Vishal Bhardwaj is one of the most influential directors in Bollywood. He is responsible for making one of the best Indian horror comedies that traumatized every kid who watched it in the 2000s, i.e., Makdee. When it comes to Shakespeare adaptations, Bhardwaj is currently three for three with Maqbool, Omkara, and Haider, and they just happen to be three of the best Bollywood films. He knocked it out of the park with his Ruskin Bond adaptations, The Blue Umbrella and 7 Khoon Maaf. Many Indian filmmakers have tried to do Tarantino-esque crime thrillers, but only Bhardwaj succeeded in doing so with Kaminey. And in Pataakha, he showed that even with a bare-bones story, he can create magic. That said, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola and Rangoon are proof that the man can miss the mark by quite a few miles. So, is Khufiya one for the history books, or is it a forgettable affair? Let’s find out.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya, which he has co-written with Rohan Narula, is a story of two missions that happen to have a common factor. One follows Bangladesh’s Agent Octopus, who works with India’s Krishna Mehra to nab Brigadier Mirza, as he happens to be working with the ISI for his own nefarious purpose. The other follows Ravi Mohan, who seems to be working for international forces by passing on sensitive information from RAW’s office to his contacts, that are strewn all across Delhi. Given how Ravi’s act of treason collides with Krishna’s past, she is given the opportunity by her bosses to catch Ravi red-handed. His office is bugged, and since RAW suspects Ravi’s wife, Charu, is in on this, they bug their house too, thereby beginning a long-drawn-out stakeout where Krishna and her team keep a close watch on them until someone slips up. And with each passing minute, it becomes difficult to ascertain who is right and who is wrong.
Narula and Bhardwaj cover a lot of ground in Khufiya. They talk about queer revenge. Through Krishna, Charu, and Lalita (Ravi’s mother), they show various types and facets of motherhood. The film goes into the inner workings of spy agencies and tries to portray their agents as regular people doing regular jobs and tackling regular problems. At the same time, it tries to draw the line between nationalism and patriotism by examining what motivates each of the characters. Through Yaar Jogiya, the writers dip their toes into the controversial topic of self-styled rockstar gurus. It’s true that that’s just how Rahul Ram, the singer-turned-actor playing Jogiya, looks. But if you do a little internet surfing, you’ll know the real-life guru the character is really based on. So, you can imagine that things get a little messy because there’s not enough time for pay-offs. That’s why two-thirds of the film feels like a series of set-ups, and then in the last act, it becomes all about proving one’s loyalty to the nation and becoming a “real hero,” and for me, that’s simply boring.
Khufiya deliberately makes itself appear dated by revolving its events around the post-9/11 paranoia of international terrorism. And it rightfully paints the United States of America as the root of every problem that the world faces because it’s a country that starts a program for their personal benefit and then lets everyone else deal with it. But the issue is that Narula and Bhardwaj fail to balance it with the cat-and-mouse chase between Krishna and Ravi. Krishna is the most fleshed-out character in the film. She is flawed, complex, and determined, and you have a clear picture of why she is doing what she is doing (that’s how vague I can be to avoid spoilers). However, Ravi, Charu, and Lalita don’t get that level of nuance. These characters do a lot of things. They have various kinds of interactions. They find themselves in tense situations. Yet, they end up being quite shallow, especially Charu, who is boiled down to the “ultimately she’s a mother” narrative. I fail to understand why this is the case, and by the time things wrap up, the whole endeavor feels kind of vapid. If the film’s intention is to confuse us about the true nature of nationalism and terrorism, then I guess it has done its job because I’m really confused why Bhardwaj and Narula took such a long-winded route to say something so banal.
Everything, apart from Khufiya’s writing, is great. I know that a lot of digital releases, especially Netflix films and shows, are riding this teal-and-orange trend, and almost all of them look horrible because of the lack of contrast and dynamic camerawork. In the hands of Vishal Bhardwaj, cinematographer Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi, editor A. Sreekar Prasad, and those in charge of crafting the visuals, that very aesthetic becomes pleasing to look at. The use of shadows, the various kinds of landscapes and cityscapes, the different types of lenses to illustrate the emotional proximity of the characters—it’s all amazing. The attention-to-detail in terms of the production design, set design, and costume design is commendable. The film never feels boring because the pacing is quite impeccable. The score can sound a bit generic, but the music by Vishal Bhardwaj is amazing. There’s a brief moment where Wamiqa Gabbi wears a wig, and Ali Fazal probably wears a fake beard, and they can scare you. Don’t worry, though, because they don’t have a lot of screen time, and Gabbi and Fazal are allowed to flaunt their beauty for the rest of the film’s running time.
The leads of Khufiya, Gabbi, Fazal, Tabu, and Azmeri Haque Badhon are distractingly beautiful in the film. That doesn’t have anything to do with the central plot, but since the film addresses it through the dialogue, I am afraid I have to do the same. In addition to that, all four of their performances are great. I don’t know what I can say about Tabu that hasn’t been said already. She is truly one of the best actresses of all time. The effortlessness with which she carries herself and the range she puts on display are breathtaking. Her chemistry with Badhon is sizzling and yet filled with so much pain. Badhon shows poise and vulnerability. I wish we got to see more of her character’s story. Wamiqa Gabbi is exquisite. There’s a weird tonal shift at the midpoint of the film, and she’s given the responsibility to bridge that gap. And she does it beautifully. Ali Fazal is perfect, as he always is. Only he could’ve portrayed Ravi’s absurd blend of cold-heartedness, pathos, nervousness, and strength. Between this and Kandahar, the man has proven he can be a full-blown spy-action franchise. Since he’s an international star, someone should cast him in a Mission: Impossible, John Wick, or James Bond film. Be bold and make him the next Bond. As for the rest of the supporting cast, while everyone is fantastic, it’s Navnindra Behl who stands out the most.
In conclusion, Khufiya is a good-looking film where gorgeous people go in circles about spywork, international diplomatic relations, and the ethics of murdering someone for personal or nationalistic reasons. And even though it seems like Vishal Bhardwaj is taking us towards a memorable conclusion, he settles for a pretty underwhelming finale. At that moment, my mind wandered over to Kaminey, which had a similar level of complexity in terms of overlapping narratives and constantly shifting allegiances. Back then, Bhardwaj, along with Sabrina Dhawan, Abhishek Chaubey, and Supratik Sen, managed to bring it all together in such an emotionally satisfying way, while making us think about human nature and the world in which we exist. I don’t know where things went wrong this time and why.