Don your spy hats, folks, because the ever-dependable Tabu and ace filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj have teamed up for Khufiya, a spy thriller that looks juicier than a double agent's secret stash. The plot of Khufiya is ripped straight from the pages of reality. It is based on the book Escape to Nowhere by Amar Bhushan, who is a former chief of the counter-espionage unit of India's external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Khufiya also serves as a reminder of a captivating cinematic trend of 2023: spy thrillers wearing the crown as the reigning genre in Bollywood.

From James Bond to Jason Bourne to Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible series, Hollywood's legacy of grandiose, star-studded spy thrillers spans generations, unlike Bollywood. In 2002, the ‘King Khan’ of Bollywood had remarked, “James Bond movies always do well in India — that's a Hindi film. Man, I want to be James Bond. Please make me the first Indian James Bond.” Jump to 2023, and Shah Rukh Khan has turned his own prophecy into reality, delivering one of his most colossal blockbusters by introducing a ‘Bollywood Bond’ in Pathaan. This year, Hindi cinema is gearing up for a double dose of big espionage excitement, with superstar Salman Khan making his return as Avinash Tiger Singh Rathore in Tiger 3, while SRK’s character in Pathaan and Major Kabir (Hrithik Roshan's character from War) are set to make special appearances, solidifying their roles as superspies in Yash Raj Films’ Spy Universe. With these two huge films leading the charge, 2023 has undoubtedly been a year of spy thrillers.

But that is not all. The spy invasion extends beyond cinema, as spies infiltrate theatres and streaming platforms alike. We have already witnessed the likes of Sidharth Malhotra in Mission Majnu (Netflix), Radhika Apte in Mrs. Undercover (Zee5), Priyanka Chopra's global spy thriller Citadel (Amazon Prime) and Alia Bhatt's Hollywood debut in Heart of Stone (Netflix), and the intrigue continues with John Abraham's spy drama Tehran, slated for release later this year.

I can't recall another year in Bollywood when such a multitude of spy thrillers starring mainstream stars were released. This marks a notable shift because unlike Hollywood, where spy thrillers often starred A-list actors, Bollywood traditionally relegated this genre to B-grade or lesser-known stars, with A-listers usually avoiding such projects.

Let us rewind a bit to the early days of Bollywood espionage. Inspired by James Bond films, Ravikant Nagaich directed the first Bollywood spy thriller, Farz, which catapulted Jeetendra to stardom. He played Gopi-Agent 116, the desi James Bond. Interestingly, Agent 116 made return appearances in two other films: Keemat (1973), with Dharmendra playing Agent 116, and Raksha (1982), with Jeetendra reprising the spy character once more. In the early stages of his career, Mithun Chakraborty also took on the role of Gun Master G-9 in Surakksha (1979) and Wardat (1981). Remarkably, all these five films were helmed by the same director, Ravikant Nagaich. What is intriguing is that during this era, actors like Jeetendra, Mithun Chakraborty, and even Feroz Khan took on spy roles before achieving their stardom. In the 1970s and 1980s, many spy thrillers featured B-grade actors such as Mahendra Sandhu, Dev Kumar, or Sailesh Kumar. Prominent actors like Dharmendra and Jeetendra dabbled in the occasional thriller, although these films are not typically considered significant in their extensive filmographies.

However, in the early 2000s, especially after the Kargil war, the prevailing perception of Pakistan as a sworn adversary of India gained significant prominence in popular culture. This sentiment found its way onto the silver screen, where films like Sarfarosh (1999) and Gadar (2001) portrayed Pakistan as the villain and achieved massive success. It was during this period that characters depicting patriotic R&AW agents or Intelligence spies began making appearances in Hindi films and this time with prominent stars like Sunny Deol in The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003), Arjun Rampal in Asambhav (2004) and Sanjay Dutt in Lamhaa (2010). The trend caught on. In the following decade, Saif Ali Khan boldly embraced the suave James Bond-style spy role in Agent Vinod (2012), but the film bombed. In the same year, director Kabir Khan revolutionised Bollywood espionage with Salman Khan as the superspy in Yash Raj Films’ Ek Tha Tiger, signifying a genre-defining shift. This film marked a pivotal moment, setting the stage for the spy thrillers that now dominate Bollywood.

One significant factor propelling the rise of spy movies in Bollywood is the surging global interest in the genre. In recent times, audiences have developed a growing appetite for action-packed, suspense-laden narratives, often infused with a touch of nationalistic fervour. Akshay Kumar and John Abraham have capitalised on this formula with successful films such as Baby (2015), Madras Cafe (2013) Parmanu (2018) and Bell Bottom (2021) while Alia Bhatt achieved her biggest solo hit in the spy thriller Raazi (2018). And then came Shah Rukh Khan raising the bar in terms of massive budget, jaw-dropping action sequences and star power, heralding a new era for the spy thriller genre.

Like James Bond or Ethan Hunt, characters such as Tiger, Kabir, and Pathaan are tailored to fit the image and style of the superstar portraying them. Their storylines tend to be repetitive, lacking realism. The massive success of Pathaan didn’t impress Vikram Sood, the former Head of India’s R&AW. He remarked that Pathaan and other Bollywood spy films attempt to mimic the James Bond formula, lack authenticity and fail to depict the reality of the espionage world. He also said a relationship between an ISI girl and a R&AW agent was implausible as shown in both Ek Tha Tiger and Pathaan. Yet, the audience remain unwavering in their support, as evidenced by the success of these movies.

The challenge lies in finding a delicate balance between entertainment and realism while whisking audiences away on thrilling adventures. I hope Vishal Bhardwaj's Khufiya will be a realistic spy thriller that impresses the former R&AW head. Given Bhardwaj's and Tabu's track records, I am hoping it to be a spy-tacular show!

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