Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Spy in Rome (India, 1968)

Mainstream Bollywood spy films of the sixties like Aankhen and Farz tried to wrestle the format of the Bond films into service of the typical "patriotic" film agenda, while at the same time pasting standard masala movie elements (family drama, comedic subplots, etc.) into the formula for good measure. 1968's Spy in Rome, on the other hand, comes off more like a straight-up Bond knock-off, though one saddled with some obviously pretty grievous budgetary limitations. We're definitely in B movie territory here, and if it's rough-edged, low budget thrills you're looking for (yes, please) Spy in Rome has more than enough to fit the bill.

Though the currently available VCD of Spy in Rome doesn't have English subtitles, the movie's plot falls squarely enough within the parameters of sixties spy movie 101 to qualify as international language. There is an Indian scientist, Dr. Sharma (Brahm Bhardwaj), who has developed a medical procedure which, in the opening scene, is demonstrated to transform a wizened old couple of 80 into a pair of dewy and dimpled twenty-somethings. There is an evil genius, Dr. Chang (K.N. Singh), who lives in a fab evil genius lair staffed by an assortment of minions in brightly colored radiation suits. He wants Dr. Sharma to assist him in creating a race of supermen, and has his foot soldiers kidnap the doctor when he won't come willingly.

Enter Indian super agent XX7 (Dev Kumar), who, once assigned to the case, travels to Rome--the ostensible location of Chang's hideout--with Sharma's beautiful daughter, Kamini (Jaymala), in tow. Following his supervillain manual to the letter, Dr. Chang sends forth wave after self-incriminating wave of henchmen with the mission of eliminating XX7, but the wily spy, quick of both wit and trigger finger, thwarts them at every turn. Perhaps not wanting to get too ahead of the curve, XX7 then sees fit to call for the assistance of an inept and bumbling comic relief assistant in the form of Agent 005 (Rajendra Nath). Hilarity ensues, followed by lots of other stuff.

Another aspect of Spy in Rome that renders subtitles fairly unnecessary is the fact that it's pretty much wall-to-wall action from start to finish. Even Laxmikant-Pyarelal's songs get short shrift, with only two picturizations over the course of the two hour-plus running time. Now, mind you, most of this action is shoddy and cheap-jack in nature, with liberal employment of obvious dummies and terrible rear projection, but that just serves to enhance the film's trashy charm. After all, when a Bollywood film of this vintage is struggling so mightily--and against such great odds--to provide the same thrill-a-minute pacing as an entry in the lavishly-appointed James Bond franchise, I'm willing not only to forgive sloppily staged fights and jerkily edited chase scenes, but to embrace them, especially when they're conducted with such spazzy enthusiasm.

Further keeping things interesting is a generous helping of silly fantasy elements, including an electrical collar that turns one of Dr. Chang's henchman into an indestructible superman, a machine that appears to produce lingerie-clad white women who emerge from it via slides, an evil swami with a levitating fez, and a statue that looks like the Cryptkeeper that can hypnotize people with its one glowing eye. Add to this an ambitious arsenal of Bond-style gadgets--laser-firing canes, exploding hats, bulky communicator rings, amphibious cars--and you have all the ingredients for an enjoyable evening of rinky-dink sub-Kommissar X level spy movie hokum.

If I weren't so well versed in Santo and Cantonese Jane Bond movies, some of Spy in Rome's cost-cutting measures might actually have drawn a gasp from me. For instance, there is one scene in which the captive Dr. Sharma is forced by Dr. Chang to watch a spectacle that the diabolical mastermind has staged in his honor, which turns out to be some stock footage of the Ice Capades with "Telstar" by The Tornadoes playing underneath it. Elsewhere, the producers cheat Laxmikant-Pyarlel out of an honest dollar by scoring much of the action with needle-dropped musical cues from Goldfinger. Sets in many places are of Plan 9 caliber (though, as mentioned above, Dr. Chang's lair is pretty sweet), with the mocked-up interior of the "helicopter" that Dev Kumar and Jaymala ride in during the climax being a standout.

Hulking and boney-faced, Dev Kumar wears a white suit well and acquits himself satisfactorily in the fight scenes, but looks just wrong enough for his suave superspy role to come off like some kind of malevolent alternate universe take on the archetype. Even more jarring is his enthusiasm for rough-handling the ladies, which is just too far afield from the mother-loving, good boy Bollywood heroes I'm used to for me to overlook it. True to its trashy roots, the film is actually quite violent--if in a predictably cheesy and wholly non-visceral way--and XX7, accordingly, is fitted with a sadistic streak a mile long, even literally rubbing salt in one of his enemy's wounds at one point. Of course, misogyny and cruelty of this type are rampant in the Western films that Spy in Rome is modeled upon, and the film can't be singled out for special censure just because it presented them with less judgment-clouding finesse.

The closing credits to Spy in Rome, further echoing the traditions of the Bond films, trumpet an impending further installment in the adventures of XX7 titled Operation America. So far I haven't been able to find any indication that Operation America was ever actually made, but, given the off-the-radar nature of these types of films, that's no reason to assume it wasn't. As my thirst for absurd sixties trash of this type is seemingly never slaked, you can rest assured that, if it's out there, I'll track it down.


Anonymous said...


I cannot imagine Lurch (as I cannot help but call Dev Kumar) as a hero superspy.


Todd said...

Yes, he is the epitome of Lurchitude! I think you'd love this one, definitely prime material for one of your comics digest treatments.

Unknown said...

had bumped into this gem of a movie on one of the late night shows on B4U channel :D
.... after that have been trying to lay my hands on one of it's copies...
Do you have any idea where can one find it?
..I want to preserve it in my collection as it takes cinema to a different level with just it's sheer enthusiasm!

Todd said...

Last I checked, had it available on VCD.