Hindi cinema has treated spy thrillers and espionage thrillers in a cliched manner. There are a handful of films in this genre that do a good job of presenting their story realistically. Raazi and Madras Café are prime examples of good storytelling with solid performances, but there are countless films that do not bother to remain grounded. They are given exaggerated treatment at the screenplay level. There tends to be more emphasis on action set pieces than actual storytelling. Khufiya comes somewhere in between the two kinds mentioned above. This Vishal Bhardwaj film is a Netflix India original that was released on October 5, 2023. Khufiya is based on the book “Escape to Nowhere” by Amar Bhushan, which is about a high-ranking Indian intelligence official who is caught spying for an enemy country.
Khufiya begins with a disclaimer about the growth of the intelligence network as India and their neighbor were getting into a dangerous phase after the Kargil War of 1999. This tug of war led to both nations interfering in the elections of their neighboring nation, which caused a series of events leading up to the current timeline of the film. Set in 2004, Khufiya is about Krishna Mehra, aka KM, an intelligence analyst with R&AW who learned about the death of their undercover agent named Heena, aka Octopus, while on active duty. KM and her team are quick to find the mole in their agency, which happens to be a high-ranking Indian intelligence official, Ravi Mohan. The man is leaking state secrets to the enemy country, and R&AW is quick to put surveillance on him by bugging his office and home to collect incriminating evidence against him. Unbeknownst to anyone, two people who might get caught in the crossfire are his wife, Charu, and son, Kunal. Will Ravi ever find out that he is being followed? What is Ravi up to by sharing state secrets? All these and many other questions are selectively answered without proper closure.
The biggest drawback of this two-hour and thirty-minute-long film is the messy story and the screenplay. I am not sure how true the adapted screenplay is to the book it is based on, but writers Vishal Bhardwaj and Rohan Narula cluttered the narrative with inconsistencies. There is no proper structure given to the screenplay to help us understand the timelines in which certain subplots are set. The flashback sequences are placed abruptly between conversations, which makes the storytelling confusing. The story tries hard to get real and murky in places, but it loses steam very quickly.
Espionage thrillers are supposed to be filled with tension, and the narrative is supposed to have you on the edge of your seat, but the story and the screenplay lack both. The subplots are written and executed in an inconclusive manner. Everything just ended abruptly, including the film. There was enough buildup given to Ravi Mohan’s character, but the climax sequence was written and executed in a dull manner. The bizarre ending to the movie seems like a cry for help because the viewers did not expect such a shoddily written screenplay from Vishal Bhardwaj, who has given the same audience some exceptional films in the past.
The lack of urgency in the screenplay leaves the viewers weary halfway through the film. There was a mention of Charu’s father being concerned for her well-being after her recovery, but nothing beyond that is explored in this subplot. Another storyline is regarding Charu enjoying retro songs, a habit she slowly gets rid of in the later part of the movie. There is no concrete reason as to why she loves these songs or what the significance of her losing herself in them is and unwilling to do them later.
KM’s relationship with the Bangladeshi woman Heena began and ended abruptly. There was no space given to understand the intimacy they shared and why she was deeply affected by her death. There is another half-baked subplot involving a godman that did not make sense and added no value to the plot.
There was never any clarity on which characters were in what city during the runtime of the movie. KM is a mother and a divorcee, but the relationship dynamics she shares with her son and ex-husband are hardly explored. The traitor Ravi Mohan and his relationship with his wife, mother, and son are only briefly touched upon by the writers. His mother is a prominent figure in his life, but the emotional angle is not well analyzed. The surface-level treatment of basically every subplot is infuriating. There are plenty of convenient plot lines that feel like they were placed just to take the narrative forward. There is no element of surprise at any juncture.
Khufiya is a female-driven film, but there is nothing given to any of the characters to work on the complexities their characters could have. KM is constantly juggling between being a mother and an analyst. The writers could have given her something more to work on. A working woman having to find time for family in a female-led movie is too cliched. Charu’s character had nothing to offer other than wanting to bring her child back. There is nothing presented from her perspective other than a mother seeking custody of her son. This is why we need female writers who can write nuances effectively.
The direction of Khufiya is dull throughout, especially the treatment of the climax, which is below par. It makes us wonder how Vishal Bhardwaj could deliver a final product that’s so utterly lacking in aspects which are usually well handled in his older films. There is no comparison, as the subject matter here is different. But the classic Vishal Bhardwaj style of direction and humor was missing from Khufiya. The ending was not predictable as such, but the bizarre chain of events that unfolded left the audience perplexed. The direction, in the beginning, is tacky as well, with the killing carried out in an inferior manner. The direction and the storytelling lacked the depth and emotion required to drive the film ahead.
Thankfully, the narrative did not resort to chest-thumping jingoism. The writers only focused on catching the mole and executing him for his crimes against the country. Since this is not a commercial film per se, Ravi Mohan’s character is given the bare minimum screen time to explain and justify his reasons for betraying his country. There is a brief scene, but his character is such that it is hard to believe if he is stating the truth or not. The movie does come across as a good satire in parts where the writers put across the topic of R&AW analysts having no life outside of their work. This is probably the first time a Vishal Bhardwaj soundtrack has not left any impact on the viewers. It is alarming to see the trajectory Vishal Bhardwaj’s direction has taken. His Sony LIV original, Charlie Chopra and the Mystery of Solang Valley, did not garner great reviews from critics and viewers. Khufiya taking that path makes us wonder if Vishal Bhardwaj is cut out for the OTT space.
Khufiya has Tabu at the forefront, but the writers and the director could not extract a performance that would leave a lasting impression on the viewers. It felt like the actress was sleepwalking through the film. There was no emotion felt when she lost the woman she loved. Tabu’s character is written most predictably, with no complexity for the actress to explore. Wamiqa Gabbi, the other female lead, is an average actress, and so is her performance in this film. A layer of writing could have helped her bring out the nuances in the form of a mother seeking her only son. Wamiqa’s performance in her last few outings lacks emotion and depth; case in point: Jubilee and Ninaivo Oru Paravai, the episode from Modern Love: Chennai.
As the lead antagonist, Ali Fazal had nothing to offer as Ravi Mohan, the traitor intelligence official. His character graph is rushed, and there is no space for him to breathe or for the viewers to understand what the man is up to. Azmeri Haque Badhon has a hypnotic presence in a few scenes that she is in as Heena, but there is nothing that the screenplay seeks about the relationship she shared with KM. There was scope to understand the depth of the fondness they carried for each other. A lost opportunity.
Khufiya has an amazing premise but is let down by the screenplay and story, which are just all over the place. It’s a spy thriller gone wrong by many folds.