Director: Ribhu Dasgupta
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Sobhita Dhulipala, Jaideep Ahlawat
Streaming on: Netflix
Bard of Blood, based on a 2015 novel by Bilal Siddiqui, is a profoundly unoriginal redemption-of-broken-spy story so stoic and timeworn that the makers could have replaced lead actor Emraan Hashmi with Sylvester Stallone at any point and I'd have been none the wiser. Given that Netflix's sepia-toned Middle-Eastern espionage category has been ably filled by the Israeli series Fauda, I'm not sure why Bard of Blood – half as complex, twice as generic – was greenlit to begin with. However, given the Indo-Pakistan relationship in the last year, perhaps it's not so surprising. The cultural undertones are far from incidental. In that sense, Bard of Blood is like that fragile ex-partner who decides to capitalize on your current vulnerability by reopening old wounds.
The plot is the second this month alone – after the affable The Family Man – to fetishize the geopolitical landscape of war-torn Balochistan. So similar are these portions that I almost expected Manoj Bajpayee to accidentally photobomb (see what I did there?) the dusty frames. But unlike the Amazon Prime series, in which this land is merely a wonky diversion from local thrills, Bard is exceptionally witless because of how foreign and serious and sappily Shakespearean it thinks it is.
The 'timely' seven-episode season stars Hashmi as haunted super-agent Kabir Anand who returns to Balochistan to avenge a few tragedies and rescue three captured Indian spies from the clutches of the shady Taliban-ISI courtship. Tracking him is seedy ISI-agent-cum-Taliban-handler named Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat) who spends most of his time in a guesthouse with a female agent-cum-mistress who exists solely to ask him nosy questions ("What are you thinking? Who is Kabir Anand? What next?") so that we know his plans and he has someone to evil-laugh to. Ahlawat is a fine actor, and he seems to be the only one in on how Bard feels like more of an under-confident Raazi reunion; Shishir Sharma is the Indian boss sitting in office and making important expressions, while Rajit Kapur is the agency director whose fate is intertwined with the hero's grand mission. The Talibani villains – a one-eyed pedophile named Mullah Khalid and his kohl-eyed son – sound (in Pashto and Urdu) like they have escaped from the sets of a Borat movie. There is also a Balochistani freedom-fighter thread – starring a fair-skinned girl and her teenage brother – that mostly exists so that we can imagine the invisible voice of Atif Aslam scoring Hashmi's tragic-lover face. There are no songs of course, but if you listen very closely, the music never really stops.
The problem with this show is that it looks star-struck by a genre that has been cinematically overexposed for decades. For instance, when the agency wants to rehire the disgraced Kabir, he is dramatically tasered and kidnapped from Mumbai and flown to his mentor's Delhi house – perhaps because the idea of simply flying down to meet Kabir instead seems like such an uncool, non-spy idea. Another example: His stylish codename is only mentioned in the first few minutes to highlight his legend ("Call Adonis," the boss concedes), after which I suspect the writers forget about his status. Another example: Kabir is a English literature professor in his civilian life – this trait adds absolutely nothing to his character in battle, except him bellowing "What a shame! What a shame!" when saddened by the demise of a friend. His spy avatar gives him an opportunity to practice his trademark Hashmi-isms ("mujhe udte teer maarna pasand hai") under the guise of coded whataboutery. But the script is so obsessed with ending every episode with a cliffhanger – someone or the other dies or gets betrayed – that the convoluted plot seems to have been reverse-engineered to arrive at the twist. Even the season ends similarly, with a reveal so simultaneously shocking and senseless that I feel sorry for the screenplay writers of the next season.
Seven episodes of Emraan Hashmi is a bit much, and this feels all the more exaggerated when every bullet shot by every machine gun of every incompetent villain conspires to somehow miss him
Sobhita Dhulipala follows up her Made In Heaven success with a female-analyst-on-field-job role that involves her merely being the good-looking tech person of Kabir's team and yelling at the third member Veer Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh; deserves better). Her presence is justified by everyone who sees her, asking: "Why would India send a girl for this mission?". Hashmi is functional at best, his studied urban diction tailored to make him look like an artist in a world of fools. Seven episodes of him is a bit much, and this feels all the more exaggerated when every bullet shot by every machine gun of every incompetent villain conspires to somehow miss him. His underdog journey is so uninteresting that the problematic politics of the series is the least of its drawbacks. By the third episode itself, as Kabir starts to resemble a grave-looking cat with nine Hindu lives, you may find yourself wondering rather lyrically: What a shame, what a damned shame.