‘Khufiya’ movie review: Vishal Bhardwaj conjures up a soulful human drama in the guise of a spy thriller

‘Khufiya’ movie review: Vishal Bhardwaj conjures up a soulful human drama in the guise of a spy thriller

One of the few Indian filmmakers who are not letting art be reduced to content, Vishal Bhardwaj once again employs his command over multiple art forms to generate an immersive experience that turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. In his bid to capture the soul of spooks, Vishal loses grip on the body of the film. He beguiles with the mood and melody but fails to sustain the spell till the end.

Spy novels usually read well on page but on screen, they always run the risk of the audience complaining that nothing is happening. Those who have read Amar Bhushan’s Escape To Nowhere, the literary source of Khufiya, would agree that the fictional account of the real story of an Indian intelligence agent who, despite being under surveillance, disappeared into thin air possibly with the help of American support, is hard to cinematise. The novel has no third act that would trace the Indian response to the embarrassment. Vishal and co-writer Rohan Narula have flipped the gender of characters, invented new players, and spiced up dry portions to suit the Indian palate that seeks to romanticise its spooks and bring the offenders home, at least in films.

Set at a time when some extremist forces in Bangladesh were allegedly falling to the designs of Pakistan’s ISI to create a terror network on India’s eastern border — it is dealt with in detail in Bhushan’s other racy read The Zero Cost Mission — the film follows how a team of Indian intelligence agents led by Krishna Mehra (Tabu) seeks to work with democratic forces in Dhaka to destabilise the then-hardline Bangladeshi government with the help of a local agent (Bangladeshi actor Azmeri Haque Badhon).

The operation is allegedly compromised by an Indian intelligence officer Ravi (Ali Fazal), ostensibly working for the Americans who need to mollycoddle Pakistan to win the great game in Afghanistan. Ravi is already under the scanner but Krishna’s boss Jeevnathan (Ashish Vidyarthi) is not interested in just the puppet. He wants to catch the puppeteer as well. Will the political leadership take on a superpower that seems eager to forge a strategic partnership with India?

Coming at a time when India is locked into a diplomatic row in Canada with the role of American intelligence agencies once again under the scanner, there are passages in Khufiya that will give those interested in geopolitics goosebumps.

But Khufiya is not just a game of cat and mouse played out in South Block and the lanes of Delhi and Dhaka as Vishal loves to transcend from external to internal probe. The title that means secret in Urdu doesn’t stand only for the labour intelligence agencies put in keeping a watch on their targets. It is about the secrets we carry in the crevices of our hearts and the lids we put on our true identity.

Khufiya (Hindi)

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj

Cast: Ali Fazal, Tabu, Wamiqa Gabbi, Ashish Vidyarthi, Azmeri Haque Badhon, Navnindra Behl

Run-time: 158 minutes

Storyline: Ravi, an Indian intelligence officer, comes under the scanner of his superiors, setting off a complex game of surveillance and counter-espionage

Known for writing strong female characters in a man’s world, after Omkara, Vishal ensures that the three female characters take our breath away and the fourth one leaves us choked. By now we know how Tabu can tease our senses under Vishal’s direction but now he has a new muse in Wamiqa Gabbi. A perceptive actor who marries ethereal grace with steely resolve, it is hard to take our eyes off Wamiqa’s Charulata even when Tabu is around. As the conscientious wife of Ravi, she is the moral centre of the film who questions the cold-blooded work ethic of the intelligence apparatus and takes a stand. Equally enchanting is the performance and character arc of Badhon, the enterprising agent torn between the personal and the professional.

Once again, Vishal collaborates with Gulzar to create melancholy in what seems like a harsh, pragmatic space. Only Gulzar could express deep thoughts through a whimsical line like ‘Kachchi neend jagana ho to mat aana’. Only Vishal could describe a woman as shrouded like a sin, conspicuous like a requital, and unreasonable like fate. Like many things in the film, the word ‘mole’ also has a double meaning.

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A master of the slow burn even before the phrase became routine, Vishal uses the painstaking work of surveillance to reveal the complex identity of his characters. Sometimes, it is as boring as watching paint dry, and at others, it threatens to turn the agents into a voyeur as Krishna discovers when she watches Charu’s striptease to Nahin Nahin Abhi Nahi, the classic teasing-to-please song from Jawani Deewani (1972). The song is not just an interesting device to capture the transformation of Charu but it also projects the upheaval inside Krishna who seems to have struggled to come to terms with her sexuality and when she does, she is not in a position to tell the truth to her teenaged son who asks his father (Atul Kulkarni) what made him let go of such a ‘beauty’.

Similarly, on the surface, Ravi appears to be a shrewd double agent but deep inside he is grappling with the curse of being a mama’s boy. The mother essayed by seasoned theatre actor Navnindra Behl is the surprise package in the spy universe of Khufiya. Perhaps the only fully realised character in the film, she makes you chuckle and fill with dread as well as most of us have lived with old women who are products of centuries of patriarchy and skewed spirituality.

With code names like Brutus and Ghalib, Vishal’s literary influences are sprinkled all over the spy tale. The use of the whistling effect, sarangi, and the everyday sounds in the background score adds a lyrical heft to the thriller. At the same time, he uses the verses of Kabir and Rahim to make a sharp comment on the state of affairs.

On the flip side, there are passages where the plot feels disjointed which gives the feeling of watching a match on a two-paced pitch. In his effort to showcase women with self-belief, the film reduces Ravi to a cliché. And as always Vishal struggles to close out the match. The narrative meanders in its final leg and the final outcome is underwhelming but for a change here is a film that doesn’t feel like running on an algorithm.

Khufiya is currently streaming on Netflix