Dr Khusi Pattanayak

It is a different thing to find a unique cinematic voice, master it, and impress your audience with your signature style. But it is another story when one becomes too faithful to one’s own style and refuses to move out of the comfort zone. It is alarming and concerning. Khufiya (Hindi, 2023), Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest, suffers from this self-contentment.

Khufiya is an espionage thriller that meanders primarily between India, Bangladesh, and United States of America. Like most of Bhardwaj’s scripts, this one too is an adaptation of a best-selling novel, Escape to Nowhere (2012), written by Amar Bhushan.

Khufiya intertwines the political and personal tempest creating an odd but interesting world of spies, secret agents, assets, liabilities, and diplomats who remain largely responsible for the national safety.

The movie has some brilliant dialogues. Do not miss the introductory lines uttered by Tabu. They are so poetic that they feel surreal. The lyrics (mostly) by Gulzar are beautiful which finds soulful expressions in the voice of Arijit Singh, Rekha Bhardwaj, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sunidhi Chauhan et al.

The sound and art departments have done a commendable job in giving life to the various shades of thrills and sorrows that are part of the elusive existence of the characters.

For a change, it was good to see all kinds of unconventional women moving in and out of the script. For example, a lady officer is not judged for her smoking and drinking issues because that has no bearing on her professional competency. We see a ‘perfect’ Indian wife material gently rolling a cigarette and enjoying a puff and no one really cares about it beyond a smirk and a raised eyebrow. Another mother figure plays the game of manipulation with ease and people (in the movie, not audience) are far from being shocked because she was trained by the best in the game!

Tabu as expected is top-notch. She and Vishal share a certain creative camaraderie that always translates into grand success on-screen. Wamiqa Gabbi is effervescent and effective. Her Charu has strong handover of Tagore’s Charulata and mainly operates to seduce the cinematic gaze, especially in the first half. Interestingly she was named Charulata aka Charlie in her last collaboration with Bhardwaj (Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley).

Navnindra Behl is delightful. It was refreshing to see her back on silver screen after so long and in a character most unexpected. Ali Fazal, Atul Kulkarni, and Ashish Vidyarthi are reliable in their respective roles. Alexx O’Nell is turning into current age Tom Alter (1950-2017). He is now overused as a gora in every other movie, web series, OTT offering.

The film falters mainly because of its script where the first half has all the excitement and energy of a pacy pulpy thriller and by the second half slumps into a melodramatic narrative.

There are too many clichés. The white wo/men all appear to be against India while the people of colour turn into man-Friday in foreign land. The mom-in-law is glad to have daughter-in-law back so she does not have to struggle with household chores.

Some of the back stories, though entertaining in their own right, do not have a direct influence on the narrative like KM’s messy personal life or Charu’s ‘fauji’ background (patriotism and maternal love doesn’t need an army context). While Rahul Ram’s appearance is refreshing, his screen time should have been reconsidered in the editing table. Some characters are poorly developed – why Behl’s character chooses the life that she leads, out of necessity or out of excitement. And why was Fazal’s character so under the spell of his mother’s whims? Odeipus complex?

And that brings us back to Bhardwaj’s obsession with Shakespeare. This time we have a full-fledged Operation Brutus and Julius Caesar play sub-plot incorporated!

The film has all the hallmarks of a Vishal Bhardwaj movie, yet it somehow feels like it is not his. Remember Aasmaan Bhardwaj’s Kuttey (2023); it was too much Vishal to be Aasmaan’s offering; in Khufiya’s case it feels similar, like someone ghost directed the film.

Khufiya all through struggles to create a seamless world of spy and drama and falters big time. If you are a fan of Vishal Bhardwaj school of film-making, then watch Khufiya on Netflix.

(The author is an internationally published writer & corporate communication specialist. Views are personal)