Before Taapsee Pannu’s Shabana Khan in Naam Shabana, the country was in the safe hands of Madam X1, who teamed up her daughter Sitara and agent Pratap (numbered 707) to rescue a kidnapped scientist.
The 1968 production Khilari was Nadia’s final release. Directed by her long-time collaborator and husband Homi Wadia, Khilari capitalises on the stunt movie star’s back catalogue. As Madam X1, who fearlessly defeats the Golden Dragon gang led by a Chinese woman, 60-year-old Nadia performs some incredible feats. She kicks and punches and impersonates a Sikh man, a bartender, a queen and even a lavani dancer.
The combined patriotism of Madam X1, Sitara and Agent 707 is aided by cutting-edge gadgetry, such as a mechanical butterfly used for communication and a gun that fired backwards.
As a rule, female spies in Hindi films labour in the shadows of their better employed and more powerful male counterparts. There is always a father, brother or lover who provides the trigger for action.
Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973), though not exactly a spy film, has Mohini (Priya Rajvansh) turn to intelligence gathering to locate a Pakistani radar system that is creating havoc for the Indian Air Force during the 1971 war. The motivating factor: her fiancé Rajiv (Raaj Kumar), who is a squadron leader.
Similarly, Reshma (Preity Zinta) falls in love with Army Major Arun Khanna (Sunny Deol), which encourages her to sign up for a spying assignment in Pakistan in The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003).
Some films have been kinder to female spies, giving them more to do than bat eyelashes at the hero. In Aankhen (1968), Meenakshi (Mala Sinha) ably teams up with Sunil (Dharmendra) to fight the enemies of the nation (once again, the Chinese). The pursuit of enemies takes Meenakshi and Sunil to Beirut, where Meenakshi uses her wit and charm to rescue Sunil after he gets caught. Meenaskhi tracks Sunil along with her teammate Mehmood (played by Mehmood) by using a transmitter. In a welcome change, the heroine rescues the hero.
More often than not, female spies are relied upon for their Mata Hari-inspired skills. In the Telugu B-movie Lady James Bond (1980), Silk Smitha plays Agent 001, who has received special training from Scotland Yard, no less. Agent 001 stops a number of rogue powers who want to capture the briefcase of a scientist containing secret formulas. Silk Smitha utilises her brains as well as her oomph. The B-movie Miss 420 (1998), starring Sheeba Aakashdeep and Baba Sehgal, crudely utilises Sheeba as a sex object in the battle against terrorists.
In D-Day (2013), Zoya (Huma Qureshi) is an explosives expert who is part of a team that has to bring the fugitive gangster Goldman (Rishi Kapoor) back to India from Pakistan. Similarly, Sonakshi Sinha in Force 2 plays Indian intelligence agent Kamaljit Kaur, who teams up with police officer Yashvardhan (John Abraham) to tackle a rogue element selling information to the Chinese. Kamaljit is no match for Yashvardhan’s uber-machismo, but her sheer dedication does manage to impress the hardened policeman.
Where there is Bollywood, can romance be far behind? Spies fall in love too, even when they are from rival countries. In Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Avinash Singh Rathore (Salman Khan), a Research and Analysis Wing agent, falls in love with Katrina Kaif, who turns out to be an ISI agent. Kareena Kapoor too plays ISI agent Iram in Agent Vinod (2012) and shares a romantic camaraderie with the titular character portrayed by Saif Ali Khan. Iram even helps stop a nuclear attack on India at the cost of her life.
Bollywood’s halfhearted olive branch to Pakistan has not always been reciprocated. Waar (2013), the highest grossing Pakistani movie of all time, is a spy thriller in which RAW agent Laxmi (Meesha Shafi) plans to destroy Pakistan. Staying in the country under the alias Zoya, Laxmi teams up with rogue agents and the Taliban to plan bomb blasts in the country apart from executing an attack on a police academy.
Strangely, Indian cinema has passed up on the opportunity to bring the remarkable story of Noor Inayat Khan to the screen. Khan, who was of Indian and American extraction, was part of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive agency, which worked in Nazi-occupied territories and gathered intelligence against the Germans during World War II. Khan was captured and executed at the Dachau concentration camp on September 11, 1944. She was awarded the George Cross honour for her efforts, and is the subject of Shrabani Basu’s biography Spy Princess.
The book rights were sold to Zafar Hai and Tabrez Noorani in 2013, but there is sign yet of a biopic.
The French movie Female Agents (2008), starring Sophie Marceau, celebrates the exploits of the SOE’s brave women. Noor Inayat Khan’s heroics do not find a place in the narrative. Here is one female spy whose story needs to be told.