As Lokesh Kanagaraj's Vikram runs to packed houses around the country, here's a homage to the original that inspired Kamal Haasan's "Vikram" character and the many agents from his team that stole the show 36 years later. For easy reading, we can refer to the 1986 film as Vikram I and the latest film as Vikram II.
Released on 29 May 1986, Vikram I was reportedly the first Tamil film to be made at a budget of 1 crore. Kamal Haasan whose Raaj Kamal Films International produced the film he also starred in, has said that it was a "commercial hit" even if film critics did not like it. Although the film did 100 days in a few theatres, audiences reportedly felt that the film went over their heads.
Yet, like most cult classics, Vikram I may not have been a blockbuster or achieved critical acclaim when it was first released but it has since attained a loyal following. It is now well-rated by a substantial number of votes on IMDB likely driven by younger tech-savvy audiences well before interest in Vikram II piqued.
The continued circulation of cultural products related to Vikram I also helped to ensure its cult status. There's Ilaiyaraaja's hugely popular soundtrack, which was composed using computers. The original synth-pop theme song 'Vikram…Vikram' has even been remixed for Vikram II. There's also Vikram I's novelization by author Sujatha (first released weekly in Kumudam magazine during the production of the film).
Vikram I successfully Indianized (and indigenized) the spy film, and ushered Indian cinema into the computer and nuclear age. It also introduced new geographical imaginaries to valorize the Indian Tamil hero as the saviour of a foreign country, representations usually only associated with western action films.
Ulaganayagan, or "universal hero", as Kamal Haasan is known, thus brought Hollywood to Kollywood, and boldly redefined the spy flick in Indian cinema with Vikram I. While it may not have received the public approval that Vikram II has, it was more ambitious in its narrative canvas for its time. Its bold approach also made possible the references to the darker aspects of espionage that are alluded to in the spin-off.
While Vikram I was a cult classic ahead of its time within the context of Indian cinema, it also bore features that have not aged well such as the strictures of the action-masala genre and the toxic masculinity considered acceptable at that time in Kollywood. Vikram II may have rid itself of some of these atavistic elements but does not go far enough.
In Vikram I, set in 1984, Arun Kumar Vikram, or AK Vikram, the Indian government's secret agent, has ten days to find and defuse a top-secret Indian thermonuclear missile Agni Putra II. The weapon is stolen by a transnational terrorist Sugirtharaja (played with panache by actor Sathyaraj) and hidden in the (fictional) Central Asian kingdom of Salamia.
Agent Vikram is aided in his mission by two women who also fall in love with him: computer engineer Preethi (Lissy) and Princess of Salamia, Inimaasi (Dimple Kapadia), daughter of Salamia's eccentric ruler Sultan (Amjad Khan).
Needless to say, Vikram prevails in his mission. Agni Putra II is recovered by Vikram in time to reprogramme the missile headed to New Delhi safely detonating it in the Bay of Bengal. Sugirtharaja drops to his death, his band of terrorists is eliminated, and regime change in Salamia is averted.
Before Vikram I, spy thrillers in Indian cinema invariably placed espionage in the hands of the police or the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). This was a legacy of colonial India and the early years of the Indian republic when the Intelligence Bureau (IB) managed both domestic and foreign intelligence services.
Therefore, when Indian cinema tried to cash in on the 1960s James Bond craze, Bollywood and regional cinemas created their own variants but using CID cops. This distinguished them from Bond who was a British external intelligence agent working for MI6.
Telugu cinema's Gudachari 116 (1966), which also influenced Bollywood's Agent 116 trilogy, and Kannada cinema's Jedara Bale (1968) and the CID 999 trilogy foregrounded the adventures of heroes who are more sleuths than intelligence agents. Even Tamil cinema's Ragasiya Police 115 (1968) starring actor-politician MGR, and actor Jaishankar's CID Shankar films after Vallavan Oruvan (1966) feature cops undertaking missions of espionage or counter-espionage.
It bears mentioning that Jaishankar was known as the Thennakathu (South Indian) James Bond for his roles as a CID officer. Interestingly in CID Shankar (1970), the eponymous protagonist pursues a terror group that had assassinated a politician using a suicide bomber offering a garland – uncannily reminiscent of Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 (an event hinted at in Vikram II).
The Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was reportedly established in 1968 by the Indian government with around 200 officers from IB. The goal of this new organization was to develop a nondescript external intelligence agency. RAW was so well concealed that it was not referenced on Indian screens till Vikram I.
Vikram is probably the first RAW agent in Indian cinema. This is alluded to when we find out that Vikram is an intelligence officer in a clandestine government organization known as BRA, which in the novel is clarified as the Bureau of Research & Analysis. There is also the figure of bureau chief GV Rao – a nod to the first RAW chief RN Kao. BRA was clearly meant to serve as a fictional proxy for RAW.
Vikram, like Bond, is a former navy commander turned spy and not a cop. At a joint chief of staff meeting with Rao to discuss the mission to retrieve the stolen nuclear missile, the navy chief even disapproves of selecting Vikram for the mission because of his history of being temperamental and his tendency to use unorthodox methods.
Actress Lissy, recalling her experience of working in Vikram I, refers to the film as "India's first Bond movie." Insofar as it features the adventures of a civilian secret agent from India's dedicated external intel organization, she's right.
Yet, it would be years before RAW would be commonly indexed on film. Even the next time Kamal Haasan played a spy in Vettri Vizha (1989), he reverts to an undercover IB cop even though the film is inspired by The Bourne Identity (1988) television series about a CIA agent. It was not until the late 2000s and 2010s that we started to see many RAW agents as heroes such as in Kamal Haasan's own Vishwaroopam (2013), and most recently in Beast (2022).
In showing the darker side of espionage, Vikram I even anticipated the later Bond films of the 1980s like The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1989). Vikram's suave and dapper exterior hides a ruthless and callous streak. Vikram uses 'third-degree treatment' to interrogate Sugirtharaja's mole in the bureau who had leaked information that led to the death of Vikram's pregnant wife. This includes a detailed introduction to torture tools. When the mole escapes and jumps to his death, Vikram coldly says that the main takeaway from the incident is not to interrogate on a building's 8th floor.
As a spin-off, Vikram II amplifies the grimmer aspects of intelligence work. We are told that in 1987, presumably after the mission in Salamia, Vikram leads an even more secretive black ops squad made up of RAW agents but focused on both internal and external threats to national security. Vikram even gains notoriety as 'The Ghost.' We are told that the black ops squad was disbanded and labelled terrorists after a failed operation in 1991, likely involving Sri Lanka and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.
At a time when Kollywood films hardly engaged with the world outside their locality, Vikram I invited viewers to think about global issues. We hear Rao informing India's top military brass that the mission to retrieve Agni Putra II has to remain top secret because India did not want to attract international attention to its nuclear weapons programme. He adds that India wanted to be seen as a peaceful country. This is a reference to the fact that in 1974, ten years before the fictional events in Vikram I, India detonated a nuclear device but informed the world that it was a "peaceful nuclear explosion."
Vikram I also effectively captured the zeitgeist in international politics of that time. Set at the height of the cold war between the nuclear-armed US and USSR, mutually assured destruction (MAD) and nuclear holocaust were a clear and present danger to the world. We even watch a video depicting the atomic bomb's destruction in Japan with Rao and the military chiefs of staff. Rao warns the chiefs, and thus the audience, that thermonuclear devastation would be much worse.
Vikram I also takes us into the computer age and can make legitimate claims about being spy-fi. We hear that the only way to reroute the Indian ICBM away from New Delhi is to use access codes to reprogramme its target location. Information technology is a key part of the narrative as we find out that the missile can be remotely controlled with the right data. Although the computer revolution was in full swing in India by the late 1980s as captured in Vikram I, it is not until the 2000s that we start to see information technology play a prominent role in Indian film narratives.
One of the special features of Vikram I was how it amalgamated fact and fantasy to create the fictional kingdom of Salamia. In the process generating geographical imaginaries about India's immediate and extended neighbourhood hitherto unseen in Kollywood. Though Salamia's location is never explicitly articulated, the on-screen maps Rao points to indicate that Salamia is sandwiched somewhere between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the former USSR in Central Asia.
Representations of Salamia as an obscure hermit kingdom appear influenced by Himalayan monarchies around India at that time including Bhutan, Nepal, as well as Sikkim before it was absorbed into India. Committed to detailing, the filmmakers even went to the extent of ensuring a fictive language for the people of Salamia, reportedly the work of Kamal Haasan.
To amplify the mystique around Salamia, it also absorbs characteristics associated with monarchies in the Middle East real or imagined: the ruling Sultan is head of an ultra-conservative monarchy, the clerical class has immense power, and it is mostly desert terrain. Rao also warns Vikram not to do anything to jeopardise India's close ties with Salamia, which in the novel we are told is an important source of oil imports to India.
From a global perspective, Vikram I was counter-cultural for the manner in which it challenged hegemonic representations at that time. According to sociologist Matthew W. Hughey, the 1980s saw the first wave of White Saviour narratives popularized by Hollywood. One version of this is where a white American or British protagonist is the liberator, rescuer, or leader of people from the Third World. We see this exemplified by films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Rambo III (1988), and to some extent the James Bond film set in India, Octopussy (1983).
Vikram I created an alternative myth of an Indian Tamil hero, who leads the people of a Central Asian kingdom out of political instability. The high priest of Salamia backed by Sugirtharaja launches a coup d'état. But this is foiled by Vikram and Princess Inimaasi who lead a successful counter-coup by the people of Salamia that returns power to the Sultan. Of course, at the same time, Vikram foils the plot of Sugirtharaja the anti-Indian terrorist (a bankable topic in Bollywood films that year).
Vikram I thus played out the fantasy of a brown saviour who liberates a grateful foreign people, usually the prerogative of a White protagonist. In this aspect, cinema mirrors life as in the 1980s, India was involved in a number of interventions in neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and the Maldives. Although the results of such interventions were mixed in real life (as implied in the grittier Vikram II), Vikram I provides the comforting fiction of a triumphant Indian intervention.
At a time when grandiose spectacles were in vogue in Indian cinema, the action sequences in Vikram I were shot in Rajasthan, India to exploit the desert terrain and the ancient architecture around the state. The staging of the narrative in Salamia allowed for fight sequences and camel chases atop dunes recalling Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the original cinematic White Saviour, but now used to amplify the heroism and machismo of the brown saviour.
Vikram II, set in director Lokesh's narcotics-mafia world from his hit film Kaithi (2019), has a far less ambitious narrative canvas than Vikram I. The film's antagonist Santhanam (Vijay Sethupathi) is an Indian 'Pablo Escobar' trying to fortify his drug fiefdom in Tamil Nadu albeit with the help of a super-drug that heightens his senses (like in Luc Besson's 2014 film Lucy). We are informed that Santhanam is the satrap of an even bigger Indian drug kingpin Rolex (Suriya in a cameo appearance). Compared to the 1980s, Vikram's latest mission is thus far more parochial: to dismantle India's drug syndicates. More spin-off/spiritual successor than sequel, there is no exotic foreign country, no global ramifications, and no weapons of mass destruction in Vikram II.
Those who prefer Vikram II to its predecessor may argue that in keeping itself grounded in the local underworld milieu, it may have made the film more accessible and thus more successful. But that would be an unfair and present-minded comparison.
Vikram I was pioneering for the way it introduced new ideas and broadened the canvas on which the spy film operated in Kollywood and Indian cinema in general. For this, credit must go to both writer Sujatha and producer Kamal Haasan. But Vikram I was also saddled with some of the problems that plagued most Tamil films at that time.
For one, adherence to the masala format tended to undermine the intrigue in Vikram I. Even if we looked past the opening 'Vikram…Vikram…' song as an attempt to emulate the Bond film opening credits or the racy dream sequence in 'Meendum Meendum Vaa…' as a substitute for sex scenes, it is hard to reconcile the hard-nosed and ruthless agent Vikram with the vaudevillian in 'Vanithamani' and 'En Jodi Manja Kuruvi.'
This masala-fication of the spy film with song and dances for the sake of commercial compromises was necessary at that time in order to commercially compete with other action-masala films. However, the dancing and singing secret agent tended to distract from an otherwise taut screenplay and focused plot that is an integral part of the western spy thriller. Vikram I ends up being an action-masala spy film when it could have been much more.
Vikram II however manages to break free of the masala structure for the most part. The only song-and-dance number in the film 'Pathala…Pathala…' is brief and has a narrative function to establish the complex and contradictory identity of the protagonist. The rest of the songs work as a background score and do not interrupt the narrative. There are no romantic distractions either. All of these help the film to work as a genre action film.
Vikram I does especially badly in its representations of gender. M's comment to James Bond in Goldeneye (1995): "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War," could also apply to agent Vikram. His chauvinism is explicit when he expresses surprise that a computer expert could be a woman, rebuffs the possibility of gender equality, and is patronising towards having to work with Preethi in his quest. He is also harsh in his treatment of Preethi's advances which reveals underlying misogyny.
Oddly, Vikram I glosses over Vikram's sexism as a result of PTSD from the murder of his wife. But the link between the two is tenuous. We are merely expected to believe Vikram's wife's death made him obsessed with revenge to the point where he's now a bigot too.
In justifying its toxic masculinity, Vikram I was thus no different from other Kollywood films at that time, some of which were also hugely successful at the box office. Take for instance such films as Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) that ran for 200 days in cinemas, Amman Kovil Kizhakale (1986) that ran for 175 days, and the virulently anti-feminist Chinna Veedu (1985) that ran for 100 days (Source: Sadhanaigal Padaitha Thamizhthiraipada Varalaru ), all of which have aged poorly in their representation of gender relations.
Vikram II does better than its predecessor but does not go far enough. In the figure of agent Tina (Vasanthi), we have a standout female character who packs a punch and stands her ground in a world of bloodthirsty men. Think Kannathaa from Paatti Sollai Thattathe (1988) but on steroids. It is only a matter of time before there are demands on the internet for a spin-off agent Tina film too. However, the rest of the female characters in this testosterone-charged film are either helpless victims or damsels in distress in need of a male saviour.
In popular cultural memory, we immediately think of "Captain" Vijayakanth, "Action King" Arjun, or Suriya's Singam franchise as a synecdoche for the Indian republic. But like the fourth lion on the state insignia of the Indian republic that we never see, Kamal Haasan too has emblematized the state more often than we realise. He has played a policeman, a narc-cop, a counter-terrorist cop, an undercover cop, a military man, and intelligence agents ever so often to the point where in a recent Spotify interview he even asks the viewer to take stock of the number.
Maybe because as actor par excellence Kamal Haasan can play tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy with equal conviction and shifts between roles with such ease we never notice how often he plays the government servant as he has in Vikram I and Vikram II. Now as he basks in the box office glow of Vikram II, the big question at the back of everyone's mind is whether the man who can play any role on screen can also effectively perform as a politician in real life.