Vishal Bharadwaj’s straight-to-Netflix ‘Khufiya’ seems to have the winning formula. Based on the spy novel “Escape to Nowhere” by Amar Bhushan, it has a thrillingly potent geopolitical espionage setup involving three or more countries. A story championing female agency in a multitude of forms, with actors competent to flesh these intriguing characters out. And then we have Bharadwaj himself, the maverick filmmaker behind the likes of ‘Omkara,’ ‘Maqbool,’ and ‘Haider.’
Despite all that, “Khufiya” surprisingly suffers. Bharadwaj, who has been magnificently prolific in adapting Shakespeare, is quite passive in this adaptation. When the credits started to roll, I could not put my finger on what made this film ‘not work’ per se. In its entirety, the film does work. It is undeniably watchable. However, the ‘missed opportunity’ feeling could not be shaken off. It occurred to me that the lack of effort in making the film more than ‘workable’ bothered me the most. There is a detrimental bout of tiredness seeping through the entire film. By the end, “Khufiya” seems to be exhausted by its own potential.
The film starts with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent Krishna Mehra, a.k.a. KM (Tabu), lamenting the loss of her asset, Octopus (Azmeri Haque Badhon). Through flashbacks, we get to see how KM and Octopus were more than a mere duo of asset and handler. Octopus, a spy of Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence (NSI) herself, pledged her allegiance to KM to get Mirza (Shataf Figar). KM grew to love Octopus. As tragedy demanded, Octopus’ mission went awry thanks to an informer inside RAW. Octopus’ death at the hands of Mirza now makes KM and her boss, Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthi), wary of this mole inside their organization.
Their primary target is Officer Ravi (Ali Fazal), who appears to be spending way more than his government salary should accommodate. KM has RAW agents set Ravi’s house under surveillance with hidden cameras and microphones. The RAW team also suspects Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi), Ravi’s wife, to be involved in this espionage. However, the more KM and her team observe, the less they suspect Charu. Charu, short for Charulata, is a clear homage to Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” from Rabindranath Tagore’s novella ‘Nastanirh.’ Stripped of her role of mother, wife, and daughter-in-law, there is a separate persona looking to come out whenever there is no eye on her. Ironically, this dancing-to-Bollywood-songs persona seems to crave for the limelight, even though it only comes out when she thinks nobody is watching her.
Like Charu, KM is also conflicted. Her husband tells her that she has been constantly running. We get the same feeling throughout the film about her. However, we never get to explore the ‘whys’ and ‘wheres’ of this question when it comes to KM. We see her missing her son’s important events. An age-old spy parent cliche. Her sexuality is brandished under our noses as if mandated, never to be mentioned again. As mentioned before, missed opportunity. The phrase comes to mind once again.
There is no lack of effort from the actors, however. Tabu is at her usual fine self, even if a bit restrained by her character. Azmeri Haque Badhon is magnetic. She is the femme fatale, and she is mysterious and enigmatic with the touch of poignance that is needed. Then there is Wamiqa Gabbi. Her character is the most fleshed-out character in the film, and she does full justice. She is earnestly convincing in every phase of her character.
“Khufiya” suffers the most in its second half when there is a noticeable tonal shift. The first half’s fast-paced, heist-like thriller characteristics are replaced by emotional drama and, weirdly, a bit of dark humor. The film made a big proclamation about the country that played a secret, or ‘khufiya’ in Hindi, part in this South Asian geopolitical drama. The revelation does not come as a big surprise. “Khufiya” is a largely uneven film where genuine moments of brilliance glimmer occasionally without taking the time to shine properly.