Khufiya Review: Spy Drama with Tabu and Wamiqa Gabbi Swings Between Watchable and Wayward

Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Khufiya Review: Spy Drama with Tabu and Wamiqa Gabbi Swings Between Watchable and Wayward
Khufiya Review: Spy Drama with Tabu and Wamiqa Gabbi Swings Between Watchable and Wayward

Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Writers: Vishal Bhardwaj, Rohan Narula

Cast: Tabu, Azmeri Haque Badhon, Ali Fazal, Wamiqa Gabbi, Navnindra Behl, Ashish Vidyarthi, Atul Kulkarni

Duration: 157 mins

Streaming on: Netflix

I’d like to say that Khufiya is engaging in parts, but disjointed as a whole. Or that Khufiya is good and bad at once. Or even that Khufiya delivers less than it promises. But using crutch phrases for a Vishal Bhardwaj film is like dismissing Rohit Sharma as “gifted but lazy”. It comes nowhere close to conveying what is right (or wrong) with the storytelling. There are layers and reflections, indulgences and intent-fuelled failures. There’s Shakespeare and Sriram Raghavan, awe and awkwardness. 

So I’ll try a new way. Three is a recurring trope in this 157-minute espionage drama. It unfolds across three countries, with the identity of the third coming as a revelation. A grieving intelligence agent recalls a lover who would sneeze three times in quick succession. The film opens in 2004 – when a spy is killed in Dhaka – and flashes back to three years ago. There are three almost-love stories. Three languages are spoken in the film. Three members of an Indian family are placed under surveillance. Three is also an odd number. Which is fitting, because Khufiya is anything but even. 

Ali Fazal in Khufiya on Netflix
Ali Fazal in Khufiya on Netflix

A Setup of Spies

Khufiya is about Krishna Mehra (Tabu), an officer with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who sets out to avenge the murder of her lover who is a spy for National Security Intelligence. Known to her colleagues as KM, she pursues an agency mole, Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal), to track down his mystery puppeteer – her personal quest becomes an allegory for political tensions. Khufiya is about Ravi, a traitor with a patriot complex. His ruse is that of a family man – a faithful husband, loving son and fond father. Khufiya is about Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi), Ravi’s wife, and a homemaker whose domestic bliss is shattered midway through the film. In short, Khufiya is about a lot, but it’s also not really sure what it’s about. When these narratives collide, there are sparks. But the explosion never arrives. The film is always on the brink of breaking out. And it stays on that brink. 

There is plenty of colour. Like surveillance as a love language; Shakespearean codenames (the playful lady in a man’s world is ‘Portia’; the turncoat is ‘Brutus’); songs of lament and lyricism; an old woman (Navnindra Behl) undone by her own patriarchy and spirituality; American characters exoticised by an ‘Eastern’ gaze; a spy (Azmeri Haque Badhon) with beguiling eyes; homoerotic chemistry between people and nations; a mole exchanging top-secret documents at a Main Hoon Na screening (the 2004 comedy featured espionage and traitors). Yet, the outline of Khufiya is sketchy. The threads look like they’re still under construction. Perhaps the issue is that Khufiya – an adaptation of Amar Bhushan’s spy novel Escape to Nowhere – unfolds like a movie with the DNA of a series. It has long-form elements with feature-length ambitions.

Tabu in Khufiya on Netflix
Tabu in Khufiya on Netflix

Tabu’s Balancing Act as KM

Because this is a Vishal Bhardwaj film, chances are that we want it to be smarter – and smoother – than it is. So we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves. Take Krishna’s brooding inner life. She is a workaholic with an ex-husband (Atul Kulkarni) and a resentful 19-year-old son. The woman’s drinking and smoking, for once, are not positioned as character traits. The relationship between the former spouses is nice – he’s the only one who understands her – but the film tries to stage Krishna’s motherhood as a coming-of-age story; the teenager (who has that annoying habit of addressing his parents as “yaar”) isn’t aware of why his parents split up. Or maybe he knows, but wants to hear it from her. This subtext, however, is never earned. And the text is shabby. It feels like the film isn’t convinced about Krishna being the protagonist. The distance becomes too literal. 

It’s a lesser version of the track between Tabu and Irrfan in Talvar (2015), where a handful of well-performed scenes convey layers of covert history. We are encouraged to read deeper here, because Tabu plays Krishna as a haunted woman who has no choice but to use her job as a vessel of emotional fulfillment. Like how, when the mole’s family is under surveillance, she is reminded of her own. She is struggling to balance hindsight and foresight. She suspects that Charu is involved because of her own experience of womanhood – both Krishna and her late lover were, after all, living a life of deception.

Much of this is also rooted in what the film strives to be, not what it is. For instance, a suspenseful dining-table sequence towards the end is designed to look messy. None of the characters are in control of what they’re doing. It has the tone of an amateur heist, which is supposed to be surreal, because it’s essentially a political showdown between three countries. But it’s the staging that becomes clumsier than the people. The character of Ravi is potent too, but the writing is so consumed by the cinema of female agency that he is reduced to vignettes. It’s almost like several fillers – scenes where humans are fleshed out through mundane actions – go missing. What’s interesting about Ravi is that he isn’t as cold-blooded or calculated as he should be. When his cover is blown, it doesn’t even look like a cover anymore; he is genuinely pained by the uprooting of this life. The second half undoes his conflict, turning him into a narrative cliché. 

Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya on Netflix
Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya on Netflix

The Vishal Bhardwaj Paradox

Another misfire is the character of Charu. It’s not just the Charulata (1964) hangover (Wamiqa Gabbi starred as Charulata ‘Charlie’ Chopra in Bhardwaj’s Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley only last week). On paper, it’s an attractive idea: The enigmatic homemaker. She is playing a role in both halves, and pretending to be someone she’s not. When her husband and child are away, she rolls herself a cigarette and ‘performs’ to old Hindi songs. (One of them is an original – the hypnotic ‘Mat Aana’ voiced by Rekha Bhardwaj – that sounds like a classic). There’s a lingering sense that Charu knows she’s being watched. The idea is to marry Charu’s inherent nature – a closet Bollywood fan who poses like the camera is always on her – with her situation as someone under RAW surveillance. The two gazes are fated to converge. 

But the ambiguity is lost in translation. Despite Gabbi’s spirited turn, the character doesn’t feel right. The problem is we aren’t seeing Charu through Krishna’s eyes. She seems like a fetishised version – a male fantasy – of a housewife. When her robe pops open and she continues dancing, the manic-pixie vibe belongs to a different spy thriller. It too blatantly punctures the mundanity of surveillance work. Her exchanges with Krishna, too, lack the depth we imagine she has. 

There’s a lovely moment in the second half, when Charu hears an old favourite play on the radio in a distant land. She pauses, and just when we think she’s going to dance, she shrugs and switches it off. The spell is broken. She is done with that gaze. She’s grown up without being herself. At another point, a devotee screams like she's seen a ghost because a godman summons a face from her past. There’s also an image of a mother phoning her son with a goods train in the background – a metaphor for her baggage fading. Somewhere in these scenes, there’s a film that defies its rushed climax, a muddled personal-political voice, a tantalising journey, and a story that’s stranded between two cinematic mediums. That’s the Bhardwaj paradox. Khufiya doesn’t need to be even. But it stops short of embracing its oddity.

Watch Khufiya Review by Anupama Chopra  

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