This is an excerpt from Nandini Ramnath’s weekly newsletter, Eye Spy. To receive it regularly in your inbox, sign up here.
Akshay Kumar, did you know?
The Hindi film actor is a poster boy for ghar wapsi: born in India, a Canadian national for some years despite continuing to live and work here – and now an Indian again after renouncing his Canadian citizenship. The return to base is well-timed, coming ahead of the most recent diplomatic row between the two countries.
Canada has accused India of assassinating Canadian-Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on its soil. India has called Canada’s claim as “absurd and motivated”. The violation of sovereignty alleged by Canada is already leading to serious real-world consequences. In the fictional space, this kind of skulduggery is depicted approvingly and is the stuff of blockbusters.
A subset of Hindi films is dedicated to Indian undercover agents slipping unnoticed into foreign countries and capturing or killing enemies of the state. Films like The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (a major portion of which is set in Canada), Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai, War and Pathan revolve superhero agents taking on high-stakes targets – typically Pakistani spies funding Kashmiri militants in India, or Islamist terrorists who want to bomb or nuke the country.
Some of these missions are shown to be off the books, thereby enhancing the idea of an invincible Indian intelligence apparatus with eyes and ears on every corner of the planet. A few films are based on actual incidents, such as Uri: The Surgical Strike.
Both the Gadar films too involve an ordinary Indian stomping into Pakistan and walloping its citizens on their turf. D-Day provided a variation on the theme. Inspired partly by an alleged actual attempt to kill the fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim, D-Day sees a bunch of die-hard Indian agents trying to extract the Ibrahim-like hoodlum Iqbal Seth from Karachi and bring him back to India. (Conveniently, Iqbal Seth is killed on the Indo-Pak border after he taunts his captors that he will get away scot-free once he is back home.)
At one level, this “Dreaming of Mossad” venture is a tribute to the Israeli spy agency’s well-publicised feats of intimidating or killing their opponents without bothering about diplomatic niceties. These operations had a moral purpose at least soon after World War II, when Mossad agents assiduously hunted down the Nazi generals who had gone unpunished for the Holocaust.
The inspirations include the Hollywood production Zero Dark Thirty. The movie, based on the American operation to kill the terrorist Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 – thereby violating Pakistani sovereignty – has fans in India too.
Akshay Kumar has contributed his mite to the fantasy of Indian intelligence agencies rivalling the CIA and Mossad in deadly intent, skills and efficiency. In 2015, Kumar headlined Baby, the innocuous codename for a covert mission to eliminate terrorists planning to target India.
Written and directed by Neeraj Pandey, Baby popularised the now-notorious line “ghar mein ghuske marenge.” We will sneak into their homes and kill them. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated the sentiment while speaking about Pakistan at a public meeting in Ahmedabad, easing a muscular line of Hindi film dialogue into posterity.
Neeraj Pandey’s career is built on this sentiment. His most recent show for Disney+ Hostar, The Freelancer, stars Mohit Raina as a gun-for-hire who sets out to rescue his friend’s daughter from the clutches of the Islamic State.
The line appears in a completely different context in the 1975 classic Deewar, written by Salim-Javed. The gangster Daavar, played by Iftekhar, praises Amitabh Bachchan’s dock worker for his rebellion against a rival’s hold over the port: I hear that you beat them in their backyard?
Pandey weaponised the dialogue in Baby, and it has never left our side since. At a time of hyper-nationalism, where there are known and invented enemies both within and without, the line between art and life has been blurred beyond recognition. Whatever the truth about the Canada fracas, the stream of movies and series about Indian operatives picking out their enemies on foreign soil isn’t going to stop.