In Khufiya, a mother's journey, a lover's vendetta and a country's mission, skewed patriotism and moral disengagement coalesce and highlight the nature of the spying business, notes Sukanya Verma.
Vishal Bhardwaj is a master adaptor of books to screen.
He doesn't just read stories. He becomes them.
It's as if characters talk to him through the pages, make him privy to their deepest, darkest secrets.
It's as if he has a knack for finding hidden cues dropped by an author and moulds them in his own emotions and intelligence.
Bhardwaj's talent for telling his versions of literary works with striking intimacy and broody lyricism colours Khufiya, his cunning and gripping adaptation of former Research and Analysis Wing officer Amar Bhushan's 2012 espionage novel, Escape To Nowhere.
Offsetting his cynical worldview over the course of personal and professional journeys with his favourite elements of rain and poetry, Bhardwaj creates a sprawling world where individual crisis and international politics of underhandedness merge into one cohesive picture of inner and outer chaos.
Khufiya is united by a common objective where a mother's journey, a lover's vendetta and a country's mission amidst geopolitical strife, skewed patriotism and moral disengagement coalesce and highlight the nature of the espionage business.
And it's far from glamorous.
Functioning in obscurity, patience forms their greatest weapon.
The workaholic spies in Khufiya are no different from 9-to-5 office goers -- peeved when a leave is cut short and always late for a family thing.
Trust Bhardwaj to capture the mundane details of their everyday lives with characteristic cheek.
When a hotshot intelligence officer Krishna Mehra (Tabu) shows up in front of her boss Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthi) in a rare sari appearance, he instantly quip, 'In disguise?'
'Family dinner,' she explains without batting an eyelid.
Addressed KM by her colleagues, Mehra's composed demeanour conceals a furious temper that reveals itself in her first scene but settles down to wait, watch and make a move.
A mole has died and a defector's activities come under surveillance is all the information you need in a movie whose complexities are best enjoyed knowing not what's in store. Spying and sentiments go hand-in-glove in Khufiya and in its bid to underscore, there's many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Bhardwaj's latest opens with Tabu's tantalising description of a mysterious figure in seductive frames of amber yellow and cold cyan, dominant hues in Cinematographer Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi's visual palette, quite like Anton Corbijn's spy thriller A Most Wanted Man based on John le Carré's novel of the same name. Bhardwaj has cited Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious and Germany's Oscar-winning The Lives of Others as subconscious influences in the making of Khufiya.
Though giving gradual context to all of Tabu's aforementioned observations, likening the mole on the dint of a woman's neck with a mole in a neighbouring country, naming intelligence operations after Brutus and Ghalib while doffing his hat at both the bard and beacon of Urdu poetry are entirely Bhardwaj's handiwork.
It's these fanciful touches and more, like the Thompson and Thompson security guards (think Haider's Salman & Salman) at a diplomat's do, strewn across the slow-burn drama spanning across Delhi, Dhaka and South Dakota that give Khufiya its riveting air.
Between the objectives of geopolitical warfare on a bureaucratic front playing up America's my way or the highway tactics and the meticulous manner of bugging a colleague suspected of double crossing, Khufiya seamlessly transforms into a study of characters harbouring secrets of their own.
Dilemmas of spying and sexuality stem from a fear of being found out, a parallel Bhardwaj delicately draws out in his layered latest.
Conditioned to spoon-feeding audiences at every juncture, many film-makers invite their audience to get into their head.
He doesn't deny there's more than meets the eye but resists giveaway details. The camera doesn't linger on for telling expressions. The background music featuring a haunting whistle theme doesn't tell us what to feel. There are no expository dialogues. Things stay khufiya in every sense of the word.
Carefully unravelling the people at play that are calling the shots, executing an order, under the lens, fair game or collateral damage, Bhardwaj's genius timing and perfect choice of actors is everything.
Tabu is always a force to reckon with.
Her KM is not some gun-toting agent diving into the mouth of daredevilry. Even in her pragmatism though, she's a mountain -- daunting, dependable and uncompromising.
Her personal life is in disarray but she'll bravely admit to her anxiety if not the reasons behind it.
As much as I wish Bhardwaj had picked a youngster better equipped to play the resentful offspring of a dynamic pair like Tabu and Atul Kulkarni, her mild-mannered ex-husband, he certainly has an eye for benign faced lunatics.
Navnindra Behl is exceptional as an elderly lady showing blind faith in a fishy art of living guru spouting Sant Kabir and Rahim's gyaan in Sufi rock concerts and revealing never-before-seen facets of the Bollywood saas syndrome.
As her son and a guy under the gun, Ali Fazal has this rare Raj Kiran-like quality that never received any appreciation in its time. Like the '80s actor, he smoothly transitions between extreme ends of the moral spectrum and makes it impossible for the viewer to judge when or whether to trust and still not give up on him.
It's also great to, finally, see a boss who really knows his job better than his underlings and more than a token character the lead reports to. Ashish Vidyarthi has no problem conveying his wisdom and seniority to the hilt.
Tabu's brilliance is a given. It is Wamiqa Gabbi's measured momentum that blew my mind.
Lack of inhibition is her superpower.
It's rare to see a woman sharing a frame with a tour de force like Tabu and match her calibre. But Wamiqa's self-possession and contained passion is the only time the story wipes off its scepticism and acquires a conscience.
Khufiya has the length of a movie and satisfaction of long form.
Some of its most beguiling sequences exude the charisma of standalone short.
Wamiqa's spontaneous striptease against R D Burman's evergreen sensuality and Tabu’s awkward voyeurism as its unwitting consumer or the dark, delicious dinner gone awry in the climax could well be a movie within a movie.
Details? Confidential. Verdict? The eagle has landed.
Khufiya streams on Netflix.