Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film is set amidst covert operations in India, the US, and Bangladesh, and its title is just one adjective: Khufiya. But there’s two levels of secrecy implied in that title: one professional, one personal. Let's look at the former, first. Vishal and his co-writer Rohan Narula seem to want to dismantle the expectations we have of the spy thriller; they want to make things as real as possible. So instead of building the story around a series of nail-biting set pieces, they say: "Look, a lot of spy work is just sitting and staring at live CCTV footage on a small TV set." Point taken. The first stretch of intrigue in Khufiya may deal with a (professional) killing, but the (personal) shadow of the dead person is what haunts the rest of the narrative.
Tabu plays Krishna Mehra. It's a lovely, shadowy performance that is utterly internal. Krishna is a hardened soul who has been around in this world enough not to show what she is feeling. (The second level of "khufiya" applies to her personal life, and more about that later, under the spoiler alert.) There's a scene with a big reveal about a neighbour, and Krishna does not raise her voice at all. There's strength, certainly – as in, Tabu's voice becomes stronger, like that of an insistent schoolteacher taking control of classroom chaos. But there's no hysterics. Naturally, the demands of this job alienate Krishna from her family, especially her son, who is playing Brutus in a school play. Khufiya is not one of Vishal's Shakespearean adaptations, but the spirit of Shakespeare is very much in the movie.
The bigger picture is (deliberately, I think) kept fuzzy. It has to do with some defence deal, some nuclear deal, something about Osama bin Laden – but it's all a MacGuffin, like the wine bottles filled with uranium in Hitchcock's Notorious. What is of interest to Vishal (and to us) is the set of interpersonal relationships that drive this story: say, the family consisting of Ravi (a sharp, sly Ali Fazal) and Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi). Charu dances with abandon to 1970s RD Burman songs, and even the way she closes a door – with an extended-butt dance step – sets her out as a joyous "filmy type". There's also her mother-in-law, wonderfully played by Navnindra Behl. The woman is in thrall to the philosophies of an Osho-like godman. For a long time, we observe the actions of this family, and slowly, the film’s structural weakness is exposed.
With the exception of a terrific sequence with a mole fleeing the country, the spy portions are flimsy. They involve things like poisoned perfume or clumsy eavesdropping from a nearby terrace, and had we not known that a lot of this came from real life (Amar Bhushan's book, Escape to Nowhere), we might not have believed them. It’s one thing to do away with the suspense set pieces of the genre. But it’s quite another to build supposedly “tense” moments around practices like karwa chauth, which feel very odd and such a giveaway during a dinner meant to trap the enemy. Maybe Vishal wants to say that these spies are amateurs and they made it up on the go. But these stretches are so oddly paced and staged, and they breathe so strangely, that the film’s intelligence feels compromised. There’s actually a bit with two people giving a thumbs-up and a high-five after catching someone. This is not about whether they would do such a thing. This is about how it comes across on screen. It feels juvenile.
As always, Vishal is more interested in the personal. Read in a way, Khufiya is the story of three single mothers: one divorced, one a widow, and one who’s married and yet, for all purposes, alone. These layers are the things that keep us invested – but in a two-hour-forty-minute movie, there’s only so far that “layers” can take you. I really enjoyed Wamiqa’s performance: the initial high-spiritedness gives way to various other shades of emotion, and she makes us root for this woman. The late scene where an RD Burman song plays on the radio, and she pauses for a second and switches it off – it’s fabulous. Atul Kulkarni pitches in a dignified cameo (more of a guest role, really). Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi’s blue/orange-themed cinematography is muted and classy, like the rest of the movie. Khufiya is always watchable, but I don’t think it ever becomes what it wanted to be.
Hereon, you are going to find spoilers, so read with caution…
And what is that movie Khufiya wanted to be? It’s the one that plays with words and language. In Vishal’s universe, a mole refers to both a spy as well as the birthmark on a woman’s neck. In the Mahabharata, Tabu’s name – Krishna – is gender-fluid. It can refer to the avatar of Vishnu. It could also refer to Draupadi. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Krishna is defined in blue colours. The walls of her apartment are blue. The sari she does not know how to wear is a peacock blue. A person with old-fashioned views might even say that Krishna’s job is a “man’s job”. She’s queer, and that’s what’s khufiya about her. Strumming his guitar angrily, Krishna’s son calls her a liar. He’s close but not quite there. It’s just that she hasn’t told many people the truth.
Vishal has an excellent ear for poetry and a poet’s instinct for structuring metaphors, but in some of his films, this talent is at odds with the hard-nosed material. Khufiya is one of those films. It opens with Krishna describing her lover: “Ajeeb thi woh…” (“She was strange…”) I felt the film could have used a little more of Krishna’s personal life, and not just the bits she shares with her ex-husband and son. It’s to Vishal’s credit that he never makes it easy on himself. And as a whole, Khufiya holds up better than some of his recent work. But the energy in the imagination is missing on screen. It’s obvious that something about the source novel grabbed this director’s attention and made him want to put his stamp all over it. But by the end of the film, we wonder what that USP was. Khufiya feels bland, which is the last thing a secret should be.