Vishal Bhardwaj’s new Netflix original film, Khufiya, carries a creeping sensation of a novel — perhaps because it is an adaptation of Amar Bhushan’s espionage novel Escape to Nowhere. And that particular flow, with its scattered, diverse assembly of character and subplots, may well be the reason why the film stands in a limbo of foggy uncertainty.

One simply doesn’t know how to feel for the characters because, despite their motives, they appear motiveless. Their moves carry out actions that, by the climax, are hastily tied into a ludicrous and convenient culmination. Stuck in the middle of this hodgepodge is Krishna Mehra — KM (Tabu, flat and unconvincing) — a chief operative of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), who also happens to love women.

Separated from her husband (Atul Kulkarni, in a brief but nuanced role), with little time for family — her teenage son, played by Meet Vohra, is smart enough to keep his parents in check — KM makes it her mission to kill the Bangladeshi defence minister, Brig Saqlain Mirza (Shataf Figar, playing it up necessarily).

The defence minister is a man who wines and dines beautiful women, and has no remorse stabbing them in the neck in the middle of a party bustling with dignitaries. Yes, he is quite the villain, and the revenge is personal. One of the women he kills is Heena (Azmeri Haque Badhon, all sensual looks and superficial depth) — an ISI agent who secretly worked for RAW, and is also KM’s lover.

Despite the presence of Tabu, Vishal Bharadwaj’s revenge thriller Khufiya is a bit of an over-extended dud

Vishal’s screenplay, co-written with Rohan Narula, meanders like a novel, shifting focus and timelines. A parallel track has KM staking out Ravi Mohan, a mole in RAW (Ali Fazal, badly used, save one scene). Peeking through the cameras , KM is slowly seduced by the secret, vivacious nature of Ravi’s wife Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi).

Charu, a happy woman who rubs shoulders with foreign dignitaries’ wives at clubs, is bubbly and bouncy when she is home alone. Fantasising, and at times stripping off her clothes — to the embarrassment of her voyeuristic surveyors — she turns on KM’s sympathies, which lead to the film’s meat and potatoes: the core plot and a twist that elevates Khufiya from a dud to a barely engaging revenge thriller with an eclectic assembly of characters.

For example, Navnindra Behl playing Ravi’s mother, Lalita — under the spell of a guitar-flinging, rock-n-roll fake-sadhu — is a hoot.

Vishal’s film, despite being fleshed out to give characters enough space to make them feel whole, needed to cut down its run time. At 157 minutes — that’s a little over two-and-a-half hours — Khufiya overstays its welcome by a good 30 minutes. A sharper, faster cut to Charu’s story — or, perhaps, a version strictly adhering to this subplot — might have made Khufiya a better film.

In its present state, one has to yawn through a routine, half-baked, surface-level spy-story to get to the good part. It’s a good thing, then, that you’re only spending a paltry subscription fee instead of a cinema ticket on this one.

Khufiya is streaming on Netflix and suitable for ages 18 and above.
The film has scenes of simulated sex, sensuality and rocky, unfulfilled, unsatisfactory relationships, amidst some brief spy-games

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 22nd, 2023

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