When James Bond travelled to India in 1983, his behaviour was most definitely not sanskari.
Bond’s sins in Octopussy, a border-hopping investigation into a rogue Russian general’s attempts to set off a nuclear war in Europe, include divesting Caucasian women of their saris and causing traffic troubles in a rural market. As for the tantalising title, does it mean what we think it is supposed to mean?
Based partly on two short stories by Bond creator Ian Fleming, Octopussy was the first 007 adventure to be partly set and shot in India. Previous attempts to shoot Moonraker here had come to nought, but Octopussy benefitted tremendously from the co-operation of the royals of Mewar, without whose blessings it would have been impossible to shoot the movie’s crucial (and scenic) portions.
Octopussy features the typical Bond movie mix of multi-ethnic characters and exotic locations. The India section was filmed at the Jag Mandir palace complex in Udaipur, owned by the royals of Mewar and now run as a luxury hotel by the Taj group. The 13th Bond adventure includes a thrilling auto rickshaw chase through a marketplace in Udaipur. Indians love to complain about how Hollywood depictions of the country’s people and traditions are coloured by stereotypes, and the chase sequence has its share of snake charmers, sword swallowers and fire walkers. But it is instructive to see how Octopussy plays with these stereotypes. When Bond (Roger Moore) steps off the boat at Udaipur, he is greeted by a pungi playing the 007 tune. That pungi belongs to undercover spy Vijay (tennis champion Vijay Amritraj making his movie debut).
The chase sequence is also an example of how Western filmmakers sometimes use Indian locations better and more imaginatively than do locals. Vijay drives Bond to safety in an auto-rickshaw that is being hotly pursued by the henchmen of Afghan smuggler Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), swatting away persistent thugs with his tennis racquet and flying over the head of a shocked camel in the bargain.
The Indian setting was suggested by screenplay writer George MacDonald Fraser, according to a documentary on the making of Octopussy. A reccee to Udaipur confirmed to director John Glen that he had all the locations he needed for the film. A typical Bond trope is to suggest that dens of iniquity await the British spy when he leaves the comfort of England. Two different palaces on the banks of Pichola Lake serve as the lair of ‘Octopussy’ (Maud Adams), the leader of a gang of slinky women who initially helps Kamaal Khan in trying to kill the sleuth. Octopussy’s legitimate activities include running hotels and circuses, but she started off as a diamond smuggler, she tells Bond before writhing with him on a octopus-shaped bed.
How can Bond, the symbol of British virility, ever be content with just one woman? His route to the boss’s bedpost usually goes past the underlings. Christina Waybourn, who is often dressed in slinky saris, is Bond’s first conquest. The women in monochrome saris and bejeweled blouses include Indian supermodel Shyamoli Varma, she told the India Today magazine. (She would have made a fabulous Bond girl too). Perhaps in keeping with Indian sensibilities, Bond doesn’t respond to the unmistakable overtures of the Indian hotel employee who drops off his baggage to the room.
The secret agent soon finds himself evading another Indian – Kamal Khan’s fearsome factotum Gobinda. Played by the handsome Kabir Bedi, who was cast because of his popularity on Italian television as the character Sandokan, Gobinda looks especially disapproving when Bond’s double entendre and lechery get out of hand.
Although the royal family laid out the red carpet for the Bond crew, the chase sequence proved to be challenging. “We had asked for 5,000 extras and 10,000 turned up,” Roger Moore says in the documentary. The actor was “exhausted changing shirts” because he sweated so much during the shoot itself, he adds.
Parts of the Indian bazaar scene were reproduced with remarkable fidelity on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom by long-time Bond movie production designer Peter Lamont. This false wall, which Vijay and Bond use to trick Gobinda, is actually at Pinewood.
The Bond franchise is extremely popular in India. Bond movies are routinely dubbed and released in Indian languages and play regularly on television. The films have spun off local me-toos. But when location scouts for Sam Mendes’s Skyfall (2012) asked the Railway Ministry for permission to film a chase sequence on top of a moving train, they were turned down. Dinesh Trivedi, Railway Minister with the previous United Progressive Alliance government, proudly declared that he would not permit an international production to show Indians travelling on the top of trains.
Other Hollywood franchises have met more enlightened people than Trivedi in their quest to put India on the global locations map. Parts of The Bourne Supremacy were shot in Goa, while The Dark Knight Rises features the Mehrangarh Fort in a key sequence. Will ‘Make in India’ translate into ‘Shoot in India’ for future Bond productions?