The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 18, 2012


A secret agent in a white car chases two motorcyclists in a crowded bazaar and shoots them dead. A Land Cruiser, in a bid to scoop up the agent, speeds on the wrong side of the road and accidentally runs over another motorcyclist. The rescue attempt fails, and the agent is caught by the crowd and arrested by traffic wardens.

The name is Davis, Raymond Davis.

The world-infamous incident occurred in Lahore on January 27, 2011. Only sixteen days earlier, Eon Productions had officially announced the pre-production of the 23rd James Bond movie. The weeks when the Lahore incident stayed in the headlines across the world was apparently the period when John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were working on the script of the new movie in the light of director Sam Mendes’ vision: “It was still possible to make a big, fabulous, glamorous, escapist movie and yet, at the same time, to say something about the world that we are living in.”

Is it then coincidence that the opening sequence of Skyfall is set in a busy bazaar? It’s Istanbul instead of Lahore, and other details differ too as they should. But the political and diplomatic implications still get represented symbolically.

Conventionally, the pre-title sequences in the Bond movies have been used for establishing 007 as a man who can do the impossible and cannot be defeated or killed (with some partial exceptions such as in You Only Live Twice and Die Another Day). This time, the sequence concludes with the secret agent getting unceremoniously shot in the middle of the action. The hard disk stolen in the process blows the cover of other secret agents (as the electronic devices recovered from Raymond Davis reportedly led to arrests on charges of espionage in Pakistan).

The question whether the trigger-happy approach to espionage has become redundant in our times is central to this film. The film answers the question in the affirmative to the great dismay of pacifists. However, being a true artist, the director has offered his answer through a multi-dimensional masterpiece which can be used to explore the present stream of British consciousness.

Mendes has destroyed “the entire genre, in order to rebuild it” (to quote him from an interview). He has been helped by ‘a dream cast’ — Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Helen McCroy, Albert Finney, Bérénice Marlohe, Naomi Harris, Ben Whishaw, Ola Rapace and, of course, the Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem, one of the most memorable villains in the entire James Bond series.

This is apt for a film where the protagonist is not exactly perfect. Bond is incapable of shooting his target accurately and ends up losing. He kills a villain who was going to commit suicide in any case, and he fails to save the person whose assassination was the villain’s goal.

The current director has completed the ‘reboot’ of James Bond and MI6 as symbolic representations of what Great Britain is in recent history: “We are not now that strength which in old days/ Moved heaven and earth…” These lines from Tennyson are juxtaposed with a worn-out James Bond, a besieged M, a tribunal of British parliamentarians and a former agent of the British secret service now turned into arch villain. The emerging theme is revenge through suicide, the strings of which are shown to be in the hands of a former British agent rather than anyone else.

A British writer’s fantasy that Her Majesty’s government issues its servant a ‘license’ to kill people in other countries was a symbolic statement that Britain still rules the world. That may have been the reason why 007 sprang in the mind of Ian Fleming in 1952. It may also explain why Bond’s 23rd big-screen appearance at an exceptionally difficult time in British history has broken all records of first-week revenues at the box office in that country.