Screen

Farz

Released in 1967, Farz is Hindi cinema’s first spy movie—well, it probably is, depending on how you define “spy.” Police inspectors in Bombay movies had been gathering information about criminal masterminds for years, but as far as I can tell, none of them is an agent of a national intelligence organization. For all their patriotic speeches and derring-do on behalf of the motherland, their official position is with a city, state, or national police force.

This is a meaningful detail often lost in the action and intrigue. Maybe by definition but certainly according to the template set by cinema’s most famous example, spies operate in a much murkier world than the Hindi film industry chooses to project in its films. This is especially true regarding the framing around the male lead in a film: Bollywood heroes are the man in the white hat. Even if you excuse Bond’s violence as part of his patriotic mission, his lifestyle is simply not acceptable. The antihero is still not particularly common in Hindi films, and it definitely wasn’t 50+ years ago. (Villains who are more engaging, more fun, and better written are a different story.)

The process of fitting James Bond antics into the morally monochromatic version of film heroism in mid-century Bollywood must have been difficult, so five years after Dr. No actually strikes me as reasonable working time to hop on the Eurospy bandwagon. Farz is a remake of a very popular Telugu film released the previous year, and I wonder if that success helped convince producers to give the style a try. (I’ve never found the original, Gudachari 116, with subtitles and I understand absolutely no Telugu, so I refer you to a writeup by friends at the Indian cinema blog Cinema Chaat. It features the same lead actor as James Bond 777, which is more than enough to make me want to watch it.)

In addition to Farz‘s gamble on genre, it also took a big risk with its leading man. Jeetendra was just a few films old when he was signed for Farz, apparently after at least three better-known actors turned it down. (I say “apparently” because this tidbit is often repeated but never sourced.) The film clearly needed someone, but Jeetendra’s career needed this film. His combination of buoyancy and nonchalance as spy Gopal worked like a charm, and Farz kick-started what would become a career of over 200 films, most of them as the lead. To my eyes, he’s not consistently at ease in this role, but he certainly throws a lot of energy into the mix, notably in the fights and dances.

And with this, Jeetendra’s nickname “Jumping Jack” was born. Can’t you hear Sean Connery muttering “Not on your life?”

I’m impressed at how well this newcomer switches from caffeinated peppy loverboy as in the song above to sneaky government agent, especially since even the loose definition of “spy” was not a common template in the Hindi industry at this time. Director Ravikant Nagaich elicits an effective performance, made all the more remarkable because Farz is his first film too; he had worked as a cinematographer previously, including on the original of this film. Nagaich later directed several other spy films and a riff on The Exorcist (on youtube with subtitles!), just to name a few.

Gopal is about to trick his combatant into judo-CHOPping the light switch behind him, which for reasons unclear to me immediately splinters and fries his hand.

The various henchmen all do their jobs admirably, and two key villain figures and Gopal’s contacts are played by industry veterans. There is no Bond girl equivalent, which strikes me as an unusual choice: Hindi cinema of this time period loves a vamp, and I don’t know why one isn’t present. The criminal ring does have one woman, but she doesn’t do anything that the men don’t also do. Instead, we get a milquetoast love interest who contributes nothing other than one good dance number with Gopal, who arguably shines more.

I haven’t mentioned the plot yet because it hardly matters. The film opens with agent 303 spying on a gang attempting to blow up a bridge. In retaliation, a criminal gang murders him. Gopal is called in to follow up on evidence 303 gathered and to talk to 303’s sister, who didn’t know his true job. Unfortunately, the criminal boss gets to the sister first and convinces her that Gopal is her enemy. Early in his task, Gopal meets Sunita on a plane and tries his smarmy lines on her, and they work well enough that when the pair later bumps into each other at a nightclub, she does the aforementioned big dance number with him and invites him to her birthday party before the gang reappears and a food fight breaks out as Gopal escapes. I bring up the food fight not because it’s important but because it’s an example of the many comic relief moments that I could really do without. At Sunita’s birthday, she and Gopal do another dance number—and her dad tries to have him killed! From here on, it’s a jumble of sorting out which person is on which side of right and wrong, and since India has not succumbed to whatever the criminal gang’s evil plan was other than racist caricatures of neighboring nations, rest assured that Gopal sorts everything out.

The best things about Farz are: 1) that it exists and 2) the music. The background score in particular does a lot of the work of creating the dashing, dynamic spy mood, and the musical setpieces create plenty of low-budget spectacle. But back to the first point. If you’re a fan of global spy iterations, this is an interesting entry. If you like newer Bollywood but haven’t ventured back to the 60s, this is a smooth trip in the time machine to see an important foray into a new genre. And if, like me, you’ve seen a zillion Hindi movies but resisted spending more time with Jeetendra because of what you’ve seen of his later career, try some of the fun that built his stardom.

~~~

Beth Watkins’ own files collecting evidence on criminal masterminds are the envy of the world.

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