Nov 142012

(This post contains quasi-spoilers about the plot of the new Bond film, Skyfall)

I remember the first time I watched a Bond movie. It was 1983 and we lived in Goregaon, at the time mostly marshland. Western movies came years later to India — if they ever came at all. Of course, this was no deterrent to our enterprising business community. Video parlors popped up all over the city. They were a little like movie theaters, but less comfortable. Benches or metal chairs instead of the cushioned variety. And instead of a large screen, there was a television, a VCR and an illegally procured pirated movie.
Of course, if you were among the relatively more affluent, you had your own VCR, as my friend Sanju did (he was also the only boy who had an entire cricket kit — whites, pads, wickets, bails and all). And with that VCR came a collection of pirated movies. Among them Never Say Never Again — a movie I watched at his home all those years ago.
Now, please don’t quibble. I know Never… isn’t an official Bond film, given that it’s not made by Eon films and that it’s a remake of Thunderball, a vastly superior movie. But I was 8-and-a-bit, and even at that age knew about the mystique of Bond.
I remember little of what I felt while watching the movie — except to say that I must have liked it. I can recall scenes from Never… vividly, and became a Bond fan for life. (I even sat through both of the Dalton and the worst of the Brosnan films with my enthusiasm undiminished).
Which brings me to Skyfall.
When news first emerged that Sam Mendes was making the new Bond movie, my brother quipped that it would feature Bond getting married, moving to the suburbs and watching his life fall apart.
Skyfall isn’t quite that bad, but it does involve more Bond angst than we’re used to seeing. Still, critics and fans are calling it the best — or among the best — Bond movies made. My first criticism when I watched it last week was that it didn’t quite feel Bond-like. It had the requisite explosions, comically creepy villain, nubile sex objects (“Oh, James…”), beautiful car and exotic locales, but, I thought at the time, it had too much talking and too little killing.
A week later, after I’ve repeatedly rehashed the movie in my mind, I take back my complaint. The problem, I think, is that it’s too much like Bond — specifically too much like the early Bond films, resplendent in their misogyny.
The British columnist Giles Coren has written about this in his spiked review of the movie for The Times. Here’s a telling excerpt about what he thought of Skyfall:

“And I am ashamed, as a British person, that this film will be mistaken abroad for an example of prevailing values here. It is a sick, reactionary, depressing film and its director, Sam Mendes, should be ashamed of himself, all the way to the bank.”

Now, I’m not quite sure adults who watch the movie are going to take away those messages. After all, a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. And anyone who’s grown up and watching Bond knows what to laugh at — that’s part of the charm of the movies. But because Skyfall is so bereft of humor, the misogyny is a little harder to deal with.
I’m not going to complain about the former child sex slave whom Bond beds and later, after she’s killed, jokes about; nor about the fact that one of the most memorable Ms in recent years is replaced by a man. No, my complaint is more about the message about success and failure.
In the film, Bond is put through a series of tests to determine his eligibility for service. He fails miserably. But M, who has a soft corner for Bond, persists with him. There is another agent in the movie. An accomplished agent who happens to be female. Her reward at the end of the film? She gets to be M’s secretary.
Look, I get it. This is Bond film. We’re not supposed to take it seriously. But given that I watched my first Bond movie when I was eight, what sort of message does that send a child — or even a teen — who watches Bond? It doesn’t matter if a boy messes up, he gets rewarded. But if you’re a girl, don’t worry, there’s that secretarial job opening up for you.
Perhaps a cigar is just a cigar, and I shouldn’t really be thinking about the film as more than the elements of its plot. Perhaps if the film had hued closer to the inside joke that underlie all Bond movies, I might not have cared. But when the idea is to make a more serious film, then perhaps one ought to expect more serious criticism.
Will Skyfall prevent me from watching Daniel Craig and the next Bond movie? Look, I sat through Quantum of Solace. I’m sure my fandom will survive.