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Journalism of Courage

Decades before Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan vowed to save Bharat Mata, Dharmendra played the fan-favourite spy in Ankhen

Dharmendra and Mala Sinha starrer Ankhen, directed by Ramanand Sagar, is the story of a spy who is ready to sacrifice himself for his Bharat Mata.

dharmendra, ankhenDharmendra played a globetrotting spy in Ramanand Sagar's Ankhen.
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The only conversation that consumed the internet this week was the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan. Instagram is full of reels and stories of people watching the film and falling in love with SRK all over again. Twitter also has naysayers still trying to prove that the success of this film is a myth being created by the corporates and even the news cycle is consumed by how certain fringe groups are disrupting the screening of Pathaan, followed by how much money it has made. A part of YRF’s spy universe, Pathaan is the film which has a spy at the centre who will happily take a bullet for Bharat Mata. This is obviously not the first time that we are watching a spy on screen and buying into his shenanigans. Apart from the entire spy universe that YRF has created and the many versions of Indian Bonds that have hardly made an impression, the mainstream Indian audience was totally in awe of the uber modern and gadget loving spy played by Dharmendra in the 1968 film Ankhen.

In this Ramanand Sagar film, Dharmendra (playing Sunil) is ready to give it all for his country and not because it’s his job, but because he considers it his duty. Early on, a new recruit to their vigilante group questions why they are doing the job that’s supposed to be done by the government and Dharmendra says that if someone were to attack their mother, would they wait for the police to show up, or would they just save her themselves. The mother here is Bharat Mata.

Much in line with the Hindi cinema of those days, Ankhen has everything from ‘khufiya transmitters’ to hidden doors and passages that open with a secret button. Characters hide behind thin disguises and convey secret messages at the loudest possible volume. There’s a Mission Impossible mask situation as well. But through it all, Ankhen creates a world where you can see the loopholes, yet you are ready to surrender to the maker’s imagination. It’s important to remember that since this was the 1960s, a lot of the local audience was not exposed to spy shenanigans in the movies and since a large part of this movie was filmed in Lebanon, with a few scenes in Japan, it gave the audience a chance to visit those destinations virtually.

Dharmendra and Mala Sinha in a still from Ramanand Sagar’s Ankhen.

The characters here all form a network of spies who often forget what their day jobs are. At one point, Mala Sinha (playing Meenakshi) sings a heartbreak song in the middle of a spy operation because she is jealous that Dharmendra’s Sunil is flirting with another woman for some information that could aid their mission. The so-called ‘secret’ phone calls have the globetrotting spies calling each other by code names like Tipu Sultan and Taj Mahal but as soon as things heat up, they seem to forget that the dushmans are always eavesdropping.

There’s even a sequence in this film that had Dharmendra engaged in a fist fight with a tiger that was a big draw for the audience at the time. Of course, it wasn’t Dharmendra who really fought the tiger and watching it today, it is very obvious that this is some basic editing on display but the viewers of the time, who had absolutely no other medium of getting entertained, thronged the theatres.

The film was directed by Ramanand Sagar, who is remembered for helming the most popular mythological show for Indian television, Ramayan. At the time, he was known primarily as a dialogue writer who also directed films like Sadhna-starrer Aarzoo and Dharmendra-Hema Malini’s Charas.

Mala Sinha and Dharmendra in the 1968 film Ankhen. (Photo: Express Archives)

Ankhen had all the tropes that are often seen in spy movies. The double agents, the femme fatales, the secluded island that holds the key to the mystery and the trickster who has been fooling everyone but is discovered only by the hero.


The strong sense of patriotism on display, with some seemingly cool tricks that impress the audience, a few romantic dance numbers, and the hero a deshbhakt who saves his motherland – all these elements never went out of style, which is why two films that are 55 years apart click with the audience, across ages and generations.

First published on: 28-01-2023 at 08:35 IST
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