In my review of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Charlie Chopra & the Mystery of Solang Valley last week, I’d expressed a hope that his next work would prove to be more a painting than a sketch. And just like that, the first shot in Khufiya has the smeared beauty of a great watercolour. We see a street, its contours soft and indistinct, swirls of brown, yellow, the fluorescent blue of a lamp. A woman walks down it, holding an umbrella, only her silhouette visible. And we hear Tabu’s voice: “She was very strange…” We see the woman properly, in flashback, as the voice-over lists details only an intimate would know, like a mole between her collarbones. Khufiya goes in several directions after this, a lot of them promising, but nothing made me lean forward like those first few moments.
(mild spoilers ahead)
The woman with the mole is Heena (Azmeri Haque). She’s one of several memorable ghosts in Bhardwaj’s cinema—not among the living but nevertheless guiding their actions. Heena’s relationship with Krishna Mehra (Tabu), a RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) operative who goes by ‘KM’, is the bruised centre of the film. Heena is recruited by Krishna to spy on a Bangladeshi minister sympathetic to the ISI (Shataf Figar). She’s competent and driven, and it’s not long before the electricity between the two is directly addressed—in Heena’s words, “what you refuse to accept about yourself”. But after the mission goes off the rails, KM retreats into a shell of hurt and self-recrimination.
It takes another mission, framed as revenge, to shake her out of it. Her boss at RAW, Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthi), tells her there’s a mole in the organization, who may have leaked the Dhaka plan. They suspect Ravi (Ali Fazal), an operative whose lifestyle is a little too flashy for his government salary. Ravi’s family—homemaker wife Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi), satsang-attending mother (Navnindra Behl) and young boy—are placed under surveillance. It’s a procedural, but with a Bhardwaj bent, with a mission codenamed ‘Operation Ghalib’ and a target being spied upon singing a melancholy ghazal. There are nods to other spy films, Indian and foreign. There’s a kill that’s much like one in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018). In the scene after Heena is recruited, KM’s colleague is admiring a miniature drummer boy.
In Khufiya, co-written by Bhardwaj and Rohan Narula and based on Amar Bhushan’s novel Escape to Nowhere, people are watching all the time, through long-lens cameras, on surveillance footage, on CCTV. Charu performs a striptease to ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ for her own amusement—though the way she addresses “chal jhoothi” to the hidden camera makes you wonder if she somehow senses the frank gaze of KM and the embarrassed one of her colleague. The boisterous sexiness of this scene has a voyeuristic dilemma: KM likes to watch but it gets her in trouble. A more repressed erotic charge suffuses the scene where KM interrogates Heena as they sit in a car in the rain.
Shakespeare is usually lurking somewhere in a Bhardwaj creation; here he's in the codenames. Ravi is Brutus, the betrayer and murderer but also “an honourable man” (“I’m a bloody patriot,” Ravi yells at one point, justifying his acts of treason). Charu is Portia, who in Julius Caesar defines herself in relation to Brutus, her husband, and Cato, her father. Charu too sees herself in large part as Ravi’s wife, but she invokes her army father in a critical scene (a third relationship—motherhood—is at the character’s core). The other codenames are also smartly chosen. Heena is Octopus, mysterious creature of the deep, master of camouflage. KM is Cactus, prickly, solitary, a survivor.
Khufiya is only peripherally about the lofty values its characters are fighting to preserve. Unusually for an Indian spy film, there’s little talk of patriotism or serving one’s country. The Indian state in the film acts as everyone else does—to gain geopolitical ground. Nearly all the principals have intensely personal reasons guiding their actions, which they rationalize in the context of their job. Tellingly, the word ‘khufiya’ is used by KM to describe her semi-closeted life—she’s yet to come out to her son—and not her job as a covert agent.
There’s a decision taken a little past midpoint that’s so farfetched I wondered if the film would fold under its weight. It doesn’t collapse but it doesn’t recover fully either. The last hour or so, which takes place in the US, is marked by uneven acting (mostly by those playing the Americans) and story contrivances. There are other stumbles. Rahul Ram turns up for two long, boring songs. The diplomatic tussles involving Jeev, his superiors and the US ambassador aren’t as compelling as the spy stuff. Most damagingly, the scenes with KM and her neglected son feel awkward and underlined.
Smoothing over the cracks is Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi’s cinematography, all concise framing and noir lighting. Haque, so arresting as the lead in the Bangladeshi film Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), is excellent here in a very different kind of role: impudent, sexy, unable to keep a lid on her emotions. And there’s Tabu. KM reminded me of another watcher with headphones—the unforgettable Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others (2006). Tabu’s face remains impassive, yet carries all the weariness and wariness of a life led in the shadows. It’s a beautiful, minutely calibrated performance. When one of her colleagues, posing as a milkman outside Ravi’s house, briefly smiles at the camera they’ve set up, her answering smile is so warm, so encouraging, it’s like a window to a completely different person. It takes a great actor to play a great actor.
Khufiya is on Netflix.