This week’s release, Raazi has Alia Bhatt playing a spy. There have not been too many female spies in Hindi films, and one of the most successful spy thrillers, Ankhen (1968), directed by Ramanand Sagar, had Mala Sinha play one, opposite Dharmendra’s male espionage agent.
Films these days go by logic and realism as much as possible; in the past, Bollywood films were a masala mix of romance, action, song and dance. And Ankhen did have some unforgettable songs like Milti hai zindagi mein mohabbat kabhi kabhi, Gairon pe karam and Tujhko rakhe raam tujhko allah rakhe, written by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by Ravi.
These days it is routine for filmmakers to go shoot abroad, but back then it was not so common, still, Sagar had shot in a chunk of the film in Japan and Lebanon.
Even in 1968, enemies of India were bent on destabilising the country, by smuggling in weapons, blowing up trains, and fomenting communal riots. But, as a voiceover in the film intones, Us mulk ki sarhad ko koi chhoo nahin sakta, jis mulk ki sarhad ki nigehbaan hon ankhen.” The ‘eyes’ belong to the men and women who are committed to protecting their country.
Sunil (Dharmendra) is an agent working with his superpatriotic father, Major (Nasir Hussain), who used to be with Netaji’s Indian National Army, and has formed a secret group of spies to help the government to deal with the enemy nation (not named, but obviously China) by the gang led by men like Captain (Madan Puri), Doctor X (Jeevan) and guns-supplier Syed (Sajjan). Sunil has returned from Japan, after training in Judo. There, he also met a Japanese-Indian woman Meenakshi (Mala Sinha), who goes all out to charm him. Her father had been in the INA too, and she is trained in espionage; her father used to send her behind enemy lines in disguise. She takes a fancy to Sunil, so finds out all about him by stalking him and working in the local post office to read his letters. Sunil is equal parts smitten and intimidated by her. Anyway, the country comes before love, so Sunil spurns her and returns to India.
The Major sends Sunil to Beirut from where the guns are smuggled into India. He has to work with undercover agents disguised as singers and dancers. Who should be leading the group, but Fearless Meenakshi. There is a double agent in the Major’s camp, and Sunil’s cover is blown. He has to contend not just with an enemy honeytrap Zainab (Zeb Rehman) — who later falls in love with him and helps him with information — but also use his martial arts skills on a tiger.
Inspired by James Bond films, Ankhen made use of typical cloak-and-dagger gizmos — miniature cameras, secret codes, hidden bugs, clandestine chambers behind sliding doors, vast underground hideouts and, in Sunil’s case, a transmitter implanted under his skin.
Meenakshi is not just good as singing and dancing — which is her cover — but also good with disguises. She has a hidden transmitter, with which she communicates with Majorsaab. When Sunil is caught and abducted by the villains, she and her cohorts (Mehmood and Dhumaal) go around the city dressed as beggars, singing a song and trace him. She then goes into the palace where they have imprisoned Sunil (with a tiger as guard!), posing as a princess and rescues him.
Later, when the gang has kidnapped Sunil’s nephew (son of his sobby sister played by Kum Kum) she picks up a gun and goes into the den with Sunil, dressed in trousers and high heels. At a time, when movie heroines (including Mala Sinha in her other films) were meek and coy, Meenakshi was a firecracker. The film also had Lalita Pawar as Madam, the shape-shifting moll on the villains’ team. The complicated communication consoles with blinking coloured lights, were operated by women — spot Daisy Irani in a tiny role. Meenakshi also has dancers-cum-spies in her team. So women were well-entrenched in espionage circles! (Take that you Bond girls!)
Mala Sinha was a star then and Dharmendra just beginning to climb up the ladder of stardom; so she got top billing and a glamorous wardrobe of Indian, Oriental and Western outfits — she had the figure for skin-tight dresses… and attitude to match.
(Deepa Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator)