My excursion into the world of the Bollywood spy film has only just begun — at this stage having only watched a handful of films — but so far, and this is bound to change as my knowledge and viewing grows, I would say that Puraskar is my favourite Bollywood spy film. It is fast paced and it’s fairly original — the only Bond affectation is that the head villain continually holds a cat (it’s not even a white cat). The story is almost decipherable to those who don’t speak a lick of Hindi. The nightclub based musical interludes are pretty cool too. But most importantly of all, the film has scorpions and a finale in which the villain’s lair blows up.
The film opens with the villain of the piece, who is simply referred to as ‘Boss’, watching as a woman madly flees from a house. In terror, she gets into a car and drives off at speed – excessive speed. She is driving so fast she cannot control the car and starts swerving across the road. This comes to an end when she crashes through a stone barrier and drives off a cliff. Now how do we know that the man watching must be a villain. Well he is dressed in a hat and wearing sunglasses. Furthermore he is wearing ‘weird’ red gloves and is stroking a cat which he cradles under his arm. If that isn’t visual shorthand for ‘villain’, I don’t know what is.
After this woman’s death (which is explained via flashback later in the film), the CID assign their two best agents to the mission. Their gun agent is Rakesh (Joy Mukerji). Actually as the film plays out Rakesh isn’t much of a hero. He is clumsy in the fight scenes and has a dreadful dress sense, outfitted in a range of striped shirts which would be more befitting a member of a barbershop quartet rather than a gun secret agent. Anyway, despite my misgivings, Rakesh is the man! His sidekick — and sometimes comic relief — is Sumesh (I.S. Johar).
Meanwhile Professor Das (Abhi Bhattacharya) has invented a new top secret weapon that uses sound waves to destroy its targets. As Professor Das is a good guy, we can only assume that he invented this weapon as some kind of deterrent to war. Das gives a demonstration of his new weapon which is broadcast on television. One viewer happens to be ‘Boss’ who is ensconced in his top secret underground lair. And quite a spectacular lair it is too, with flashing lights, oscilloscopes, and many machines that go ‘ping’ and ‘whir’ in the background. He also has a healthy supply of odious minions who wear red skivvies.
‘Boss’ is pretty impressed with Professor Das’ new weapon and naturally wants to obtain it for his own nefarious purposes. To this end he sends a team of henchmen to the Professor’s home. They knock out the Professor and take him to their car. But they cannot leave without the plans which are locked in the safe. One minion is left behind to open the safe, but who should turn up as he is trying to open it. Yes, it’s our striped shirted hero, Rakesh. He captures the minion and is about to make him talk, when from the doorway another minion shoots his accomplice to stop him from spilling the beans. I don’t know why he didn’t just shoot Rakesh? I guess it would have been a short film? Anyway Rakesh rushes off after the shooter, but the gunshot has awoken Professor Das’ hot looking daughter, Renu (Sapana). She rushes downstairs and crashes into our hero. They stare into each others eyes for a second — there’s some chemistry there — then he pushes her to the side and continues his pursuit of the villains. Naturally, Renu thinks that Rakesh is one of the kidnappers. When the characters meet later in the film, there’s quite a bit of hostility to overcome, before she accepts him as a good guy. In fact, she shoots him – I don’t know how much more hostile can you get? But, of course, we know these two will get together by the end of the film.
Meanwhile Professor Das is taken to the villain’s lair where he is met by his identical twin brother. His brother, however, is not a prisoner. He is out for his own financial betterment and wants to sell his scientific brother’s secrets. When Das wont hand over his secrets (or the combination to the safe), the evil brother choses to step into his brother’s shoes and return to the house in an attempt to break into the safe and get the information.
The first thirty minutes of this film are good spy action and pretty easy to follow — even without understanding the language. But then as so often happens in Bollywood films, the family drama element enters the story and this is where it lost me. There’s some plot thread about a young couple Kumar and Reshma, and somehow Kumar is blackmailed by the ‘Boss’. It all seemed rather sad, but I had no idea what was really happening. Still, there’s plenty of spyjinx ahead.
I am pleased to report that while the shadow of James Bond looms large over many spy films, this film is its own beast. Sure it displays many of the espionage genre’s tropes; ie. scientist develops deadly weapon and is kidnapped / scientist also has hot looking daughter who helps secret agent with the mission etc., but it doesn’t stoop to wholesale recreations of Bondian setpieces (such as Farz and Surakksha). Seen in that light, Puraskar is a worthy, if somewhat cheesy, companion to many Eurospy films of the sixties — albeit with musical interludes.
Speaking of musical interludes, Puraskar has four of them. Two are filmed outside, with spectacular mountain ranges as a backdrop. Despite the beauty of the landscape, I must say I found these musical numbers prety cold. However, the two musical numbers set in a nightclub, are temperature-raising showstoppers. In the first of these, the performer is wearing a silver conical bra — remember this is a good 20-25 years before Maddonna would iconically project herself into the anals of popular culture wearing such as device. I know I am sounding like a randy old pervert once again, but if a man can’t watch a scantily clad dancer perform in the comfort of his own home, then what is the world coming to?
I realise Puraskar: CID Agent is not for everyone. As far as I am aware, there currently isn’t a subtitled version available. Also the film is pretty cheap. I mean for the final battle, the characters run around with rubber machine guns. The only reason you can tell that they are being fired is the noise on the soundtrack. There is no smoke or spark from the muzzle and there certainly aren’t any squibs or bullet explosions on the set. Also, when I said that the villain’s lair is spectacular, I meant it, but probably no more spectacular than your neighbour’s house at Christmas time. Some of the flashing lights on the walls are only chains of Christmas lights stuck on. The film is cheap, but thankfully I am a sucker for alternating red and blue lighting. Nothing saying ‘hi-tech’ villains lair like a red or blue light bulb. Try it at home! Next time you are watching a spy film, change your regular light bulb for a blue one, and magically you’ll find yourself ensconced in a villain’s lair as you watch. This is true immersive cinema people!
So I am a sucker for trash cinema. I am a sucker for trash spy cinema with scantily clad dancing girls, but try not to hold that against me. In the end, Puraskar may not be a film that you will want to seek out, but is sure as hell made me happy!