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5th October 2023

Khufiya review: the exact opposite of a spy thriller

The new Netflix movie—with Tabu, Ali Fazal, and Wamiqa Gabbi—is an overlong slog and an abject disaster.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic

Tabu in Khufiya
Tabu in Khufiya // Photo: Netflix

Deep into writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj’s bloated and massively overlong new movie Khufiya, the lead character—played by Bhardwaj’s frequent collaborator Tabu—takes a jab at one of the film’s poorly-cast Americans: “Seems like you guys are only smart in your movies.” But what’s designed as sort of a meta-joke about Hollywood spy thrillers blows up in the face of this Netflix spy thriller. Much more so because for the two hours before it, Khufiya treats us to bottom-tier espionage, one where you routinely question how these globe-trotting agents can be so ignorant and how everyone around them continues to accept this level of tomfoolery. So, when Tabu uttered that line, instead of eliciting a chuckle as the film clearly meant to, all I could muster was an eye-roll.

Khufiya is a mighty bore

But Khufiya’s bigger, unforgivable crime is that it’s a slog to sit through. The chief component of a thriller movie is that it needs to be engaging on a minute-by-minute level. Bhardwaj seems to have no idea how to sustain that—and he repeatedly undercuts himself. Except that’s far from all of the Netflix film’s problems. In addition to scene construction, Khufiya is a mess on virtually every front, be it dialogue, narrative intrigue, or even acting. (Save for Tabu, who does her best to salvage the material but can only take it so far on her own.) Khufiya wastes some actors—Ali Fazal has no real role to play for half the film—and pushes others into theatrical comicality. It’s terrible filmmaking, and as a watching experience, it’s intolerable when that happens.

(from left to right) Taapsee Pannu in Haseen Dillruba, Kartik Aaryan in Dhamaka, and Alia Bhatt in Darlings

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Bhardwaj’s direction and soundtrack make missteps elsewhere, too—even though everything that is happening in Khufiya is super serious, the treatment is at odds. It doesn’t help that the background score is mediocre, to begin with. On top of that, Bhardwaj stuffs in needless songs that halt the momentum of the plot. Why are there songs in Khufiya? After all, there’s no commercial demand for them, given it’s going straight to streaming. The answer becomes much clearer as you watch the film. There’s a very obvious break for an intermission, which means Khufiya was likely conceptualised for the cinema before it was sold off to Netflix.

The plot of Khufiya

Based on former RAW officer and right-wing apologist Amar Bhushan’s book, Escape to Nowhere—which was loosely inspired by a 2004 real-life incident—Khufiya begins in medias res as divorced RAW handler Krishna “KM” Mehra (Tabu) suffers a personal setback on a Bangladeshi mission. (The central character’s gender has been changed from the book.) Learning that there’s a mole in the agency, KM sets out to find and bring them down. While most of the Netflix film is set in Delhi after the Dhaka disaster, Khufiya jumps back to the past now and then to draw parallels or sketch out KM’s background, involving a local informant (Azmeri Haque, from Rehana Maryam Noor) that she fell in love with.

This is tied to the family dynamic, with KM’s son (Meet Vohra) upset over the fact that his spy mother never seems to have any time for him and that she refuses to share why his parents (Atul Kulkarni plays the husband in a thankless role) truly split up. But unfortunately, it’s massively underdeveloped. It’s funny that Khufiya makes a big deal out of ending on the personal given that it’s afforded such rare moments during the film itself and has no depth to it. Why flip the protagonist’s gender and introduce homosexuality into the equation when you’ve little interest in doing anything with it? What is Bhardwaj even thinking?

Mild plot spoilers ahead for Khufiya.

Spins its wheels and then completely derails

Worse, Khufiya doesn’t even fully make use of the setups that are right in front of it. Wamiqa Gabbi—Bhardwaj’s new favourite actress, who has appeared in the director’s last four projects in a row—plays Charu, a homemaker who’s being spied upon by KM. But the Netflix film is more than happy to spin its wheels for the first 90 minutes, with Gabbi’s role reduced to dancing seductively to a couple of songs. Charu then suddenly comes to the fore as Khufiya arrives at the halfway mark, giving a self-righteous speech that’s wholly inorganic. Gabbi then becomes central to the second half—set in South Dakota, US, though it’s filmed in Alberta, Canada—that feels like an episode of The Americans, except both the storytelling and filmmaking are laughable.

Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya
Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya // Photo: Netflix

And it’s here that the film completely derails. People behave dumbly to further the plot, and the big idea is to walk in the front gate like in the old Bond movies. Characters who shoot at others have a Bollywood-style change of heart, undermining any remaining seriousness in this serious spy film. KM tries to appeal to the humanity of a spy who betrayed his country for money and has just lost his mother. Intelligence agencies show little intelligence—they take chances they never would in real life or come up with the most ridiculous plans that are suspicious from the start and bound to fail. As the Netflix film draws to a ludicrous conclusion, Khufiya is more akin to a comedy of errors. (At one point, as a mother-son duo bicker, it’s like an unintentional Hera Pheri.)

Is this the same Vishal Bhardwaj?

While the new Netflix film shows promise in the first half, any remnants of that are quickly extinguished. As Khufiya drags across its oppressive 157-minute runtime, you start to wonder if this is the same guy who gave us the terrific Shakespearean trilogy in Maqbool, Omkara, and Haider. It’s missing the moment-to-moment excitement that’s essential to any thriller movie. Being staggeringly boring is one thing—Khufiya is very much the kind of film where you can look away for a few minutes at times, and you won’t miss a thing.

And it doesn’t put any effort or pay attention to the little things that build a movie, be it the fake dollar banknotes or the fake American news bulletin. Khufiya gives off the feeling of a quickly and hastily assembled pandemic project. You know, the stuff that filmmakers were coming up with when they were bored like hell during COVID-19 lockdowns and wanted to make something. Except Khufiya was largely made outside the pandemic. (Netflix announced the film in September 2021, less than a month before it began production.)

There’s no redemption here, only despair and an abject disaster. Vishal Bhardwaj, what has’t thee done?

Khufiya released on Thursday, October 5 on Netflix worldwide.

Akhil Arora

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