When I spoke to Sriram Raghavan, he was 24 hours away from the long-awaited UK launch of his first big action spy adventure movie, Agent Vinod. An acclaimed director of action thrillers, he is relentlessly unassuming and doesn’t scream and shout about his achievements.
He looks quite tough, combining a lean physique with a plain-spoken Indian way, but is instantly friendly, and maddeningly modest, about his achievements.
So what prompted one of India’s finest directors to re-invent an almost-dormant ‘spy’ genre?
Agent Vinod’s name first came up in a tête-à-tête with the man who was to star in the film, Saif Ali Khan. He and Raghavan were discussing their love of such movies when they were children.
I met the visionary director at the Illuminati office to find out what movies inspired him as a child, what was involved in creating the character called Agent Vinod, how many Bonds make up one Vinod, the protagonist’s entry scene – and why this movie isn’t about humiliating Pakistan.
DEVANSH PATEL: Which movies inspired you as a child?
SRIRAM RAGHAVAN: I was highly influenced by suspense thrillers and spy movies. Johnny Mera Naam, The Train, Aankhen, Jewel Thief, Teesri Manzil, Ittefaq and Agent Vinod. I also used to see some foreign films. I remember Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which I loved. Not that I didn’t see movies of a different genre. I loved Rajshree’s Dosti as much as I love Agent Vinod.
It’s got terrific music, but I’d say I will watch Dosti only once and Agent Vinod four times.
DP: Was creating Agent Vinod the character difficult for you?
SR: Honestly, we started with the title of the movie, then we decided there was going to be a character called Vinod, who is a spy of today. But we had many options to choose from. Then we asked ourselves the questions – should this be a story of how a man became a spy? Or shall it be a story of a spy who has been doing it for a last few years, but you catch him in one of his cases?
Or should it be of an innocent person who is drawn into becoming a spy? We took a spy who is already working and we did not establish his past. Then, of course, we were solving the question of what kind of a character he is.
DP: Is there a bit of Bond in Agent Vinod?
SR: There is a bit of a Bond in Vinod but, when you say Bond, there are so many of them. Daniel Craig was a more realistic kind. Sean Connery too was realistic and Roger Moore had his tongue-in-cheek humour. It was a fun aspect that Pierce Brosnan took further.
Then there are Jason Bourne influences too, and Harrison Ford character traits, and influences from characters like George Smiley as portrayed by Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
We had to take into account all these different character traits and yet still make Vinod Indian. I tried my best to make the film genuinely Indian.
DP: In all espionage thrillers, there is a great action-packed opening sequence. Do we see one in Agent Vinod?
SR: In all Bond movies, there is an opening sequence, then there is a title sequence and then the story starts. We had two or three options for how to introduce our hero.
Initially, we had a scene to be shot in Bangkok with lots of neon lighting. It was an action scene where he had to take something from a safe and escape. That’s when we see the titles of Agent Vinod forming in neon lights. That’s the first thought we had from Sridhar Raghavan, and Saif loved it too. I wanted to do something bizarre, completely opposite of what we first thought of.
So when you see the hero, you don’t realise at first he is Agent Vinod. I won’t spoil it for anyone who wants to see the film, but I will tell you that Saif does all the things that a Bond hero would do, but in his own way, and in a different method.
DP: How did the idea of making Agent Vinod come to you?
SR: Agent Vinod was Saif Ali Khan’s brainchild. We both spoke about the movies we both liked as children and that’s when Agent Vinod came up. Saif loved the original Agent Vinod, which was made in 1977. We both enjoyed talking about it and came to a conclusion that there were no spy movies being made in Bollywood. There are gangster films, thrillers, cop movies but not a spy genre. Agent Vinod was born from that thought.
DP: Agent Vinod has been banned in Pakistan. Is it anti-Pakistan in anyway?
SR: While writing the movie, Saif, I and my co-writer never wanted to make Agent Vinod anti-Pakistan. We were determined to make it in such a way that all Pakistanis will enjoy watching it. But if I make a spy movie, Pakistan has to be involved. It’s a given. Likewise, if a spy movie was made in Pakistan, India would have to be involved.
But yes, there is reference to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency and Kareena Kapoor plays a Pakistani character, but largely, we’ve only shown what you read in the papers and see on television about Pakistan. Nothing is shown in a bad light but it is realistic. I hope the viewers judge this for themselves.
l Part 2 of the Sriram Raghavan interview coming soon.