Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kulla Agent 000 (India, 1972)

Up to this point I have paid scant attention to the Kannada language cinema of Karnataka; this likely because a film with the singular allures of Kulla Agent 000 had yet to roll into my path. The film, a combination spy spoof/stunt film, is a vehicle for its diminutive star, multi-hyphenate (star-director-producer) Dwarakish, who was affectionately known to his many fans as Kulla due to his small stature. Such was his popularity that, like Egypt’s Ismail Yassin and Singapore’s Mat Sentul, it led him to star in a series of name-in-title productions, of which Kulla Agent 000 is inarguably one.

In a plot similar to none you have ever seen recounted on this blog before, Dwarakish stars as “Kulla”, a pint-sized nebbish who dreams of being a secret agent. This leads to such comical business as him showing up at the CID recruiting office with a pair of stilts hidden under his extra-long pants. Of course, he finally gets his chance when he bumblingly foils the latest scheme of an international smuggling ring. Because there is no way around such things, officials in charge of India’s national security have no choice but to hand him a sensitive position as an undercover government agent, giving him the designation 000 (“Personality: zero, Qualifications: zero, Experience: zero”—thanks, Kannanglish!).

At this point you’d expect the film to proceed as a comedy or errors, with the pathetically overmatched Kulla making a hash of the job due to his lack of ability, but you would be wrong. Instead, Kulla trains rigorously and becomes just the masterful man of action that the film’s stunt-heavy plot demands, albeit in miniature. Granted, Kulla is not so small that he could get away with routinely punching his opponents in the balls, but you could nonetheless be forgiven for seeing Kulla Agent 000, in combination with Filipino micro man Weng Weng’s Agent 00 pictures, as establishing the midget spy film as a genre in its own right.

Also starring in Kulla Agent 000 is Telegu actress and noted “South Bomb” Jyothi Laxmi. As is traditional, Laxmi, whose character is named “Jyothi”, is introduced as a sort of man-eating nautch girl, but then comes a twist. Kulla’s superiors, wanting to test his mettle, throw him into a cell with Laxmi and let the two fight it out in a savage row. It is almost as if Laxmi is their personal Rancor monster. Once the two have fought to a standstill, however, it is revealed that Jyothi is on Kulla’s side, and that, in fact, the two are going to be partners. Indeed, the pair end up making an appealing team, with Jyothi proving herself an unfailingly loyal and fearless ally to Kulla while at the same time stoking the implied sexual tensions that one has come to expect from such screen pairings.

Jyothi Laxmi's turn in Kulla Agent 000 is at once the most domesticated and the most interesting of her performances that I've seen. As usual, she's allowed a brute physicality that one would never see exhibited by a Western actress of her era. It’s the same quality that gives her performances in Telegu films a discomfiting air of freak show novelty. But here she is also allowed all of the sophistication, charm and humor of a full-fledged heroine. The model here is obviously Diana Rigg's Emma Peel, whom I predictably endorse as the ideal model for any worldly women of action regardless of context. In keeping with that, Laxmi, in addition to modelling a striking array of black cat suits, takes to all of her rough and tumbling with conspicuous joi de vivre. It is in fact possible that this usually grim faced actress is actually having fun. My god, she even smiles!

Kulla Agent 000 does not subject Laxmi to the voyeuristic upskirt shots typically seen in her Telegu films, but nonetheless fetishizes her plenty, thanks to its inclusion of more gratuitous yoga than an Elsa Yeung movie.

The high point of Kulla Agent 000 occurs during a section of the film in which Kulla has gone missing and Jyothi is assigned the task of finding him. At this point the film is essentially handed over to Laxmi, and wisely so, as we are immediately thrilled by a scene in which she has a fight to the death against an axe-wielding giant in her hotel room. She then tears off in her sports car in search of her partner, a grotesque kewpie doll trinket with blinking eyes serving as her tracer. It’s such an enjoyable episode that one might wish she hadn’t found Kulla so quickly.

Thankfully, Kulla Agent 000 proceeds at a mean clip from this point on. In an unusual twist on the old “infiltrating the villain’s lair in the guise of dancers” gambit, Kulla and Jyothi crate and have themselves delivered to the gang’s leader disguised as dancing automatons. (I should mention that this particular Mr. Big, in a welcome echo of James Bond 777, comes accompanied by a pair of friendly-looking canines who are nonetheless portrayed as being lethally vicious.) In a surprising instance of verisimilitude, the crook quickly sees through the agents’ masquerade, forcing them to interrupt the robotic dance number they are performing to start dusting the floors with the assembled minions. All leads to a pretty harrowing fight between Laxmi, Dwarakish and the villain atop a speeding jeep that is careening along a treacherous mountain road with not a stunt double or rear projection in sight.

Though undeniably a “B” production, Kulla Agent 000 speaks well for the Kannada film industry of its day. Its director, Ravi, and cinematographer, Prakash, never fail to come up with evermore inventive angles from which to film the action; the stunts are plentiful and often spectacular; and its score, by Rajan-Nagendra, has a thrillingly rough-edged, garage rock quality, with twangy guitars and trilling Farfisas wrestling over jazzy riffs like misleadingly docile-looking dogs over a bone. Not to mention that it has a dead catchy theme song.

But, for me, the film’s most welcome attribute was the texture it added to the portrait I’ve been assembling of its star, Jyothi Laxmi, over these many years of blogging. For it is with Kulla Agent 000 that Laxmi finally began to emerge for me as something more than just a human cartoon, but instead as something else: a perhaps critically under-recognized performer whose body of work deserves much further examination.


Timothy Paxton said...

Sweet. Love this film. It's been a while since I put it on. Seems like time to revisit it. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Tim! I also owe thanks to the anonymous commenter who steered me to it on YouTube.