Khufiya movie review: A pulpy spy-thriller that sometimes runs out of juice

Khufiya movie review: A pulpy spy-thriller that sometimes runs out of juice

Tabu and Wamiqa Gabbi shine bright in this darkly-hilarious espionage tale
Rating:(3 / 5)

A single detail can make a film. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest Khufiya, the members of the R&AW, the ‘spies’, before leaning in to share sensitive information, look out for the nearest noise emitter and, when found, dial up its volume. It can be a car stereo diffusing a romantic ballad or a home radio clearing into a classic. As a viewer, you also listen closely, like a surveillant these secret agents are guarding themselves against. It feels interactive, furtive, and voyeuristic. Like putting your ear against a door and eavesdropping on a conversation. In another amusing scene, a character desperately looks around the room when her associate starts talking about some ‘top secrets’. She finds an open tap and revs up its flow, only to be reprimanded for wasting water. Witty.

Directed by: Vishal Bhardwaj

Starring: Tabu, Ali Fazal, Wamiqa Gabbi, Ashish Vidyarthi, Navnindra Behl

Streamer: Netflix

Bhardwaj has been constantly proving his mettle as a genre filmmaker. Watching Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley last week felt like leafing through a pulpy murder-mystery. If not anything, the director surely understands the mechanics, the twists and the quirks of a genre. Khufiya is rife with elements straight out of an Ibne-Safi spy-thriller. A perfume bottle containing a nerve agent, a secret landline inside a drawer, clicking camera pens. But while packing in everything, the makers don’t realise that the basket is getting heavy, even overflowing. When the details settle in the background, the devil, at times, rides on the film’s back and makes it exert uphill. In less poetic terms, the film drags at certain junctures.

As per the disclaimer in the beginning, Khufiya is a “fictional account of events, loosely based on the book Escape To Nowhere.” That’s actually an apt description, because if you have read the book, although intricately detailed, it does feel like a 350-page minutes of an R&AW meeting. Bhardwaj brings in the fictional bits. Firstly, the protagonist Krishna Mehra (KM), who is a man in the book, is written as a female character (How would one cast Tabu then?). KM also gets an elongated arc. She isn’t just a straight-arrow officer desperate to bring a traitor to justice, she is also avenging her lover’s death. The rest is more-or-less similar. Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal) is an officer who is living beyond his means and soon gets on the radar of R&AW’s Counter Espionage Unit (CEU). They bug his office to find that he has been photocopying top secret files and selling them to a foreign agency for kickbacks. At first, this felt like a lazy plot-point, almost fatuous. A secret agent’s secret activity is clandestinely taking… photocopies? But, believe it or not, that’s what the real Ravi Mohan did. Truth indeed is stranger.

The fun begins when the agents fix surveillance cameras in the suspect’s house. The listening-in, happens in a secret lair behind a milk kiosk. There is something Indian, particularly Delhi, in prying into neighbours’ lives from a Mother Dairy. The bits where Wamiqa Gabbi as Charu, Ravi’s wife, gets high, dances and emotes on old Bollywood numbers, as if she is performing for an invisible camera (spoiler: She is) are endearing. They also serve as a showcase of Wamiqa’s assorted talents.

Since we are on the T word, there is, of course, Tabu as the enigmatic KM. Stating that Tabu was great in a film is an understatement. It also runs the risk of being labelled a cliché. Let’s just say that her musingly smoking in a darkened room or merely peeping out of a van’s window, as pigeons flutter outside, turns frames into paintings. Ali serves a delicious nervousness as he plays Ravi. While talking, he seems to eat his words and walks with a jitter, which I once confused for a limp. More than his dialogues, his body-language emits the fear of a man who constantly has to look over his shoulder. Ashish Vidyarthi is KM’s superior Jeev, a role he probably can play in his sleep. Still, he manages to bring an impressive gravity to it. The show stealer, however, is Navnindra Behl as Ravi’s mother. She is so viciously funny that she can induce a chuckle even while shooting somebody in the head.

Once out of Delhi and in the US, Khufiya feels uprooted. It strangely morphs into the genre it was avoiding in the first half: the global spy film. The pacing dwindles and you can either predict what happens next or don’t care to. For a thriller, I don’t know which is worse. There is also too long of a dinner scene which begs to be taken more tensely than it actually is. It all ends crudely with a character being slammed against a wall, another’s throat gashed. One genre at a time, probably.

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