Ramanand Sagar’s Ankhen was released in 1968, the year India’s spy agency RAW was formed.
Exactly 50 years ago, the country’s foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was formed. Coincidentally, India’s most lavish spy thriller Ankhen was released that same year — 1968.
The film was directed by Ramanand Sagar, much before he became a household name with the famous TV serial Ramayan.
The massively successful film came out right after another spy film starring Jeetendra called Farz. But Ankhen looked more towards Hollywood’s dominant James Bond template for inspiration. So guns, gadgets, and, of course, women feature aplenty. The international theatre of spy activities spans Assam to Lebanon to Japan.
Given the lack of any MI-6 equivalent in India at that point in time, the film (ludicrously) shows a family of defence officers and some concerned citizens (one of whom is a former Indian National Army member) who take it upon themselves to expose an anti-India group responsible for train attacks in Assam.
And who are these villains? Doctor, Madam, Captain, and obviously, Lily. No aliases. Despite the suggestion that they might be ‘Communists’ and their stated intention to create disturbances in India, what are they trying to achieve? Which country are they fighting for? Well, those are questions too deep for this film. Sagar is not interested in anything too significant anyway.
So he just makes a regular commercial Hindi film that appears to break the hold of romance on the ‘60s decade. There are songs, courtship, action sequences (don’t tell Tom Cruise fans) and most certainly, melodrama. It also includes the staples of that era — a wailing sister and mother.
Most of the film is set in Beirut, a welcome change in scenery, where Salim gets killed during a mission to stop an arms consignment from reaching India. If you are wondering how common citizens with some (flashy) gadgets can stop an entire ship, well, I don’t know. Once he gets killed, his former partner Sunil (Dharmendra), who received intelligence training in Japan, replaces him.
In between the mission and the replacement, a small (and the most interesting) sequence shows how Sunil was pursued during his training by Meenakshi (Mala Sinha), an Indo-Japanese woman who also turns out to be a trained spy. Her training had something to do with — hold your breath — the INA.
Unlike Hollywood’s caricatures, Sagar was on point with his lead female character, Meenakshi, who may appear as a complete revelation to today’s millennials. In something wildly radical for the time, and sharply pegged to her profession, she stares at him, follows him, sings for him, and even proposes to him. Bound by ‘duty’, Sunil has nothing to offer her, not even love.
But Sunil evidently is unaware that he’s in a Hindi spy thriller. So he doesn’t know that he will meet her again and they will get several opportunities to manage their romance while serving the cause of the nation.
One of those opportunities results in Gairaon Pe Kadam, a lush melody by composer Ravi in an incredible album written by Sahir.
The rest of the plot — including a second female lead, child abduction, Lalita Pawar’s spy version, a comedy track featuring Mehmood, and the villainous group’s lair and its subsequent destruction — is just too convoluted and dull to be a called ‘thriller’. For perspective, the YouTube version has a cruel 172-minute runtime.
Sagar cast Mala Sinha ahead of Dharmendra (she even gets first billing) because of her box-office pull and gave her a good enough character to drive the action. But with the success of Phool aur Patthar, the conscientious male star gained prominence with Sagar too or so goes the legend.
Indian filmmakers have been trying to adapt the James Bond formula within the Hindi commercial template for years. Some find limited success, like Farhan Akhtar’s Don, most others don’t.
Commercial considerations accidentally provided Sagar with the opportunity to make a heroine-led spy film five decades ago. But he didn’t pursue that to its logical end. And Ankhen resonates more as a lovely album today than as a movie.