Back to the present, and to Salim on that goon-laden boat. The goons, led by the evil Captain (not the ship’s bonafide captain, who is unaware of the skullduggery aboard his vessel, but Madan Puri), have begun suspecting Salim [I am not surprised, since Salim doesn’t appear to be a very adept secret agent]. Captain now contacts the Indian kingpin of this organization, Doctor X (Jeevan, wearing a bad wig, a monocle, and a uniform).
Doctor—who seems to be in charge—gives instructions for the consignment to be tied floats and jettisoned. Doctor will send for it—and for Captain—to be picked up.
This is done, but while the consignment is being pitched overboard, a watching Salim is in turn spotted and shot. He manages to make it to his room long enough to call Major Sahib [who, from the bank of flashing lights that twinkle rainbow-like on the console, is obviously really well-connected].
Some members of the ship’s crew, however, come by just then and are able to inform Major Sahib—at the other end of the line—that this man is dead. Major Sahib [and Nasir Hussain gets a chance to do one of his characteristic “Oh dear God! What a catastrophe!” acts] realizes that he now must get to the root of the matter—by referring to a much earlier message from Salim. Salim had informed him that the arms had originated in Beirut, where a gang led by a goon called Saeed (Sajjan) operates.
While Major Sahib gets cracking on this, Captain is received by his Indian colleagues, Doctor and his gang. For some unfathomable reason [considering the usual Hindi film’s distaste for showing even a streak of anything approaching ‘redeeming quality’ in a villain], Doctor actually is a doctor, who runs a charitable hospital. Captain—again for some unfathomable reason—is brought here on a stretcher, face wrapped up completely [did Ramanand Sagar take a leaf out of The Lady Vanishes?], ‘disguised’ as a patient.
Captain is relieved of his bandages. Doctor then takes him on a guided tour of his lair, introducing him to Madam, Lilly (Daisy Irani, all grown up and wearing what looks a pajama suit), and Akram (Salim’s traitorous younger brother, who has been lured into Doctor’s gang by money and the feminine wiles of Lilly).
Captain is also shown the ‘manufacturing’ section, where everything from bombs to guns are assembled. Plus he’s taken to the lookout post, made up to look like a sadhu’s hermitage, from where two fake sadhus keep an eye on the surrounding countryside, including the nearby airport and harbour. Captain is impressed.
From the baddies, back to the good guys. Major Sahib, to get to the heart of the matter, instructs Sunil to go to Beirut. In Beirut, they already have the best local secret agent—a man named Nadeem (Sujit Kumar) working for them. And, to help Sunil in his work, there’s also a group of secret agents from Singapore, who’ve gone to Beirut disguised as a dancing troupe. Major Sahib gives Sunil a photo of the girl who’s leading the dancing troupe. No, no prizes for guessing who it is.
In Beirut, Meenakshi and her dancing troupe—consisting of Mehmood, Dhumal, Madhumati and another dancer (whom I don’t recognize)—have been combining dance performances with taking photos (using a camera built into a microphone) of Saeed and his gang.
After a show, Meenakshi receives a message from Major Sahib—two bits of microfilm pasted beneath stamps on an air mail envelope. It informs her that Major Sahib is sending an agent to investigate matters in Beirut. And there’s a photo of the agent, which of course sets Meenakshi all aflutter.
Sunil tells Nadeem he’d like to spend the rest of the day sightseeing, so Nadeem takes himself off. And Sunil, cautious man that he is, pulls out a bug-detecting device and sweeps the room with it, only to find not one, but two bugs in the room. One is hidden inside a stuffed poodle and the other’s in a miniature bottle of liqueur [Lebanese hotel rooms do have odd décor].
Thankfully, Sunil has the sense to realize that this probably means Nadeem is up to no good. When he goes out shortly after, therefore, he’s especially careful—and manages to give the slip to the goon (Ram Tipnis, the makeup man for Aankhen and countless other hit films of the 60s) who’s been deputed to follow him.
Sunil ends up at his desired destination: Meenakshi and Co’s hideout, which is disguised as a photo studio. Meenakshi brings him up-to-date on all that’s been happening (including the fact that Nadeem, a lady’s man, is currently trying to woo Meenakshi, after having had an affair with an Algerian princess named Zainab). When the two of them are alone, Meenakshi tries to make a subtle pass at Sunil, but he quashes the attempt: they’re on work, he says. Only once this mission is over can they even think about romance.
That evening, there’s a little bit of both in the air. At Nadeem’s party, Nadeem introduces Sunil to the Algerian princess Zainab (Zeb Rehman, saddled with an awful wig). Zainab is immediately—and obviously—smitten, and Sunil does little to dissuade her. This draws Meenakshi’s jealousy, which—considering she’s a performer, and this is a party in an old Hindi film—means that she gets to express all her angst in an appropriate song.
Song over, Sunil instructs Meenakshi to keep Nadeem occupied while he goes and gives Nadeem’s room the once-over. And, sure enough, in his prowl through Nadeem’s room, Sunil finds a bunch of photographs, which he quickly takes photos of.
Back at their hideout, when Sunil and Meenakshi take a closer look at the photos, they see that some of the photos are of a ruined island fortress. Why? [Nadeem doesn’t seem the sort to be especially interested in heritage buildings].
Sunil and Meenakshi decide this merits checking out, and prudently, go armed. They see Saeed [whose code name, by the way, is African Tiger: a sad display of zoological ignorance] leaving the island, after giving some instructions to resident minions. When the coast is clear, Sunil stations a machine-gun-brandishing Meenakshi at the entrance, and goes deep into the fort, where—in a makeshift prison, he finds the man Saeed has kept captive. Nadeem!
The villains kindly stay away while a quick conversation ensues, in which it turns out that this is the real Nadeem. The fake Nadeem is one of Saeed’s men and was put in as a replacement after the real guy was kidnapped, all so that Saeed could keep tabs on Sunil etc.
This established, interruptions arrive in the form of said minions, and we’re treated to an illustration of just why all Hindi film goons stack up so many empty oil drums in their lairs [how beautifully they roll when people fall on them! What a racket they make! How well they conceal people who desperately need to hide!]
Sunil, Nadeem and Meenakshi figure that the best plan is to do another switch: substitute the real Nadeem for the fake one. To achieve this, they:
- Blow up the island fortress [no, nobody here is too fond of historical monuments, as I’d guessed]—which of course makes Saeed believe that the imprisoned Nadeem, along with all of Saeed’s henchman on the island, has been blown to smithereens;
- Lure the fake Nadeem away to some deserted ruins on a romantic rendezvous with Meenakshi; here, among some very impressive old ruins, Meenakshi’s colleagues—masquerading as ghosts of ancient Romans—spook the fake Nadeem (who wears a mask, by the way) and capture him;
The tables are turned. But will they stay turned for long? No. Because Saeed, Doctor, Captain, Madam, Lilly, Akram and their allies aren’t totally dumb [though they do seem to waste a lot of money on unnecessary accoutrements such as a tiger in a pit to guard a caged prisoner, where a mere cage could have done just as well]…
What I liked about this film:
The entire package. It’s not as if it’s flawless: the gadgetry is usually rather silly, the special effects are mostly tacky, the villains—especially Jeevan—are exaggerated, and there are far too many characters floating about. Despite that, the script is pretty cohesive and coherent, and proceeds fairly logically. [The lack of logic is one major complaint I have against a lot of other Hindi suspense films: look at much of NA Ansari’s filmography, for instance].
The eye candy. Dharmendra and Mala Sinha look simply gorgeous. In fact, when I first watched Aankhen, I liked these two so much, I decided I had to watch every single film in which they co-starred. (Sadly, Aankhen seems to be the best of the lot: Jab Yaad Kisi Ki Aati Hai, Neela Akash and Anpadh are all relatively forgettable).
I like the fact, too, that Mala Sinha plays such an unusual female lead: she’s smart, feisty, has no compunctions about gunning down criminals, and yet she’s by no means unfeminine [at least, as defined by traditional Hindi movie stereotype]. I like that she also goes against the typical Western-is-bad, Indian-is-good stereotype, slipping easily between saris, churidar-kurtas, dresses and pants (not to mention kimonos) and being a skilled spy/dancer as well as a woman who’s loving and warm. [If you’ve seen sufficient Hindi films, this will probably make more sense to you than if you haven’t].
Lastly, the music. Sahir Ludhianvi and Ravi teamed up to bring together some brilliant scores—my favourite being that of Waqt—and worked together in Aankhen too. In comparison to most of their earlier collaborations, Aankhen is fairly lacklustre, both from the point of view of music and lyrics; but it’s still pleasing enough. The two songs I like most are Ghairon pe karam apnon pe sitam and De daata ke naam tujhko Allah rakhe. Milti hai zindagi mein mohabbat kabhi-kabhi isn’t bad either.
What I didn’t like:
Several of the scenes set in Major Sahib’s household in the latter half of the film, when the melodrama goes over the top [and, in inverse proportion, the acting goes south]. There’s much screechiness, weepiness, accusing looks and Hey bhagwaans happening here, and none of it appealing. All through these scenes, I kept wishing the action would swiftly switch back to Sunil, Meenakshi and Co battling the baddies.
But, despite that, a film that’s chockfull of fun. It’s obvious that people are having fun here, whether it’s Dharmendra wrestling a fake tiger or Mala Sinha pretending to be a princess, or the international fakir trio faffing about on the streets of Lebanon to the utter mystification of locals…
Oh, and before I forget: what inspired this post. Todd’s book, a very enjoyable one which is a celebration of 70s action films (several of them in the Aankhen mould).
Here is my review of Todd’s book. Do check it out—and if you at all like the idea of fancy (if tacky) gadgetry, lost-and-found siblings, villains by the dozen, and dogs shooting guns [yes, you read that right], it’s available, among other sites, on Amazon.