Khufiya – More Than One Secret
Quite a tensely scripted spy-thriller
Vishal Bharadwaj is a director to reckon with, though his oeuvre has demonstrated his inclination towards adaptations of Shakespeare’s classics. But as a creative director and music director, he has exercised his freedom to experiment with different genres over time, and mostly with success. ‘Khufiya’, meaning “secret” telecast on Netflix right now, is the most recent example.
Before the titles appear, the film announces that it is based on Amar Bhushan’s 2019 novel ’Escape to Nowhere’. The screenplay, by Bharadwaj and Rohan Narula, have brought in some changes to suit the switch from the literal to the cinematic.
With a few twists and turns and gender-benders, ‘Khufiya’ turns out to be quite a tensely scripted spy-thriller, where though there are too many characters, they are carefully fleshed out to turn the film into more of a social thriller than a spy thriller.
Double crossing within global espionage is the foundation on which the social part is based on. Bhushan, the book’s author, is the former Chief of RAW’s Counter Espionage Unit who claims that the novel was based on his true-life experience though the closure is different in the original.
Though quite a tensely scripted spy-thriller, ‘Khufiya’ acquires different qualities as it moves on. It may perhaps be described as a “meta genre” that gathers several other genres under its umbrella, and as a band in the spectrum that colours each genre.
The film opens with the brutal murder of Heena (Azmeri Haque Badhon), a double agent. She had suddenly arrived at the birthday party of Bangladeshi brigadier Mirza (Shataf Figar). He figures out that Heena has arrived at the party with the sole intention of killing him with a bottle of poisoned perfume.
The story is set in Dhaka in 2004, and moves back and forth to try to pull the different strands of the story and characters together. The spy element slowly makes way for the emotional drama that surfaces focusing mainly on the major characters of the story.
Krishna Mehra (Tabu) a.k.a. K.P. is a counter espionage officer in charge of finding out the mole at RAW. She has been assigned the job by her boss Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthy). Everyone is aware who the mole is and K.P. has to find out who or which organisation he is selling the secret information to.
The plot has, by then, shifted to Delhi where Ravi (Ali Fazal) is placed in a “happy family” setting, and lives with wife Charu (Wamiqa Gabi), mother and little boy.
Heena Rehman, who offers to spy for India in exchange for money, which she desperately needs for treating her father’s illness, approaches Krishna. Krishna agrees and while working together, the two fall in love.
Though the script does not shy away from hinting at Krishna Mehra’s alternative sexual orientation it is subtle, as if Bharadwaj is hesitant to dwell on it for fear of the Censor’s or audience response. We do not see any intimate scenes between the two.
We learn it gradually from the fact that she is divorced from her understanding husband (Atul Kulkarni). Her 19-year-old son keeps wondering why his parents are divorced and why his mother is always absent at his school performances.
Following Heena’s killing, K.P. turns avenger. She wants to capture the man responsible for the killing of the woman she loved.
Once RAW places its entire machinery to follow Ravi to find out his secret, the story steps into his personal background. Ravi is a devoted husband, son and father.
Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi) is his loving and devoted wife, mother and daughter-in-law. Charu’s is the most interesting character one has witnessed in any Indian film in a long, long time. After dropping her son to his school, she returns home, plays a hit song from the old film ‘Jawani Diwani’ and breaks into a strip-tease dance.
No one, including her husband, is aware of this and Charu truly seems to enjoy the thrill of her secret dances. She strips off her dress to dance away in her bra and panties and finds her happiness in her own secret space. This is a unique and rich emotional touch that takes the film to a different dimension. She dances even when she cooks and defines herself as a very ‘different’ woman.
Ravi, becomes aware of the RAW machinery spying in his home, and begins to pack to run away with his family to a hiding place. This is when Charu gets to know that her husband is betraying the nation.
However, she is suddenly shot in the chest and we assume that she is dead. We next find her some time later with her hair cropped short, wearing Western clothes and working in tandem with K.P., begging her to help her find her son who has disappeared with Ravi and his mother.
The story now gets into the adventure genre with Charu desperate to migrate, with a changed persona, to locate her little son and take him home. She manages to locate her family. Ravi gets suspicious though his mother keeps telling him that Charu is a free maid and she stays. She keeps in touch with K.P. informing her about the developments.
The film ends on a positive note with the loose ends tied together, somewhat roughly and in tangles. Mirza, is the Bangladesh Defense Minister by now and the source Ravi was selling the secrets to. He is killed.
The two dramatic absurdities the film has are: the sudden resurfacing of Heena who it appeared was dead as she was stabbed with a fork piercing her neck and the body was dragged away by Mizra’s goons; and that Charu is alive despite having been shot in the chest by her mother-in-law, who was in cahoots with her son and was party to his crimes.
The four women in the film are much stronger and quite different from the men, be it K.P., Heena, Charu or her mother-in-law. They all live life on their own terms in their own way while the RAW chief Jeev is bound by his official position, Ravi is trapped in a situation without an exit, and K.P.’s husband and son are confused about their own identities in her absence.
The performances are electrically charged, and the cherry on the cake is the brilliant Wamiqa Gabbi as Charu who is revealing her multifaceted talent from one film to the next. Tabu is no less but this time, I am certain that the film belongs to Gabi. The actor playing the role of Charu’s mother-in-law is amazing. Ali is flat this time and one has no clue why.
The film moves through time and space with the different climatic chimes captured aptly by the cinematography. Sometimes, the scenes within the RAW room with its espionage infra-structure, generates a suffocating feel.
This changes when the scene moves somewhere in the US (shot in Canada) and we see the snow-capped streets and white ambience which does not spill over to the terrified family of Ravi. The editing is swift, and sometimes jerky, but the jerks are not uncalled for.
Switching over from one genre to the next adds to the thrills and excitement the actions and twists generate. But at the same time, one comes away with the question about how can RAW afford to waste its machinery and personnel in Delhi on tracking the movements of a single mole, who they know well just to find out who is paying him for the information? Does this not show RAW to be quite inefficient?
‘Khufia’ is a good watch because you discover the logical loopholes only after the film is over and by that time, it hardly matters, does it?