Once again, without the aid of a translator or a safety net, I travel to India in search of superspy action, and I found it in Surakksha, the first of the Gunmaster G-9 films. You may think that not speaking a word of Hindi would render watching a film such as as almost undecipherable, but in this instance I beg to differ. Sure I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, but when a film steals so blatently from the James Bond series, it almost serves a s visual shorthand for the events as depicted on the screen. And when I say ‘steal’, I don’t mean an affectionate homage — there’s no sly nod or wink here — it’s wholesale theft. Amongst the Bondian pilferring is an early scene where the pilot of an aircraft gases the passengers — just like the Vulcan scene in Thunderball. Well almost — this is not quite so hi-tech. The pilot, shielded behind a folding partition sprays an aerosole can at the passengers rendering them unconcious (or dead). Then there’s the scene, where a henchman sits poolside playing cards with some dupes, while upstairs his lady friend, all decked in red, watches from an apartment window above with a telescope. From her vantage point she can see the cards that the other players are holding, and via radio — he has a tiny earpiece — she relays the information. Yep, you’ve seen that in Goldfinger. There’s even a recreation of the Olympia Brass Band sequence from Live and Let Die. And there’s plenty more folks, but I do not want this review to be solely a catalogue of the Bond inspired setpieces in this film.
But there is a plot of sorts, and as the film starts out, it concerns special agent Jackson and his investigation into the nefarious activities of Doctor Shiva. Shiva is the head of an evil organisation called the Shiv Shakti Organization (SSO), who have created a weapon, so deadly and horrific, it could change the face of the planet.
From the get-go Agent Jackson is involved in the action — which involves a motorcycle chase, a car chase and a gunfight — but eventually Jackson is caught (and then tortured). And how’s this for savagery — Jackson’s wife and son are waiting at home when there is a knock at the door. Mrs. Jackson opens the door and it’s a delivery man dropping off a large wooden crate. She accepts delivery. She then gets a jemmy bar and with her son at her side, opens the crate, only to find her dead husband inside. Now this is hardly the most grusome moment that I have ever seen in a spy film, but in its way, it’s one of the most hard hitting, as the young boy’s reaction is heartbreaking.
Jackson’s death brings Gunmaster G-9 (Mithun Chakraborty) into the story. And Gunmaster G-9 is not only one smooth superspy, but he is also one electric, disco-dancin’ chick magnet. Made in 1979, by disco-dancin’ I am very definitely talking about white suits with wide lapels dancing — I’m talking John Travolta/Saturday Night Fever disco dancing. But I’ll get to the music and dancing a little more later. So G-9 is on the case, and I must admit, despite the joy of spotting the various Bond references, the first half of this film is pretty flat. There’s the odd time bomb, another motorcycle chase, and a few kung-fu fist fights, but nothing to write home about. But just as I though the movie was over, and was about to turn it off, the film starts off again. The guy, who I though was in control of the evil organisation, is in fact just a henchman. The real villain, Doctor Shiva is still at large. So the story starts again — but this time it is really good. The sets — well they are cheap — but they are colourful and trippy. In fact, the whole villains lair, which is three-hundred feet below sea level, is a psychadelic masterpiece.
The films features some outrageous (but cheap) stunts. Actually in some instances, I use the word ‘stunts’ rather loosely. That would imply that a stuntman was employed. There is a one rooftop motorcycle jump that is barely more than crude animation. In Surakksha’s defence here, this idea was dreamed up a good eighteen years before a similar stunt was performed in Tomorrow Never Dies. That shows imagination, and that’s certainly what is on display here. This is the type of film, for a fiery car crash, the film-makers would set a toy model car on fire, and then just throw it in front of the camera. The thinking was, if we throw it fast enough, maybe no-one will notice it’s not real.
And once again I resume my battle with the Bollywood dance routines and soundtrack. This film being a relic from the Saturday Night Fever era is particularly hard to reconcile. In general I have trouble reconciling bouncy pop soundtracks and spy films. I like my spy music to be ‘jazzy’. I’m not too particular about the kind of jazz. It can be low and moody, or it can be hot and wild, or anywhere in between. But I don’t like pop — even when it is performed by bands or an artist that I like. For instance, I like Joe Strummer and the Clash (sadly Joe’s no longer with us), but when I watched Die Another Day and heard London Calling I cringed. The album London Calling is one of the greatest albums of all time – but that song does not belong in a spy film. But Bollywood films are from a different world really. And to be totally fair to this film, which has four major musical dance pieces, two of which are pretty damn good. And a lot of this has to do with the energy and exuberance of Mithun Chakraborty. That guy can really dance, and his energy just propels the musical numbers along. The final musical number, set in the cavernous villains lair is a particular standout — with fantastic editing — keeping the story, suspence and spectacle all balanced nicely.
This film really won me over. I was really ready to can it, and say it was little more than a Bond wannabe — and it is that, but in the second half it raises the bar, and becomes something different, entertaining and stylish in its own twisted way. I guess though, that’s what you get with a Bollywood spy film. Sure it can take a borrow Western spy film touches, but it also has to present the setpieces expected from Sub-continental audiences. In the end you get a hybrid that’s not really like anything else. It’s not EuroSpy, AsioSpy or even like a Mexican spy film. As silly and as obvious as this sounds, a Bollywood spy film is a ‘Bollywood spy film’. It is unique.
Like James Bond, Gunmaster G-9 would return. This film was followed by a sequel called Waadat, which I was planning to review — but cannot at this time. I did order a copy of it, but somehow I didn’t receive it — it’s a long, long story, but to simplify the tale, in its stead I received another five Mithun Chakraborty films, of which none appear to be spy films. Needless to say, the singing and dancing continues in my household.