From the skimpily clad female spies in the Charlie’s Angels franchise to Alia Bhatt’s portrayal of a 20-year-old Sehmat Khan in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, we sure have come a long way.
The recent Radhika Apte-starrer A Call to Spy is a welcome addition to films depicting women in espionage. And like Raazi, the female spy in Lydia Dean Pilcher’s World War II drama shows that the character doesn’t have to be a filmmaker’s cinematic fantasy, where glamour and sexual appeal are the only ‘weapons’ of choice she is armed with.
A Call to Spy, which released on Amazon Prime on 11 December, has a distinct India connect, and not just because of Apte’s presence. Her character is based on the life of Noor Inayat Khan. Noor was the daughter of a Sufi preacher-musician from India and an American mother. Trained as a wireless operator, Noor was the first British spy to be smuggled into German-occupied France in 1943, where she was executed in a concentration camp the following year.
Both Sehmat Khan (Raazi) and Noor Inayat Khan (A Call to Spy) were ordinary women who showed extraordinary courage. Sehmat Khan, according to author and retired Indian Navy officer Harinder Sikka whose book inspired the 2018 film, helped save India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
Not just ‘pretty women’
There is a scene in A Call to Spy when Vera Atkins, a formidable British intelligence officer played by Stana Katic, is asked to recruit female spies and “make sure they are pretty” — this more or less sums up the Hollywood representation of female spies. A quick search on Google will corroborate that such characters are essentially hot women who wield guns.
Espionage, for most of us, is synonymous with ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’ and ‘license to kill’. When women do venture into celluloid as spies, it is often in the form of Barbie dolls who run after bad guys in flawless makeup, tight clothes, and stilettos (think Charlie’s Angels), shifting our focus on the ‘glamour’ of the job rather than the grit. A dash of the bling seems to always be on the card, as is the need to ‘save the world’. Moreover, past, current, and future love interests of the women are as important as their assigned missions, while romantic arcs are mere background distractions in the case of movies with male protagonists.
In the Charlize Theron-starrer Atomic Blonde (2017), the director zeroed in on a female version of Bond, nothing more or less. The MI6 agent never stops dressing well, and even though her extremely pointy heels may serve as weapons, they simply reinforce the stereotype — look hot while spying, and of course be White.
Space for women in a world of men
Like most action films, spy movies are also dominated by men. But A Call to Spy was a welcome change for me, in more ways than one. It is about a ‘club unlike any other’ of women who helped resistance efforts in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. From American citizen Virginia Hall, who is denied the role of a diplomat due to her wooden leg, to Noor and Vera Atkins, the film is a breath of fresh air with a distinctly non-male gaze.
Instead of focusing on physical appearances or romantic subplots, the film explores what goes behind in the minds of the spies — for instance, when Noor is not comfortable about being ‘trained to kill’, or when Vera asks Virginia about why she is not married. Spying is less about donning plunging necklines and more about lugging heavy radio sets, and remembering codes and the moves that could save your life when caught.
A win for diversity
In a way, the Bond franchise set the template for movies with female spies — serving women as little more than ‘Bond girls’, never meant to hold the centre-stage. In fact, even after nearly 60 years since the franchise’s first film, a woman is yet to don the role of Bond, even though Judi Dench played the pivotal role of ‘M’ in seven Bond films.
British actor Lashana Lynch, the first Black woman to take on the role of ‘007’, received severe backlash following announcements that she would follow a long, illustrious line of White men to portray the famous Secret Intelligence Service agent. Lynch had to even go off social media for a week to deal with the backlash.
????? Bond is unequivocally male. Mess around with that concept and you destroy the franchise. Is that the intention?
— Zebedee (@Spring68) September 10, 2020
@lashanaLynch James Bond is male. 007 is James Bond code name. You should not kill a IP because you are not James.
— adam jensen (@adamjensendehr9) November 9, 2020
I didn't appreciate the American trailer insinuation that Bond can be replaced with #LashanaLynch. That's so dumb…Bond is Bond.
He's the best at what he does.https://t.co/1MIcgdQYNL
— Sammy Younan -28- (@mypalsammy) September 9, 2020
This is a glaring example of how sexism and racism have relegated women to the margins in spy movies and narratives.
If we looked for female spies in literature, more often than not, the ‘famous’ names would pop up within the Bond fiction universe as antagonists. Modesty Blaise, a British cartoon strip created in 1963, went on to inspire both a book and a movie thanks to its eponymous heroine who is a spy. A few others like Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht, and the books by the former Director General of MI5, Stella Rimington, who created the character of Liz Carlyle are examples of spy fiction in the 21st century.
So, it is indeed refreshing to witness the mixed heritage of the three characters, (Vera is a Romanian Jew and Virginia is American) that seem to counter the narrative of the ‘Englishman’ espoused by the Bond franchise.
A Call to Spy is badass, not because it serves a thrilling build-up to some D-day, or that it is directed and produced by women, but because it puts a spotlight on women who existed and worked as real spies, and did what it took to makes their jobs real, visceral, and inspiring.
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