If you’re thinking “Hey, didn’t Cultural Gutter already do a piece on a wackadoodle Indian film about eyes starring the handsome and heroic Dharmendra?” you’re perfectly correct. But thanks to a career of over 300 films, producers apparently ran out of different words to use in the title of Dharmendra’s films. So there’s Ankhen (The Eyes), Teesri Aankh (The Third Eye), and even Man Ki Ankhen (Eyes of the Mind), which I haven’t seen but is surely wonderful if the other two are anything to go by.
I didn’t properly introduce Dharmendra when I wrote about Teesri Ankh and Charas, films so crackers that even major movie stars are second to their overall giddiness. The fact that 50 years after his heyday he’s still a mononym gives you a sense of his place in Indian cinema—and when he gets a second name, it’s “Garam Dharam,” the Hindi word for “hot” prepended to emphasize his Greek god looks and frequent willingness to show lots of skin. Throughout the 1960s, Dharmendra often played relatively gentle romantic leads in films in which the female lead’s story was emphasized. By the mid-70s, he—and much of mainstream Hindi cinema generally—had switched gears into a rock ‘em sock ‘em attitude, where his blend of comedy, physical ruggedness, and emotional vulnerability found a sweet spot. When the conundrum of being a middle-aged hero meant some of his peers faltered or stepped into supporting roles, Dharmendra confidently walloped on in increasingly ridiculous action films with shouty dialogue (see samples here).
Using Hollywood stars to evoke the persona and career of Bollywood stars never works. The artistic and cultural contexts are just too different. But in case you’re new to the topic, I’ll try anyway: Dharmendra is an aging yet ageless mix of Rock Hudson, Chuck Norris, Harrison Ford, and a splash of Owen Wilson. I haven’t seen all 310 of his films, so I also asked Twitter to suggest some parallels. The responses I got:
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
- Tony Curtis
- Christopher Reeve
- Paul Newman
- Burt Reynolds
- Robert Mitchum, to which someone else responded “Mitchum, yes, but without the dark side, without the madness, without the fatalism, without the tragedy…. More of Errol Flynn I would say!”
- “Redford comes to mind for sheer charm and being so loveable on screen”
- “Elvis! Started out lean and handsome. Then…not so much.”
- “William Holden, Kirk Douglas, and (somebody muscled and angry)—an insane combo that illustrates the insane arc of the Hindi film hero.”
The thing is, ALL OF THESE MAKE SENSE. Bollywood: it contains multitudes.
Ankhen, released in 1968, sits in the bridge of the first two phases of his career, with an effective combination of fresh-faced romance and action shenanigans. More importantly, it’s a significant entry in the catalog of Indian spy films. In Krzysztof Lipka-Chudzik’s academic paper called “Bodies, Bollywood, and Bond: the Evolving Image of Secret Agents in Hindi Spy Thrillers Inspired by the 007 Franchise” (in From Highbrow to Lowbrow: Studies of Indian B-Grade Cinema and Beyond), the author points out that that many of the Indian movies most of us think of as “spy movies” are not really about spies at all. More often than not, and probably for reasons about the accepted not-terribly-shady morality of heroes, the heroes actually work for the police rather than for an intelligence agency. They may be gathering information while in disguise, but they’re doing it to serve and protect communities or families, not dealing in espionage at the level of national governments. (I’ve noticed that subtitles often translate the same word, “jasoos,” as both “spy” and “detective.”)
The ethically gray world of a spy doesn’t suit the unambiguous stances of masala films, especially without the context of a childhood trauma that justifies everything as revenge and vigilante justice. The lifestyle that Bond enjoys is out of bounds for the censor board. There are exceptions, such as the Gunmaster G-9 film. But even recent movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod, whose heroes actually do work for federal intelligence offices, omit the womanizing.
The heroes of this Ankhen are not government agents at all: they’re civilians who draw upon their past as freedom fighters in India’s independence from Britain (barley 20 years old at the time) to do what’s right for the country they love. It’s an inherited yet also voluntary mission, so the sense of duty is strong.
It’s a fairly serious story, almost devoid of any comic moments. Even legendary comic actor Mehmood, who plays the Q figure, manages to accomplish his spying-related tasks. There’s a brief reference in the introduction to terrorist activities in the northeast corner of the country, and the song during the opening titles is full of text and imagery about eyes and vigilance (rather than surveillance). “No one can touch the borders of a country that’s under watchful eyes.”
The gadgets and props are * chef kiss *. There are walls of bleep-bloop control panels, sometimes tucked behind moving bookshelves, a transmitter hidden in the base of an idol of Krishna, a mask that changes the identity of its wearer, and a cage that drops into a tiger pit.
Sunil, Dharmendra’s character, is relatively restrained, even in his many disguises and wigs, none of which is used for gags or big song sequences. He fights only minimally—his most notable brawl is with a tiger (the list of Hindi film heroes who grunt at stuffed tigers is impressive)—and he behaves as the patriotic son of a patriot ought. His father is the organizer of the mission, but he comes across as an ineffective, doddering grandpa rather than a mastermind. In an unexpected nod to to the Bond ethos, Sunil is presented as irresistible to women, with two women swooning for him instantly and discussing their attraction out loud multiple times.
The movie presents Dharmendra’s sexuality as matter-of-fact-ly as it does the skills or strengths of any other characters. It’s a resource rather than a boast, and for the sake of the mission he’ll use it as much as he can. Like Bond, then, Dharmendra can seduce simply by entering a room in a suit. It’s great casting—I can’t think of any other actor in 1968 who could believably be presented this way. Unlike Bond, of course this good Indian boy will have none of it while he’s on the clock, telling the heroine that maybe he’ll think about love once his work is done.
Opposite him is Mala Sinha as Meenakshi. Meenakshi is so good at her job that Sunil doesn’t realize in the first phase of their acquaintance that she’s even an agent! She does her own share of the legwork, she uses weapons, and she’s injured in the finale fight sequence because she’s fighting, not because she’s tied up to a post as a hostage. Additionally, Sunil’s sister in the film (Kumkum) takes dramatic, violent, self-directed action in support of her brother’s mission. Nobody comes to her aid, nor does she need them to. She’s the type of character that Hindi cinema usually loves to burden with melodramatic dilemma, balancing love of her child with duty to her community (or nation, in this case). (Cf Mother India, except don’t, because that movie is a slog).
The villain in Ankhen is a vaguely terrorist-y foreign, or possibly separatist, power that despises India.
Its chief on the ground, named Doctor X, wears military paraphernalia and oversees facilities such as a chamber with spiked walls that close in on victims, pyramids of metal barrels, a zillion dudes with machine guns, self-destruct capability, and miles of tunnels connecting the hideout to exit points around town.
The budget for this film must have been massive, because there are sequences in Beirut and Japan, providing the Bond-esque globe-trotting handily while avoiding regional stereotypes other than in clothing for disguises.
Meenakshi is described as half-Japanese, which also adds “exotic” points. But fear not: her loyalty to India is never questioned, and her skills and contributions to the mission are described as top-notch. She’s also affirmed as a worthy partner for the Indian hero, both romantically and professionally. For all their talk of the motherland, these characters appreciate a fairly cosmopolitan world. There’s something about the vibe of this film that feels like some of the wealthiest, most worldly characters from other recent mainstream Hindi films took up a side line in espionage. It has swanky nightclub songs, there are lots of men in dinner jackets, Meenakshi in particular is often very fashionably or elaborately attired, and characters slip into undercover roles as royalty.
Unlike Charas or Teesri Aankh, Ankhen is all about restraint, carefully employing elements that often run amok in Hindi masala: comic actors, widows, fathers with weepy stories of the past, unrequited love, patriotism, rambling finale brawls. All of these things are present, but writer-director Ramanand Sagar keeps them all focused on the mission. It would be wrong to give the impression that Ankhen is staid. It’s not. It’s just tight, which is quite amazing given everything that’s rolled up into the story. And I didn’t even tell you about Meenakshi’s sombrero and capri pants in Japan…
or the little boy whose birthday party theme seems to be historical world leaders, who is kidnapped directly from it and thus spends the rest of the film getting tortured while wearing his teeny tiny pteruges.
How’s that for a sentence you never thought you’d read?
Beth Watkin’s own lair makes extensive use of bleep-bloop computer panels.