There isn’t much that is particularly and consciously abstruse in Khufiya, but the gripping Netflix spy thriller written and directed by Vishal Bhardwaj hinges on secret, intimate facets of the lives of three beguiling women and a wily man in the vortex of post-Kargil War geopolitics.
Loosely based on retired R&AW man Amar Bhushan’s novel, Escape to Nowhere, Bhardwaj and Rohan Narula’s screenplay turns the material into an intriguing, riveting drama that abides by the rules of the genre without letting itself be totally hamstrung by the limitations that trid-and tested devices often impose.
Khufiya (which comes in the wake of Bhardwaj’s Agatha Christie murder mystery series, Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley) is probably, at least on the face of it, one of the very few straightforward genre films that he has made. Even his misfires – in fact, especially his misfires – have been marked by the sort of fearlessness that Mumbai filmmakers working within mainstream parameters aren’t usually known for.
Be it a Shakespearean adaptation (Maqbool, Omkara, Haider), a crime drama (Kaminey), a pitch-dark comedy (7 Khoon Maaf), a politico-romantic period saga (Rangoon), an acutely tangential allegory (Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, Pataakha), or even a children’s film (Makdee, his directorial debut), Bhardwaj has never been a slave to narrative-form constrictions.
So, if Khufiya employs established storytelling conventions to craft a film that is as interested in studying character traits as in juggling plot details to engender tension and suspense, it is only to be expected. Directed with a commendable lightness of touch and magnificently well-acted, the sure-handed film delivers on all fronts without calling attention to its exceptional technical attributes.
Do we know any Mumbai espionage thriller that starts with a reference to something as insignificant and yet as evocative as a mole on a woman’s jugular notch, that delicate curve in middle of the collarbone, a conceit and an image that instantly evokes both mystery and sensuality?
The very next thing that Khufiya does is go for the jugular and spring a ‘mole’ upon us – both of which are delivered matter-of-factly. An undercover agent is murdered – an act committed with absolute impunity and fuelled by a leak from within India’s intelligence network – at a Bangladeshi brigadier’s birthday bash.
The identity of the prime suspect is revealed early on and the rest of the film focuses on R&AW’s mission to bring the absconding traitor to book. The operation – codenamed Brutus, a byword for betrayal in the universe of William Shakespeare’s great tragedies – is led by Krishna Mehra (Tabu), KM to agency insiders and assets.
KM’s life is shrouded in as much mystery as the motives of the treacherous Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal), a modestly paid Indian secret service operative who has a lifestyle that does not match his known sources of income. Nothing about the steely lady charged with unmasking the puppeteer behind the puppet is spelled out in black and white.
Greys – not outlined in simplistic moral terms – dominate her existence. The seasoned spy is divorced from her husband Shashank (Atul Kulkarni in a cameo), has an uneasy relationship with her 19-year-old son Vikram (Meet Vohra), an actor and musician who feels that his mother hides too much from him and possesses the temerity to cross the line when a situation demands.
Around the turn of the millennium, a couple of years after the Kargil conflict, KM, during a stint in the Indian high commission in Dhaka, recruits a walk-in applicant, Heena Rehman (Azmeri Haque Badhon), and develops a special bond with her, a fact that drives her subsequent actions that see her travel from Delhi to wintry South Dakota (a Canadian location stands in for the American Midwest).
Ravi Mohan’s life is apparently far less remarkable. He has a desk job in R&AW’s headquarters in Delhi, lives with his mother Lalita (Navnindra Behl), wife Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi) and primary school student-son Kunal (Swastik Tiwari) and drives a nondescript hatchback. But it is revealed early in the film that there is more to the man than meets the eye.
Ravi and his mother are followers of Yaar Jogiya (Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram, who lends his voice and performative energy to the film), a new-age spiritualist who croons Kabir-inspired songs to communicate with his flock.
Khufiya, however, is not so much about the men that we encounter on th screen – besides Ravi, Yaar Jogiya and Shashank, there is Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthi), KM’s boss – as it is about the women. And that includes Ravi’s ageing and assertive mother, a matron capable of shocking acts.
Ravi’s wife, dutiful and aware of her multiple roles as mother, wife and daughter-in-law, has a side to her that makes it possible for the spies tailing her husband that she is not only in the know of the man’s betrayal of his nation but also a willing accomplice.
The Bangladeshi agent working for India’s spy agency, Heena Rehman, is seemingly the least important of the three women at the heart of Khufiya but she is just as alluring and mystifying as the other two. Her presence – and absence – make this a love story and a tale of revenge.
The sprightly Charu has a fixation with songs from Jawani Diwani, a Hindi film from half a century ago, and lets her hair down in more ways than one when nobody is watching and sways with gay abandon to the numbers, one peppy, the other steamy.
And, by a fair distance, the pivotal figure in Khufiya is KM, an enigmatic secret agent whose secrets transcend the professional sphere and embrace her personal life. She is both a sleuth – in one stray scene, we see her sitting on a park bench reading an Agatha Christie book – and a key player in the story that she is out to get to the bottom of.
With the ever-reliable Tabu leading the way, the performances are right out of the top drawer. Khufiya is another fluttering feather in Wamiqa Gabbi’s cap. She is consistently on top of her character, which undergoes a dramatic tonal shift halfway through the film. She aces it.
Azmeri Haque Badhon (lead actress of the Cannes entry Rehana Maryam Noor), who fleshes out an intrepid, seductive undercover agent in a strikingly nuanced way and plays the character’s indomitability off against her fragility to great effect, is a treat to watch.
Ali Fazal, essaying the role of a man who allows himself to be manipulated fully mindful of what he is letting himself into, delivers a measured performance.
Director Vishal Bhardwaj does not appear to be at full tilt in Khufiya. The way he treats the intricacies of espionage and its human dimensions – he keeps it simple and direct, eschewing the gratuitously flashy – lends the film sustained solidity. Not to be missed.
Tabu, Ali Fazal, Wamiqa Gabbi, Azmeri Haque Badhon