Khufiya review: This Tabu-starrer is prized asset-turned-liability | Bollywood - Hindustan Times
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Khufiya review: Vishal Bhardwaj's latest Tabu-starrer is a prized asset-turned-liability

Oct 05, 2023 01:01 PM IST

Khufiya review: Despite an ever-watchable Tabu, Vishal Bhardwaj's latest espionage thriller fails to keep you invested.

Espionage drama is one of the easiest genres to lure an audience into watching a film, the flip side being that it’s also among the hardest to execute. With Khufiya, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest based on former R&AW official Amar Bhushan’s book Escape to Nowhere, things never quite fall in place.

Khufiya review: Tabu plays an intelligence officer in the film.
Khufiya review: Tabu plays an intelligence officer in the film.

The premise is admittedly delicious: It’s 2004. Intrigue and distrust hang heavy in the air. Beleaguered and bitter and sleepless and alcoholic (I’m willing to stomach that trope for every spy story), senior intelligence operative Krishna Mehra aka KM (Tabu) is called in to lead a surveillance operation — her errant junior colleague at the agency Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal) has been using the HQ copier way more than the average corporate freeloader. But Ravi Mohan, as the trailer gave away, isn’t leaking state secrets because he’s a traitor — he’s doing so because he’s a “f***ing patriot”. And his wife, the cherubic middle-class homemaker Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi), might be complicit.

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But for KM, who is nursing a private wound sustained in the professional arena, nothing less than a chance to exact revenge will incentivise her to come on board. She does, and names it Project Brutus (which is a Vishal Bhardwaj movie’s way of hat-tipping his renowned affinity for a certain 16th-century English playwright). Say what you will, but any brilliance to Khufiya to me is mostly attributed to KM, and her covert life that she will not reconcile with her Leonard Cohen-loving, aspiring thespian son. It’s not even a surprise that Tabu endows Krishna with a controlled chaos she borrows from her parts in Andhadhun (2018) and Haider (2014).

The sweep of her conflicts includes a relatively recent sexual awakening and her strained relationship with her teen son. The first takes place under the tutelage of her Bangladeshi informant Hina Rehman, played by the Bangladeshi actor Azmeri Haque Badhon with a fluid intensity. Badhon is a treat to watch, even if she plays what’s basically a glorified seductress singing thumris yards away from terror plots being hatched. But that’s Vishal Bhardwaj for you.

Hina’s fate is sealed off in the opening moments of the film — and I’m not even complaining. As she starts to appear intermittently in flashbacks (Bhardwaj’s version of the murdered Bollywood wife?) Krishna’s stakeout squad plunges headlong into the bourgeois tedium of the Mohan household. Ravi shuttles from home to work and back, making weekly “deliveries” and narrating tales of his heroics to his young son. Charu, meanwhile, prances and preens around the house and jives to ’70s Bollywood songs. She does receive a modicum of agency and liberation on one occasion when she neatly rolls a doobie and sits down to smoke it. This is the wick of probably a brilliant character peeking out from another story but in this one, it’s about to be burned.

Since a capture for the couple is imminent, on D-Day eve the double agent finds out that he’s being bugged and scrambles to escape. I expected a better rationale to his actions (and I still am) than a sentence about dirty diplomatic games and vested political interests. He has tried the direct route to bring the agency to the right track, Ravi frantically proffers (How did he escape the suspicion of his superiors after the first insubordination?) The wife refuses and a breathless struggle for the child ensues before their world crashes into darkness.

Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya.
Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya.

The second half of the film propels the narrative six months into the future. I’m seldom sure of time leaps because I feel they are an enormous loan the story takes out from the trust bank. In case of Khufiya, it asks us to jettison disbelief and accept that a woman shot (in the head presumably, judging from her haircut that’s most likely been for a brain surgery) seconds ago in film time, is alive and will embark on an extradition mission soon. Gabbi, a self-assured performer, at first playing a mother separated from her son in a fashion only Bollywood characters play unhinged characters in shock, manages to reach the top echelons of intelligence and convince them to send her in pursuit of her fugitive husband and mother-in-law to the United States. I tried hard defending it though — maybe a domesticated housewife who’s from a family of faujis could maybe suddenly become suited for a high-stakes covert mission. Or maybe it was the old might of motherhood, which is often said to move mountains.

The first half of the film had me hooked, despite the jarringly annoying and cringe-inducing Rahul Ram cameo that’s justified with a wafer-thin allusion to godmen and politics. The second half, however, had me pulling out all my investments. The buildup of tension and the arrangement of resolutions hereon is a series of episodic plot contrivances that set up a climax you can watch alongside scrolling Instagram on your phone. The rushed finale gives the American characters lazy dialogue — an African-American operative colluding with the Indian intelligence seems like a premptory character with a weird accent. Are these Americans smart only in their movies, KM asks Ravi’s counsellor/liaison with the CIA, in the film’s final moments, almost breaking the fourth wall.

Theatre doyen Navnindra Behl, who plays Ravi Mohan’s mother, too, receives weak characterisation which may or may not have resulted in a disappointing one-note character whose motives are never clear. How has she come to hold such sway over her son? Why has she gotten her son into becoming a double agent? What’s her past, apart from the fact that she’s the wife of a former Indian Army personnel-turned-arms deals expert? If Bhardwaj is hinting at an Oedipal undertone here (Haider had it, too), even that seems underdone. For the most part, Behl seems like a middle-class TV soap saas who either wrings her hands in distress at having to do household chores or doesn’t miss a beat or her aim while gunning down her daughter-in-law. What makes it even more insufferably melodramatic is the poetic justice of sorts that she receives in the end.

The film manages to tie up its own contrivances to a tidy enough end, with some humour. But it doesn’t linger in the mind, despite the grim exhortations of its whistling background score. For a director who’s given us Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and the more recent Pataakha (2018), this one is a bit of a liability. Or a non-performing loan. Khufiya is now streaming on Netflix.

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