Mr. Bond and His Ladies: Tales of Seduction and Espionage

It is nigh impossible to save the world from megalomaniac villains and romance seductive sirens on the same beat, but let’s face it, Mr. Bond succeeds in accomplishing the impossible with panache. During my childhood, I remember my father being extremely confused as to whether I should or should not see a Bond film. You see, Star Movies used to be an “adult” channel back then. But he also wanted me to know about the heroes from his youth, likes of which included Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and later, Sir Sean Connery. Yet, at the same time, he was worried that the sexual scenes would demolish the last remaining shreds of innocence in my childhood. So, like every other child who does exactly what he/she is told not to do, I endeavored to watch every single Bond film by the age of thirteen. Pierce Brosnan was the reigning box-office money-churner back in those days, the beach shots of a near-naked Brosnan and Halle Berry in an orange bikini advertised in almost every single trailer for Die Another Day (2002)Suffice to say, I had developed quite the infatuation for the casanova spy, only my affection leaned more toward Connery than Brosnan.

 

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The British spy over the ages; from Left to Right: Sir Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Sir Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig. Absent: David Niven (Casino Royale, 1967).

It was after almost a decade, in the beginning of 2016, that I once again went back to watching all the Bond films, all thanks to a certain Austrian by the name of Christoph Waltz, who portrayed Blofeld in the latest Bond venture, Spectre (2015). And it goes without saying that disappointment was the word of the day. Gone were the days of idolizing seductive femme fatales who set the screen on fire with their backless dresses and beach frolicking in bikinis; or for that matter, staring at the screen, dazed by the superhuman ability of the spy surviving almost anything, be it a bullet to the heart or radioactive rays. The woman I turned out to be in my adulthood could not help but be appalled at the disuse of every single one of Bond’s love interests in the 60s, 70s and mid-80s as nothing but an object. Their plotlines were sadly more predictable than the daily soaps, and after their initial dilemma about helping the spy, they effortlessly slipped into the roles of the damsels in distress, until of course everything ended with one big fat happily-ever-after of snogging and making love in exotic locations, until the next installment, of course.

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From Left to Right: Holly Goodhead (Mookraker), Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), Mary Goodnight (The Man With the Golden Gun), Pussy Galore (Goldfinger), Dominique “Domino” Derval (Thunderball).

Be it the breathtaking Ursula Andress as Honey Driver (Dr. No, 1962), Barbara Bach as the dangerous KGB agent Anya Amasova (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (Goldfinger, 1964) to Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (Moonraker, 1979), all these women have become half-remembered faces lost in the cold heart of time. With blithe honesty, I confess, I had to spend hours myself, gathering information to find the names of these ladies. Because, let’s face the bitter truth here, we all know Mr. Bond will save his ladylove at the end of the day and kill the vicious villain, not to mention deliver that punchline that makes the whole film a visual display of a double entendre. And they, may I remind you, were the leading ladies of the films. Even, Maud Adams as Octopussy (Octopussy, 1983), who became a sensation in a single night, was in the end turned into nothing more than a damsel who needed a gentleman to rescue her, when in the beginning she started off as a mysterious, but deadly, businesswoman-cum-leader of a tribe of battle-hardy women. And whatever happened to the supporting cast, namely, the ever-present Miss Moneypenny, who seemed to spend all her time daydreaming about Mr. Bond, helping him skip the routine health checkup exams for the organizations, and being a generally unprofessional employee of MI6?

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Jill Masterson’s (Shirley Eaton) iconic gold-paint suffocation death scene from Goldfinger (1964)The scene was given homage to in Quantum of Solace (2008), where MI6 agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arteton) was murdered in a similar fashion, only this time by the use of crude oil instead. 

An image here: If one has been a follower of the Bond films, the image of a certain gorgeous woman smothered in gold paint and suffocated to death is still etched in the back of one’s mind. And yet, her name has long since escaped our minds, even if she used to be the partner of Mr. Bond himself in Goldfinger. But, let me not rant about the discrepancies; instead, the observations made from this phenomenon has baffled me much more. Back in those days, when femme fatales who either wanted to kiss or kill Mr. Bond, the British spy had been nothing short of a superman without a cape. He had defeated giants such as Christopher Lee (the eponymous man with the golden gun), and escaped radioactive explosions with a still-unbesmirched tuxedo.

But then, times changed, as time always does. When the screens bid adieu to the golden era of Bonds, including Connery and Moore, and the forgettable stint of Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, Brosnan became the face of the lethal spy. And with that, a new era of femme fatales came in. This time, however, the story was a little different.

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From Left to Right: Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye), Miranda Frost (Die Another Day), Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough), Paris Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies). 

You see, Brosnan’s Bond was not impervious, even if he had his fair share of super-heroic victories and nick-of-time escapes. Sure, he did succeed in peppering his ladies with kisses after saving the world, but he never did end up as unscathed as his predecessors. Brosnan’s Bond showed his humanity; he was vulnerable with his trust, going so much as to trust the wrong people in more than one situation. And for that, he had paid the bitter price of loss. The thing is, Brosnan’s Bond was not left unbroken, and perhaps that set the stage for Sam Mendes to explore his indecision, his personality’s depth, and his relationship with the first female M in the series (the irreplaceable Dame Judi Dench) in the later installments. In GoldenEye (1995), Brosnan’s first endeavor to be the British spy, he is shocked to see the betrayal of his presumably dead former partner, Alec Trevelyan or 006 (played by a stoic Sean Bean), and even after he wins the day and waltzes away with Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova, he does mourn the loss of his former friend in his silences. Another interesting development in this movie was the introduction of a dangerous and ruthless lust murderer as the female antagonist Xenia Onatopp, played stupendously by Famke Janssen. In what might be considered a curve ball in the history of Bond film directions, Brosnan’s expressions are not held back like his predecessors. In spite of all his punchlines, he openly shows expressions of pain (and later a subtle brand of existential crisis in Die Another Day) when he is tortured by Janssen’s Xenia. And you are suddenly thwarted by the realization that this British spy is only human. Taking a page out of this motif, the following films with Brosnan delved deeper into the depths of his character sketch. An iconic example of that is Sophie Marceau’s brilliantly portrayed Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough (1999). In this film, Bond goes on to almost admit to M that he had developed feelings for King, in spite of her revealing herself to be the manipulative mastermind in the end, having played both the hero and the villain. Perhaps this same motif was a tad bit stretched in Brosnan’s last, Die Another Day, through Rosamund Pike’s Miranda Frost, but the split second loss-stricken expression of Bond as he looks at Frost’s corpse is enough to establish the gradual yet much needed evolution of the spy’s almost two-dimensional character sketch.

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From Left to Right: Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale), Camille Montes (Quantum of Solace), Eve Moneypenny (Skyfall), Sévérine (Skyfall), Dr. Madeleine Swann (Spectre).

And this prelude itself set the ball rolling for our most recent Bond. In what can only be considered as a distinct aberration to the previous Bond films, one that created quite the controversy, Martin Campbell went on to cast and work with Daniel Craig as the British spy. Not stereo-typically handsome, yet uncannily fascinating, Craig’s Bond was a far cry from his predecessors. In spite of the burgeoning legacy on his shoulders, Craig broke form to portray a never-befoe-seen Bond. He was vulnerable, passionate, and even broken by his actions. In spite of his superficial cockiness, he didn’t shy away from dreaming a life with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, going so far as to severe his connections with M and the MI6 in Casino Royale (2007). And going hand in hand with this sudden sprout of character growth, there were even added multitudinous layers to his counterpart antagonists. From Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) to Christensen’s Mr. White (Quantum of Solace, 2008), and later, Bardem’s iconic Raoul Silva in Skyfall (2012), the interlinked plots were added with newer and more profound dimensions, each leading to the steady development of Bond’s character. With the rising complications in each of the Bond ladies to the constant juxtaposition of Bond’s human vulnerabilities over his familiar brash overconfidence, newer textures were given to the franchise. The two most memorable proofs of such observations are Bond’s plotline in Quantum of Solace as he leaves no stones unturned in his brutal quest for vengeance over Lynd’s death, and his choice of a reclusive life when he survives, albeit narrowly, from a fatal gunshot in Skyfall. This reinvention of Bond, a departure from the usual overuse of unrealistic plot tropes in preceding Bond films, was a refreshing take from the overtly familiar entertainment quotient of the franchise—something which inevitably led to the fervent establishment of Bond’s relationship with M.

 

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A dying M (Dame Judi Dench) in Bond’s (Daniel Craig) arms in Skyfall (2012).

What can only be described as the most emotional, if not the most heartbreaking, sequence of the Bond franchise, as M lies dying in Bond’s arms in Skyfall, makes the very essence of Bond’ restructuring of character. Although M can never be considered as a “Bond Girl” so to speak, she has been the driving force behind Bond’s professional and personal ethics since GoldenEye. She was a mentor, a friend, a superior, and most importantly, as much as it makes me cringe to write this sentence, was one of the few women who earned the unequivocal respect of Bond. Time and again, Craig’s Bond has fallen off the wagon, but Dench’s M had been the force on the other end of the string to bring him back into symmetry. And although such a heartfelt relationship dynamism was not researched at all in the previous films, since Dench’s introduction as M in 1995, this subplot has been subtly and steadily developed over the series of films. Perhaps that itself is the greatest proof of Bond’s reinvention, ergo evolution, of character through the presence of all the Bond girls.

And the most fascinating truth is James Bond is a timeliness character whose very existence in the 26-film franchise is a singular graph of evolution through the woes of time. The process itself is a gradual rise-and-ebb tidal undertaking, spanning over decades at hand, mirroring the consumer-driven aesthetics of entertainment in each era. And being a peddler of art, and a follower of the British spy’s many adventures, it has also been my unique journey of viewing his astute metamorphosis from the hay days of my childhood to my adulthood.

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The Grand Arrival: Mahalaya

Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.

 

In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.

 

And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.

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Mahalaya mornings shall never be complete without catching an early show of the most potboiler presentation of Mahisasurmardini, filled with its horrible special effects and laughable depictions of the gods. (© Image from Google Images)

The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.

 

So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”

 

Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).

 

So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.

 

In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.

 

Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).

 

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Chakyudaan: The ritual of painting the goddess’s eyes on Mahalaya (© Image from Google Images)

But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.

In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.

 

But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.

And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.

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Kash Phool (wild sugarcane grass flowers), the symbol of Mahalaya and the Indian autumn or Sarat Kaal (© Image from Google Images)

Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.

For Whom Does the Goddess Arrive?

When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.

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When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.

 

When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.

 

If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.

 

When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.

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And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.

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There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.

 

And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.

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But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?

 

Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.

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So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.

 

I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.

Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.

 

And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.

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Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.