Onto the next release of the day and I have finished watching the new Hindi film Khufiya which is streaming on Netflix. The film is directed by Vishal Bhardwaj and it is needless to say that he is amongst one of my favourites at the moment. And it is a bit of a double whammy for the viewers, given that Charlie Chopra was out only a week ago. When it comes to content being directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, it is always simmering in low flame while presenting the world with a bit of stillness. Almost every film of his is either laced with the softness of poetry or a quirky sense of humour(or both), that is niche in many ways. The flavour in his films are an acquired taste and hence, it may not be catered to everyone. But the sensibilities which he incorporates in his seemingly leisurely narrative is often layered, mostly challenging the viewers to read between the lines with respect to the context and the message which he wishes to convey, and that is majorly his biggest strength. With Khufiya, he has yet again pulled off a casting coup with his regulars Tabu and Wamiqa in the mix, with a new entrant in his filmography, Ali Fazal. I had sky high expectations from Khufiya, does Khufiya manage to impress, let’s find out.
Story & Screenplay
Based on a novel by Amar Bhushan titled ‘Escape To Nowhere’, Khufiya follows the story of an agent who is tasked to find the mole in her organization following the murder of an undercover agent. And if you are taken aback by the triviality of its plot, I have purposely kept things vague for layers to be discovered through the narrative. Usually, spy thrillers are backed with unnecessary jingoism without delving into what they actually stand for. Yes, the fluttering flag in the background is great and always rousing, but the world of spies essentially do not reveal their nationality even when carrying their duties for the nation. Hence, a more nuanced approach of giving a sneak peek into their lives is what the need of the hour is. And Bhardwaj does exactly this by instead focusing on the geo-politics which has been running the world and incorporating that as a major plot point. The screenplay standing at a shade above 150 minutes might seem like a daunting runtime, yet its nuanced approach almost allows you time and space to settle into the tense and simmering world of the agencies across the globe, before the filmmaker begins to tighten the grip on the proceedings.
Like always, Khufiya also is niche in its approach which is rather unconventional. His idea of delivering an espionage thriller is very different here, a little on the lines of Bridge Of Spies in terms of the leisurely yet layered narrative style. So if you are expecting a Pathaan(which I enjoyed too), then this film isn’t for you. The drama does begin by giving a little context of the geo-politics doing the rounds in the early 2000s post the Kargil War when all the agencies were extremely active. A little context about the sexuality of the protagonist(which was subtly important to the screenplay) is quickly cut to the field when a supposed operation is underway. There is a sense of mystery to the proceedings leading to the eventual tragedy, thus kicking off this plot whose virtue at the centre of it is revenge.
You are briefly introduced to the protagonist and the kind of challenges that she is exposed to while performing the balancing act at her work place and her home which is now broken with a strained relationship with her supportive ex-husband and her son. Yet, the drama doesn’t continue to dwell in that direction. Instead, it begins focus on a central character who is suspected to be a spy. This very detail was also revealed in its trailer, and I am a fan of filmmakers who get the ‘supposed’ spoiler out of the way by presenting their cards to the viewers before turning the narrative on its head. The facts are right under your nose with the writers making things clear that this is not a thriller with bouts of urgency. Instead, the presented thriller is allowed to simmer on a low flame with several tense moments along the way that does successfully manage to suck you into its world, if you allow it to.
The proceedings are engaging and engrossing particularly with respect to the shifting relationships between countries in the geo-political space. For instance, the makers try to showcase that an event triggered at some part of the world can also have strong repercussions back home. The tension reaches its pinnacle at the halfway mark in that terrific ‘interval’ block when the tables begin to turn while the entire mystery around the drama starts getting clearer. I was curious to know on how things would transpire in the second hour particularly with all the equations in play. And that is when the double revenge drama kicks in, which is layered and nuanced in many ways.
There is a palpable amount of tension even in the stillness of the drama in the second hour. While the curveballs are subtle, the biggest strength of the writing lies in the unpredictability of a predictable scenario. This basically means that you aren’t completely sure of the actions of the characters while knowing what to expect in the space. The events leading to the final act are nicely built up, allowing the tension to simmer while keeping thevproceedings grounded and rooted to reality. The tone of the drama is not lost even in the turn of events of the final act, thus capping one of the best spy dramas that I have witnessed this year, although niche and catered to only a slender section of the audience who do have the acquired taste and appetite to digest it.
Dialogues, Music & Direction
The dialogues are conversational with layers within layers to be discovered through the subtext. The music is fabulous here with a haunting theme being repeated throughout the narrative. Even the use of yesteryear’s songs are smartly incorporated in its narrative. The BGM not only aides the simmering and tense drama but also enhances the tension in several junctures without losing its objective. The cinematography is outstanding with some breathtaking wide shots and some dimly lit frames that add to the tension. The production design contributes to the ambience of the drama just so well.
The costumes are spot on for all the characters. The editing is sharp and crisp right throughout. To give you a perspective, there is a scene featuring Wamiqa with a short crop of hair wherein she splashes some water, only for the camera to pan on her face again with long hair, thus signifying a time jump. Director Vishal Bhardwaj has yet again done a fabulous job here. The drama here unfolds like a little poetry and kudos to the director for not reducing the drama to a thriller. The events are flavourful, and Bhardwaj’s love for Shakespere and Agatha Christie are reflected like a little homage. A subplot involves a character performing a play of Julis Ceaser only for another character to name her operation as Brutus. In a separate scene, a character is shown reading a novel by Agatha Christie. The direction is exceptional here and absolutely splendid with the execution.
The performances are excellent by the ensemble cast. Atul Kulkarni as Shashank is subtle and restrained in his character and he performs his character with a lot of dignity. It was nice to see him unite with his Chandni Bar co-star. Rahul Ram as Yaari is a joy to watch especially with his shifting nature of his character. Alex O’Neall as David is natural to the core and he definitely manages to impress. Ashish Vidyarthi as Jeev is very dignified in his performance wherein he carries himself with aplomb. Shataf Figar as Mirza is subtly menacing and a commanding demeanor onscreen in a wonderful job done. Azmeri Haque Badhon as Heena is beautifully charming and unassuming in her character approach. She adds a deft touch of seductiveness while being beautifully polished with her astounding performance.
Ali Fazal as Ravi is incredibly good in a role which will have you guessing. Yet, he doesn’t allow his personality to overpower his character by consistently being subdued and calculative. He was phenomenal to watch here. Wamiqa Gabbi as Charu is such a bundle of talent and she gets to play a character with contrasting virtues here. She is really affable but also wonderfully restraint while approaching her character with a lot of heart and practicality. Her scenes involving her vulnerability are brilliantly performed in yet another towering act. Tabu as Krishna is absolutely brilliant to watch. Her smaller glances and nuances in her performance are beautifully charming while she shows restraint in carrying a mountain of pain and guilt within her. She is assertive and always commands your attention while consistently shepherding the drama ahead. Another act of brilliance from one of my favourite actors doing the rounds!
Khufiya is probably the best Hindi film of 2023, an understated espionage drama with layers and layers of subtext to it. It is most definitely a niche and may not be catered to everyone but if slow burners are your thing along with a keen eye for geo-politics, then do give it a shot. Available on Netflix and Highly Recommended!