More than four years in the making and with an estimated budget of over Rs 40 crore, Agent Vinod is Sriram Raghavan’s costliest project to date and one that required more effort and fortitude than his first two films, Ek Hasina Thi and Johnny Gaddaar. It was during a casual conversation with Saif Ali Khan that the idea of Agent Vinod was conceived, and, after a few drinks, sealed. Having Saif as a producer guaranteed a budget of behemothic proportions and also a bigger responsibility. As Raghavan puts it, “My earlier films were contained. Here, there was a need to show scale and style. It was a new thing for me, but I think I managed okay.”
Oddly, Raghavan first suggested a love story to Saif, having met him at a time when he was in the middle of floating his production outfit, Illuminati Films. “But he said, ‘Pagal hai kya (Are you mad)? I am not interested in a love story. Let’s do a fantasy film.’” The brainstorming session quickly led to a passionate conversation about their favourite movies, and suddenly, amid Sholay, Jewel Thief and the Bond blockbusters, an unlikely title bobbed up—Mahendra Sandhu’s 1977 B-movie, Agent Vinod. “We had great fun watching Sandhu’s Agent Vinod. Both Saif and I were thrilled on being struck with the idea of doing something on those lines, but after the initial excitement, we wondered ‘Why simply remake it? Why not, instead, use the title and make an entirely original film?’”
It took, from that point on, roughly a two-year investment just in its writing, as Raghavan worked night and day to produce a fine screenplay. Finally, Saif demanded, “Just give the script now.” In the early stages, Raghavan involved his younger brother, screenwriter Shridhar, who, however, pulled out after a few weeks, grumbling: “Boss, tum log ka kaam lamba hone wala hai. Main bhaagta hun (This process will take time. I’d better run).”
With Shridhar out, Raghavan snagged writer Arijit Biswas, and the two spent considerable time improvising sequences and rewriting dialogue. To work with Raghavan calls for turtle-like patience. “Those working with me know that writing is never a one-sitting job. I always try to think of newer ways of improving the script or a scene. In Agent Vinod, the idea was to make every sequence interesting. The story was there, but the emphasis is always on how to tell the story—the approach, so to speak.”
He hopes that this approach is not mistaken for style. “In a spy film, viewers are eager to reach the end; so naturally, you make it fast-paced. Then, there is the intrigue element. In such movies, you already know that the hero will save the world or his country or complete his mission, but how he does it is more crucial than when he does it. The journey is more important than the destination.” He thinks of the spy genre as one that celebrates great diversity in cinema. “The beauty is the sheer number of approaches a director can take. One kind of approach would be like in movies such as Munich, The Lives of Others, Clear and Present Danger; then there is the James Bond series, and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. On the other hand, there is another kind of approach that you see in films like The Great Gambler, Prem Pujari and Yakeen (Brij Sadanah’s films are full-on entertaining)—all of which have an Indian sensibility.”
Being a movie geek often rescues him from dire situations that arise during either writing or shooting. “Because my idea of enjoyment is watching films, subconsciously, the influences creep in despite my efforts to shut them out.” For instance, every time he got stuck on a scene in this film, he would ask himself, ‘What would Bond do in this situation? How would Jason Bourne or Amitabh Bachchan have reacted?’ Incidentally, a Bond collection with bonus features gifted to him by his editor Pooja Ladha Surti’s father really came in handy. So did paperback thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and Alistair MacLean.
It goes without saying that there is also a bit of Vijay Anand in Agent Vinod. Raghavan’s preoccupation with the maker of films like Guide, Johny Mera Naam and Jewel Thief took root during his years at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where he, along with batchmate Raju Hirani, devoured all major Hindi and English classics in existence.
His second film, Johnny Gaddaar was a noirish homage to Anand’s Johny Mera Naam, and in Agent Vinod, too, there are oblique glimpses of an influence, especially “in the way in which the film travels from one location to another [Agent Vinod is shot in Morocco, Russia, South Africa, the UK and India] and the approach Johny [played by Dev Anand] adopts in dealing with certain situations.” The mention of Vijay Anand compels him to say: “I don’t mean to make any comparisons, but Johny Mera Naam is very much an influence on Agent Vinod because of, I would say, its entertainment value.” Although Raghavan fell in love with the movies after watching Johny Mera Naam at Alpana Talkies, Pune, while he was still in “half pants”, fuller appreciation of Anand’s films occurred only at FTII.
It was here that Anand would spin a decisive influence on Raghavan as a wannabe filmmaker, replacing his early fascination with Hitchcock. But it is from Hitchcock, not Anand, as it turns out, that he learnt the most. “Everyone who makes thrillers or operates in a similar genre is inspired by Hitchcock in one way or another,” states Raghavan, who submitted a paper on Hitchcock at FTII in 1987, and, after graduating from film school, went on to work, first with Isro, Ahmedabad, and some years later, on a vivid documentary on the serial killer Raman Raghav.
At FTII, Raghavan had befriended Raju Hirani, who was studying to be an editor. Coincidentally, their debut movies, Ek Hasina Thi and Munna Bhai MBBS, respectively, opened within two months of each other. “That was the time at FTII that everyone was consumed by foreign cinema. World cinema was big and everyone was talking about it. But Raju, me and a few others were hardcore Hindi film buffs. We used to hang out all the time, go to the theatre, and because we worked together on projects, we ended up spending a lot of time with one another.”
He admires Raju’s skills as an editor as well as his efficiency as a storyteller. For the uninitiated, their films are strikingly different and represent their vividly divergent personalities. “Raju makes anyone connect with his movies, and that’s a great achievement, while I am, how do I say it, not ‘niche’ because that would be a dangerous term for Agent Vinod... I mean my films have a darker side to them and I would like to believe have their own following. But Raju is much more universal. Personally, I love his films.”
Talking of friendships, during his struggling years, Raghavan formed a clique with filmmakers of similar sensibility, like Anurag Kashyap and Shivam Nair. Imtiaz Ali, too, became an important member of this Oshiwara circle. “I don’t like the word ‘struggling’ because it suggests that someone is not letting you do what you want, but yeah, we used to catch up at Shivam’s office, and having a lot of time on our hands meant daily coffee, drinks and conversation.” They would toss off ideas and share their experiences.
“There was no clash because we had different ideas about filmmaking. It was like what was once happening in the West—directors as diverse as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Paul Schrader were friends, but had no rivalry, and, in fact, promoted one another’s works.”
Now, Raghavan rues, they don’t get free time anymore to meet that often. “In fact, Anurag had called me for a screening of Gangs of Wasseypur, but when he told me it’s a five-to-six hour film, I realised I may not have that much time,” he says, regretfully.
“But once I am done with Agent Vinod, there will be an Anurag Kashyap-Imtiaz Ali film festival at my home. I haven’t seen That Girl in Yellow Boots and Rockstar, boss. Kya boloonga unn log ko (What will I tell them?)”