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regular-article-logo Friday, 19 July 2024

Review of espionage Bollywood thriller series, Khufiya

Khufiya isn’t boxed within its genre but to describe it as a genre-bender would be a stretch. Worth a watch

Priyanka Roy  Published 06.10.23, 07:46 AM
Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya, streaming on Netflix

Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya, streaming on Netflix

For an espionage thriller, Khufiya starts off in a pretty unconventional manner — a woman describing another woman’s beauty in a highly sensual manner. She states lovingly, almost teasingly, about how the woman would pull the sleeves of her pullover towards her palm and grab them gingerly with her fingers; that when she sneezed, it would be no less than three at a time; that there was a beauty spot at the base of her throat which would quiver every time the woman quivered.

When Tabu’s voice goes: “Bahut ajeeb thi woh... gunah ki tarah chhipi chhipi, sabab ki tarah zaahir aur kabhi kismat ki tarah betuki,” you know that she is describing a heady romance.

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The two are lovers, with tragedy striking one. It’s the kind of misfortune nipping a romance, unseen, unknown and unrecognised, that we have encountered in Vishal Bhardwaj’s work before. That it takes place within the world of terrorism and counter-terrorism, stealthy spies and surreptitious surveillance makes it all the more compelling.

With a key character being mercilessly butchered at a birthday party right at the outset, Khufiya hits the ground running. And then does not. Its structure is the very antithesis of a spy thriller. There are long stretches of silent, almost still, surveillance with the camera assuming the role of a character. No bullets are sprayed, but quite a bit of blood is spilt, the setting, in true Bhardwaj style, proving to be Shakespearean — first at a soiree held in Dhaka where a fork on the neck takes out a character and then at an intimate dinner gone ugly, where a striking analogy is brought about between the scrumptious goat meat on the table and the slaughter that takes place in the living room of a regular immigrant home in South Dakota.

Khufiya, in Bhardwaj’s latest series of adaptations, is based on Amar Bhushan’s espionage novel Escape to Nowhere. The structure of the book is unusual. It doesn’t have chapters: instead, it ranges in chronology from Day One to Day 96. Khufiya, too, defies any sort of structure or stereotype. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

Tabu plays KM, short for Krishna Mehra, a high-placed agent with R&AW. As a woman, she battles not only obstacles in her high-risk profession but also the guilt of being unable to tell her teenage son who his mother really is. On the other end of the spectrum is Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal), a devout and devoted family man working for R&AW who is suspected of leaking secrets to a power which can be considered both enemy and ally, thus jeopardising the nation’s security. A number of scenes establish Ravi as a family man, with Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi) remaining an unsuspecting wife who likes to sensually dance around in her lingerie to old Hindi film songs when no one is around.

But they are. Or at least the camera is. As KM looks at Charu on the monitor, she sees a mother like herself but also the kind of uninhibited woman that she can perhaps never be. A strange affinity develops, with Charu eventually egging on KM to her moment of truth and catharsis.

Khufiya is not everyone’s cup of tea. Vishal’s depiction of the geopolitical situation in the subcontinent in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil War is laidback and sometimes, even amateurish. Seasoned higher-ups hailing from some of the best spy agencies in the world blurt out confessions without as much as suspecting that there could be a spycam around. Missions that should be a cakewalk for even middle-grade agents are irrevocably botched up by old hands.

But that’s not where Vishal’s interest lies. The filmmaker treats his material more as a human story of life-altering secrets, hidden desires, unbridled hubris and brittle relationships. A haunting whistling tune plays out at vantage points in the plot, contributing to its chilling subject. Betrayal, patriotism, politics, wavering morality and the breakdown and forging of family ties come together to create a fairly engaging and fresh take on the genre, but also one in which the need to prepare for stretches of nothingness and lack of action is also imperative.

What helps Khufiya remain intriguing is its as-good-as-it-gets cast. Vishal favourite Tabu, is, of course, the pick of the lot, perfectly mirroring the dilemma of a woman and mother holding a secret within. The bags under the eyes are deliberately made visible, adding both character to her face and gravitas to her character. Ali Fazal has the tough task of playing an unlikable man who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve, and the actor excels. Wamiqa Gabbi, Bhardwaj’s current muse, has a very expressive face, which the actor uses to great success, transitioning from a carefree woman to a mother travelling halfway across the world to bring back her son. But having her cavort sensuously in more than one scene — possibly to illustrate Charu’s free-as-a-bird demeanour — is unnecessary to the larger scheme of the story. Ashish Vidyarthi, as Tabu’s boss, is solid and so is Shataf Figar in his role of a scheming but smiling adversary. Prominent Bangladeshi actress Azmeri Haque Badhon (those eyes!) impresses in a short but significant role.

Khufiya isn’t boxed within its genre but to describe it as a genre-bender would be a stretch. It’s a Vishal Bhardwaj experience that has something or the other to be savoured. Pick yours, but do pay attention to the rest.
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