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Ek Ticket, Ek Black Coffee | How do I love thee Indian spy tales? Let me count the ways…

If only they weren’t so predictable!

Ek Ticket, Ek Black Coffee | How do I love thee Indian spy tales? Let me count the ways…
What makes Indian spies so predictable?
  • Manisha Lakhe

Last Updated: 04.01 PM, Jan 17, 2023

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If I were a poet and this was sonnet no.43, I would be singing praises for spy tales on OTT platforms and the movies. But sonnets are fourteen lines long (the extended ones are just that: extended) and that’s not enough for this deluge of feelings that threaten to drown my love for spy tales. Consider this my not-so-final assault on the worst of spy tropes, knowing that the next spy shows around the corner would almost definitely have fallen prey to them…

Just like a callow lover who thinks a girl can be wooed with a teddy bear or a plushy heart-shaped pillow, Indian spy tales too try to impress you with the claim: ‘Based on true events’, or worse, do a George Bush number on your patriotism ‘If you don’t hate them then you are not Indian enough!’

Hate is a strong word, isn’t it? They should know, the audience needs something new. Even to hate. Not the same ole Pakistanis are super, super bad, Indians are good. If their guys die, they deserve it because they’re all merciless terrorists, if our guys die, they are heroes and shaheeds. Bah! I say! Begone tropes! The next minute though, the groan bone and the funny bone hi-five, and I am compelled to begin the drinking game. Try it. Whatever your choice of poison. Each time you spot these you do the: Ek gilasi, do gilasi, teen gilasi… dus…bas! Then change the channel…

Gif via Giphy
Gif via Giphy

Even if you do allow a little leeway for serial makers to anoint Pakistan to be Enemy Number One, and the spy story ‘Be based on a book based on true events’, you've gotta raise a toast when you hear the sometimes dapper, mostly bearded evil villains announce their one goal: India ka satyanash!

London or Lahore, the villains are dapper in leather jackets and boots, or three-piece suits, and their hair is never out of place. If the big baddie is ISI, they will be well turned out in striped suits and look wily and cunning even when they’re walking. Generals will wear uniforms at work and ooooh! Gorgeous silk smoking jackets at home (I’d kill to be able to live in such awesome homes!), paired with matching pjs as if they too read the advice from fashion magazines that warned you of the shame of being found in an accident by a handsome paramedic who is put off because your underthings don’t match! And yes, no cigarettes for these dudes, only a ‘cheroot’ works!

Gif via Gfycat
Gif via Gfycat

If the super bad villainous dude is a religious leader, then they are old, bearded, and outfitted in tribal headgear or scarves plus the traditional thobe/jubba. They will live in a hut or a cave but ride in SUVs. Oh yes, they will speak Hindi/Urdu in a funny accent and their genders will be mixed up. Why would anyone take lessons on killing or God’s will, from a guy who speaks incorrectly?

If you can imagine the writer’s dilemma because he wrote no such thing, the producers and the directors will pacify him by saying ‘Yes, we like your lone wolf/rogue agent idea, but we will give him ‘gravitas’ with a ‘backstory’. He was in love with the general’s daughter who died skiing in the Alps. After that, he lost his head and found refuge with the cleric and becomes a terrorist or allows the general to channel his anger towards India.’ My heart goes out to the poor sod who writes dialogue after such a clever backstory (sounds similar to a fitting Hindi word, eh?)

Gif via Tenor
Gif via Tenor

That brings us to dialogue. They’re Pakistani, so inevitably you will hear Urdu words like, ‘Ji Janab’ being used. Urdu is such a sweet language, even their plans for world domination sound like a love song. That’s why they have to look vicious while they’re sharing plans. Of course, the plans look like fun school geography projects. And the plans are so imaginative: Akhnoor India ki gardan hai. Usko doboch lete hain phir Kashmir hamara hoga!

Have they swallowed the idea of India being a woman? Calendar art zindabad, I say!

Still from Zee5's Mukhbir (Image via Youtube/Screengrab)
Still from Zee5's Mukhbir (Image via Youtube/Screengrab)

They have seriously cool names for their plans: Operation Gibraltar, Operation Zulfikar, Operation Grand Slam, Operation Blackout, Operation Revenge. Indians on the other hand are left with a mission this or mission that and all we hear is ‘Ghuspaithiyon ko dhoondna hoga, sir!’

That brings us to our ‘Intelligence’ guys. They will inevitably be housed in some ordinary unidentified building. They will be equipped with the latest gizmos and have recruits in track pants running around a training track (or creeping under barbed wire with guns). But the hero who’s going to defeat the ‘operations’ will be some guy who has retired and is growing apples or teaching kids or growing wheat someplace… Then he has to be persuaded to come back into service because ‘no one knows the baddies as you do’. Whenever I hear this, I’m like, we’re such a big country and you guys didn’t train anyone else?! I’m not paying taxes!

Gif via Tenor
Gif via Tenor

The ‘Intelligence’ men don’t stop there. They’re shown to be married to women who are completely stupid. The wives never guess where the husbands are working. They seem to be content to bring cups of tea or complain, ‘You never have breakfast!’ If the women do know that they’re married to an army man or an intelligence man, don’t you think they’d be smart enough to never rent out a part of their ancestral home to a suspicious lone foreigner? I also must add: Why would a girl, married to a cop or an army man say, ‘Don’t go to war/to kill baddies’? But who wants to write strong female characters? Puhleaze don’t mention Raazi. There are more memes of her bawling than there are of her bravery.

Gif via MakeAGif
Gif via MakeAGif

Speaking of women in spy shows, you will see them as a combination of submissive, seductive, soft-hearted, senile, satyric, and yes, stupid. Whatever happened to small pistols with ivory handles that fit in a clutch or can be strapped to a shapely thigh? There are many situations where a poison-dipped hairpin could come in handy, no?

I could go on, but darlings, I do want to give marks to casting directors when they find great Indira Gandhi lookalikes. And then take them away when I see cool dudes like Major Sodhi in Mukhbir get killed by a man who makes super vicious faces while using a gun… All because the guy in his jeep when asked to check if there are baddies waiting to ambush them uses his eyes, not binoculars; and says, ‘There’s no one there!’ only to get shot! I drank to that stupidity. Such characters fall in the category of ‘Heroine ki saheliyaan’... More on those cackling women some other day… I need to refill my spiked coffee while crossing my fingers, hoping for a spy story I would actually fall in love with.

Lara Dutta in Bell Bottom (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)
Lara Dutta in Bell Bottom (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)

Then I found CAT on Netflix. Just a billi set among the pigeons. She makes those awesome eyes at you, but when you least know it, scratch you where it hurts for weeks afterwards. Randeep Hooda is such a brilliant actor, he’s magnificent as Gurnam in this very Punjabi offering. Can we have more of Randeep Hooda, please? If you’ve wondered as I have (and here I must acknowledge the contribution of my bestie) simple things that cripple movies and shows: if the setting is in Punjab, why do people in the movies and shows (some award-winning) speak in Hindi? They turned Saif Ali Khan into a turban-wearing Sardar, and his accent is so alien you’d ask for his OCI card. But that rant we leave for some other time.

Randeep Hooda in Netflix's CAT (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)
Randeep Hooda in Netflix's CAT (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)

Randeep Hooda is fascinating because the show has been written so well. I admit I aimed my imaginary pistol at the cop spouting shayari ever so often, but it’s a marvellous show of cat and mouse between undercover agent and cops and nasty politicians… What I loved most is how the story comes together in a Mexican standoff in the wilderness in Punjab… Brilliant.

I’m rabidly following Slow Horses (hate the weekly dropping of episodes) and hoping some Indian production house will recognise its potential and create a bambaiya ‘Langde Ghode’ (ahem! I have written a story if you’re interested!)...

P.S. Why does John Abraham (of the awesome dimples) choose roles where he never gets to smile, and Zain Khan of Mukhbir who is undercover, grins so much?

John Abraham in Pathaan (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)
John Abraham in Pathaan (Image via YouTube/Screengrab)

About the author:
Manisha Lakhe writes on films and TV shows, is a poet, teacher, traveller and mom (and not necessarily in that order). Could sell her soul for Pinot and a good cheesecake.

(Disclaimer: Views expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The writer is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.)

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