The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy (2003)

Director: Anil Sharma
Starring: Sunny Deol, Preity Zinta, Priyanka Chopra, Amish Puri, Kabir Bedi
Music: Uttah Singh
Choreography: Ganesh Acnabya

The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy is a big budget Bollywood spectacular. At the time of it’s release it was the most expensive Hindi film to date.

The film opens in Toronto Canada, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are honouring a top secret agent from India, Arun Kumah (Sunny Deol). The ceremony is packed with well wishers waving Canadian and Indian flags, and hordes of reporters and photographers all trying to get an interview with Kumah. Kumah’s responses are humble and low key. He quickly slips into a waiting limousine and is whisked away to the airport, and on board a plane, which presumably taking him back home.

During the flight, we flash back to three (possibly four) years earlier. Kumah tells us: “The mission started on the day Ishaq Khan, chief of Pakistan’s ISI hatched a deadly plot.”

Ishaq Khan (Amish Puri – you may remember him as the evil Mola Ram in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom) outlines his plan to his superiors unaware that a tiny surveillance camera has been planted in the room by the RAW (Indian Secret Service). The plan is a simple one: to regain control of Kashmir. Because Pakistan cannot openly attack India, the Pakistani government is allowing a group of militants to steal a nuclear bomb and do the dirty work for them. The plan is to be called Operation Nishan.

The RAW discredits Pakistan by revealing the footage from the meeting to the world. This stops the attack, but Khan is still trying to cause havoc. Next he is in New York and he is attempting to bribe the U.N. Under Secretary. He wants the Under Secretary to discredit the RAW and Indian Government and insist that the footage was a hoax. His plan almost works, except for one thing. It wasn’t the Under Secretary he was bribing, but Agent Arun Kumah in disguise. Khan is arrested and taken away.

After his success Kumah is assigned to a new mission. He is to pose as Major Batra, a military commander in Sopore region of Kashmir.

To avoid confusion, for the next portion of this review I will refer to Agent Kumah as ‘Batra’.

Onwards. We finally get to the title sequence. And in true Bollywood fashion we get a song and dance number. For those who have never seen a Bollywood film before, may have been wondering whether a tough violent spy thriller would have songs and dancing in it? In this case, the answer is a big YES. But more about the singing and dancing later. Under the titles Batra drives to his new protectorate accompanied by the squad of soldiers under his control. Along the way they encounter a road block. The villagers of Rishiki have a flock of sheep blocking the road. Usually the villagers demand a donation from travellers before they will move their flock. The soldiers do not respond to blackmail well, and fire their guns into the air. The sheep and villagers scatter. Left behind in the stampede is Reshma (Preity Zinta), a beautiful young girl from the village. Batra takes pity on her and gives her a donation anyway.

In general, the villagers of Rishiki are very suspicious of the Indian soldiers. In the past, they have been victimised and treated badly. They do not expect things to change with Batra’s arrival. But Batra’s mantra is:
“Give then love, and you will be loved.
Give them hatred, and you will be hated!”

Batra is a benevolent governor and he arrives at the village with provisions for everybody. He provides food for the village, books for the schools, and medicine for the hospital. Eventually he wins over the trust and respect of the Kashmiri people.

One of the first to respond to Batra is Reshma. They slowly form an attachment. Initially she just brings him scraps of information about informers and enemy agents. But one afternoon, Batra is involved in a gunfight with four enemy agents who were attempting to cross the border. During the fight, one of the agents produces a grenade and throws in at Batra. Batra evades the blast, but the explosion starts an avalanche in the mountains. Batra flees but is soon run down by the wall of snow that rolls down the mountain. But Reshma finds him and takes him to shelter. He is cold and in shock. She spends the night with him to keep him warm. Now in a James Bond film, this would all seem very tame. But in an Indian film, two un-married people spending the night together is not the done thing. In fact, Reshma’s actions could have her driven from the village in disgrace.

Well nothing of the sort happens. And Batra and Reshma’s love for each other has grown. But Batra is torn between love and duty. Being a good soldier, he chooses duty and prepares to send Reshma across the border on a dangerous mission. But first she must be trained, which leads us into our second musical interlude.

The story moves forward and Reshma heads across the border and poses as a servant at a complex run by the Pakistani military. The mission ends up being a dangerous one, and Reshma has to make a mad dash to get back across the border to safety, but she has procured a piece of evidence that shows that Ishaq Khan is not being held in prison, as the majority of the world believe.

That is the end of Batra’s time in Kashmir, and he is to return to duty elsewhere. But he is not leaving empty handed. He is going to take Reshma with him and they are going to get married. On New Years Eve, as fireworks fill the sky, a very lavish wedding ceremony takes place in a palatial glass domed building. This is the perfect setting for the third big Bollywood dance and song routine. The song is ‘Dil mein hai pyar’ and thematically its motif’s haunt the film. Lyrics, translating as ‘May the scorpion get the one who lies’, and ‘May the scorpion get me if I am lying’ are peppered throughout the production. The lyric has a duality about it, applying to both a ‘declaration of love’ in the case of Batra and Reshma, or as a punishment for wrong doing, in the case of the villains of the piece.

Speaking of the ‘Villains’ of the piece, Ishaq Khan hasn’t taken lightly to Batra’s activities in Kashmir. And during the wedding celebration he has planned some entertainment of his own. He has planted a bomb in the building. I must say it is visually a very good set piece when the bomb goes off. One minute, everybody is dancing and singing, and the next, the glass dome of the palace has exploded and a giant orange fireball is engulfing the dancefloor. The palace is next to a river and as the whole building lurches and shakes, the balcony collapses and the guests start to slide into the river, Resham tries to hold on, but loses her grip and drops into the water. Batra tries to get to her, but another explosion rocks the palace and he is thrown forward, even further into the water. He tries to find Reshma, but the current is too strong. Finally he is swept ashore, where he finds one of Reshma’s wedding bracelets. That night, over one hundred people were killed. Many bodies were never found, including Reshma’s.

The tone of the film changes now, and it becomes quite a violent and explosive revenge flick. Batra, now vows to avenge the death of so many people, and to expose Ishaq Khan’s evil plans. I think this is a good point to leave the synopsis. By now you are aware of the motivations of the main characters, and what Batra’s mission is. And believe me, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The story still has a long way to go, and quite a few twists and turns as we follow Khan’s trail from Pakistan to Canada.

In a film of this kind, I think it’s appropriate to mention the musical interludes. There are six big production numbers in The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy, and each of them is quite impressive. The numbers are Tere shaher ka, Tum bhi na maano, Dil mein hai pyar I, O maari koyal, In mast nighaon se, Dil mein hai pyar II. I do not speak Hindi, so I have no idea what the titles mean, but for those that do, they may provide a little insight into the story. The costumes and the sets and/or locations are truly amazing. There is an astonishing amount of colour and movement on the screen. And the choreography seems to be up to scratch too. If I have a criticism of the musical numbers, is that they are quite lengthy. These are not your three-minute pop songs. Each song takes around six to ten minutes, which is great if you are watching the movie for the singing and dancing. But I am looking at it from the ‘spy-movie’ perspective, and the movie already clocks in at a healthy 160 minutes. The dance numbers slow the narrative down, and turn what could be a simple stripped down spy-flick into a marathon affair.

The film as a whole is an interesting variation on the spy film that I am used to. I am not prepared to say it’s a bad film, because it has a lot of good elements. By the same time, I can’t call it good, primarily because of it’s excessive length, and it’s attitude towards Pakistan. Sure, in the real world India and Pakistan have their differences, but presenting the conflict as a violent cartoon, and justifying it with some clumsy jingoistic speeches, isn’t the way forward.

I think you’ll have to make up your own mind about this curiosity. I think of it as a holiday spy film. It’s the film you watch, after you’ve watched so many other spy films you need a change, but don’t have the stomach to venture into the world of rom-coms.

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