Agent Vinod: How Sriram Raghavan’s silly spy movie starring Saif paved the way for The Family Man

One of the most impressive things about Prime Video’s The Family Man—and there are many—is directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s giddy enthusiasm for long, unbroken action sequences. These scenes aren’t actually filmed in elaborately choreographed single takes, but are instead stitched together from several individual shots, which, by the way, is the industry practice the world over. Possibly the most prominent early example of sequences such as this came in director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men—a film that tanked commercially when it was first released, but almost instantly gained a reputation as a modern classic of the science-fiction genre. These scenes were a much-needed diversion from the explosion-heavy brand of action that we’d become accustomed to in the 90s, thanks to Michael Bay and Simon West, and the quick-cutting, almost queasy intensity of the game-changing Jason Bourne movies by Paul Greengrass. Cuarón’s fluid, immersive style inspired similar scenes in True Detective, Game of Thrones, the Kingsman movies, Atomic Blonde, and countless others, culminating with Sam Mendes’ near-miraculous 1917, the entirety of which was made to appear like an unbroken single sequence.

Cuarón himself doubled down on this flamboyance in his subsequent films—the space survival thriller Gravity, and the semi-autobiographical drama Roma. The maestro quickly came to be regarded as the most skilled architect of these single take sequences working today, perhaps besides the master of the ‘oners’ Steven Spielberg, who would probably still be the best in the business even if he were to dedicate the rest of his career to shooting the patches of grass and nothing else.

In India, though, when you think of flashy sequences such as these, you will likely (and understandably) be reminded of The Family Man. Raj and DK’s handling of these scenes isn’t particularly special—the CGI is spotty, and you can clearly make out the ‘hidden cuts’ if you pay enough attention—but part of the thrill of watching them is appreciating just how easily they could’ve fallen apart, but didn’t.

Long take sequences work not just emotionally—there is a sense of release when they stick the landing, the strictly choreographed gymnastics performances that they are—but also on a chemical level. Over the years, the human brain has been taught a certain cinematic language, of which editing is a key component. But when the brain doesn’t spot any cuts—consciously or otherwise—it automatically becomes more involved in the scene, learning a new dialect, so to speak, as the scene unfolds. This creates an instant immersion, and immediately raises the stakes for even a basic chit chat sequence.

Anyway, The Family Man does it really well, and you can almost anticipate that this will become a signature of sorts for Raj and DK in their future projects. But did you know that there’s another goofy Indian spy title that sort of paved the way for the show, especially in this department?

In 2012, director Sriram Raghavan made an attempt to climb the social ladder of Bollywood with Agent Vinod, an unmitigated disaster that even Saif Ali Khan, with a long list of unmitigated disasters under his belt, would like to forget. Agent Vinod is a particularly terrible relic of an odd couple of years for the Hindi film industry, in which several critical darling filmmakers tried scaling up. Nearly all of them failed dramatically. Vikramaditya Motwane directed Lootera in 2013, and Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee made Bombay Velvet and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! in 2015.

Daftly plotted, featuring a (mostly) garbage Pritam soundtrack, and displaying a disregard for tone that makes Kabir Khan’s movies look like Cuarón’s, Agent Vinod is easily the worst of this lot—the rest are actually all brilliant. But deep in the film’s third act, when it has already alienated you with a convoluted plot and bored you to bits with an unnecessary romantic track, Raghavan makes his director’s cameo—not physically, but through a scene that is far more refined than anything on either side of it.

Set to a soothing love song titled “Raabta,” the three-and-a-half minute action sequence follows Saif and Kareena Kapoor’s characters—cross-border spies and lovers—on the run from gangsters through the hallways and rooms of a seedy hotel. It’s playful, inventive despite the inherent restrictions of such sequences, and action-packed without losing sight of the emotional core. It opens and closes with shots of a blind pianist—foreshadowing Raghavan’s future hit, Andhadhun—and gives the filmmaker an opportunity to flex his filmmaking muscles in a manner that the rest of the movie hadn’t. One kill, for instance, is visualised entirely through the characters’ shadows against a wall. There is also a clever set-up and payoff involving a young mother with a crib. She is later revealed to be another assassin, when she pulls out a machine gun from under the blankets where a baby should’ve been–John Woo-style. But most impressively, the sequence gives Kareena’s character an arc—she is visibly frightened at the start, when they realise that they’ve been made, but later participates in the shootout, coming to Vinod’s rescue when he needs it.

The film is otherwise quite mediocre—a poorly-stitched together collection of set-pieces that can’t decide whether to be a serious approximation of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies or to embrace the silliness of it all. How Raghavan was confused about this is beyond me—the film’s lead single is, after all, titled “Pyaar ki Pungi” for heaven’s sake. What’s weirder is that he’s normally quite adept at maintaining a tonal consistency—my favourite anecdote about Andhadhun is how Raghavan didn’t tell Ayushmann Khurrana that it was a dark comedy until the premiere, where the star noticed people laughing—but in Agent Vinod, no two actors seem to be on the same page. While Saif admittedly appears to be having some fun with the suave spy stereotypes, Kareena plays her character like a soap opera ‘bahu’.

Agent Vinod was the second production from Saif and Dinesh Vijan’s now-defunct Illuminati Films—Vijan would go on to achieve great success through his Maddock Films banner. But incidentally, two of Illuminati’s six total projects were directed by Raj and DK. This is the playground in which they blossomed. Not every film that emerged out of the Illuminati era worked, but there’s something to appreciate in each one of them. Except Happy Ending, which proved to be cruelly prophetic.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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