- The Netflix offering gives us a glimpse into an expansive network of informants, allies, and family members steeped in conspiracy while working for India, Pakistan and the CIA.
I watched “Khufia” for the sole reason of spending some alone time with the talented and highly emotive actress Tabu. As her beautiful face with those intense haunting eyes appeared on the screen, I was hooked. As the thriller unfolded like an Agatha Christie novel, Tabu’s now-uninterested-now-interested manner and low-pitched voice echoed (over the vineyard where we stayed) responding to the unscripted code “Dile naadan tujhe hua kya hai…?” made me relax into my easy chair in a remote village in Provence, France.
In the wee hours of the morning, while my friends were fast asleep from the wine they had imbibed the evening before, I was wide awake and in my solitude with “Khufiya,” the Bollywood spy drama streaming on Netflix.
Director Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Amar Bhushan’s novel co-written with Rohan Narula, is a complex charcuterie board of the inner lives of spies and double agents transecting their professional duties. “Khufiya” gives us a glimpse into an expansive network of informants, allies, and family members steeped in conspiracy while working for India, Pakistan and the CIA.
I love the obtuseness, sprinkled with euphemisms, Urdu couplets, body language, solo dances to old Indian songs, code words, and strange rendezvous that turn into deadly mishaps. Very Hercule Poirot-like with Shakespearean theatrics culled from the tell-tale operation “Brutus.” Nothing original. But enjoyable, nevertheless.
The plot is as follows: In 2004, the Pakistani/Bangladeshi ambassador Saqlain Mirza (Shataf Figar) sniffs a perfume on Heena Rehman’s neck (Azmeri Haque) and snuffs her out. Heena is a volunteer spy working with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency. Heena worked for the workaholic RAW agent Krishna Mehra aka KM (Tabu).
KM tries to uncover who informed Mirza. She is suspicious of Indian bureaucrat Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal). She suspects that Ravi is selling classified documents, and buying diamond baubles for his bubbly housewife, Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi). Mehra and her colleagues Michael (Shashi Bhushan) and his wife Geeta (Priyanka Setia), take turns to furtively observe the Mohans, both inside and out of their apartment.
Mehra is so caught up in observing the Mohans that she misses her teenage son Vikram’s (Meet Vohra), debut stage performances. KM’s husband Shashank (Atul Kulkarni) tells Mehra to slow down: I paraphrase — “The Sun and Moon will still be there if you take a breather…”
Charu has a baby, and Ravi Mohan’s treachery is brought to light. Charu allies herself with KM. A new surveillance operation begins, planting Charu as a repentant daughter-in-law, under the personal assurance of Lalita Mohan’s spiritual adviser, the charismatic Yaara ji (Rahul Ram).
I enjoyed watching Lalita (Navnindra Behl). She owns her character and transforms into the quintessential mother-in-law who only favors her son and her grandson, viewing her daughter-in-law as a necessary evil/ or a glorified maid. “Sab kuchh luta dega kya us par”.“Mere sone ka samay yaad hai tumko, meri beti…” Classic! The jealousy. The hypocrisy. Her abject devotion to the Godman Yaara ji like so many Sindhi and Multani women devotees thronging around Sufi saints to find a panacea from their physical pain, guilt, and mental anguish.
I am a fan of Bhardwaj’s craft and I anticipated the story to take us on a few hairpin bends, interspersed by predictable anticipation and suddenly turn on a dime and become dark and unpredictable. Although I knew that something else was cooking other than the halal goat, I did not expect a macabre Shakespearean violence to unfold across the dinner table. The lines spoken ever so mellifluously by “ammi jan” Ravi’s mom, Lalita (Navnindra Behl), coaxing Mirza to try her favorite dish are superb. The sprinkling of “gori” ko shak ho jayega is wonderful but the fact that “the gori ” is aware of what they are saying is even better!
There are gritty, intertwined personal narratives with spur-of-the-moment alliances and unexpected betrayals but the story evolves like a moving target, ever-changing, ever-morphing, never transparent. “Khufiya” offers a critical insight into the personal lives of spies, and double agents who do not have the luxury of permanence in their dangerous vocation. They could be dropped from the assignment or literally “ drop dead” in a split second if the “intel” changed. Not taking things personally comes with the territory. My favorite scene: A boy selling balloons outside the American Embassy to Charu: “Gubare lelo didi…Amrica mein kam aayenge…”
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.