Vishal Bharadwaj‘s Khufiya 2023, based on the book Escape to Nowhere by Amar Bhushan, is an espionage thriller that is filled with nuances and constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires. As the story of the film begins with a mission gone wrong in Bangladesh in 2004, it promises to be a gripping and suspenseful journey into the world of spies and intrigue. But with a runtime of two and a half hours, the events in the film propel with such momentum that the impetus the story demands never gets its due and leaves the entire viewing experience dissatisfied. The film does not lack proper development and resolution; rather, the lackluster flow of scenes hinders the flow and inhibits us from fully engaging with the story. The narrative focuses on the inevitable human tragedy at the heart of a power structure whose intentions are to safeguard the interests of its citizens but ultimately cannot avoid the unintended destruction that it creates. Given the emotional precision of its screenplay and the perfect balance it achieves between thriller and drama, Khufiya is a strange film in many ways, difficult to pin down tonally or generically, but it leaves a trail of unease in the mind.
Krishna Mehra (Tabu) aka KM works as an employee at the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India, who is assigned to investigate the doubtful activities of his colleague Ravi (Ali Fazal), who is suspected of leaking classified information. Her senior and supervisor, Jeev (Ashish Vidhyarthi), determines that Ravi, whose opulent lifestyle does not match his income, is the mole and suspects his wife, Charu (Wamiqa Gabi), of delivering information. Ravi’s house is bugged with surveillance devices to monitor his activities and gather evidence against him. As days pass, Krishna digs deeper into Ravi’s actions, she uncovers a web of deceit and betrayal. Soon, Ravi discovers that he is a survivor and immediately makes all the necessary arrangements to flee the country. Charu resists and does not want to accompany her husband. Instead, she decides to stay behind and face the consequences. She gets shot in the scuffle but survives the wound as KM and her team transports her to the hospital at the right time. After a few months, as Charu recovers from her injury, she teams up with KM, who trains her to go to the US so that the Indian government can nab Ravi and bring him back to India.
Carving out the characters of spies as humans and not superheroes is a necessary step toward creating more realistic and relatable storylines. It allows for a deeper exploration of their vulnerabilities and flaws. KM, the protagonist, has battles to fight both on a professional and personal front, and her journey is filled with twists and turns that never glorify her as a heroic character. She loses a dear one in a tragic turn of betrayal. She has a rift with her son because she is unable to reveal a bitter reality to him. These are the traits that add dimension and layers to her character, making her relatable and compelling. His superior, Jeev, is also a humane character who offers guidance and support to her throughout his journey and uses his wit and convictions to solve difficult situations. Ravi, as a traitor, is also depicted with qualities that are smart and vulnerable at the same time. Even the secondary character, Ravi’s wife, Charu, is given ample screen time to showcase her emotions and struggles throughout the story.
The writing by Bharadwaj and Rohan Narula is precise, yet despite this, the emotional anchorage in the sequences is out of place. Each scene follows one after the other without eliciting our empathy for the characters. There is not enough tension or revelations in Khufiya to keep us on the hook. From the beginning of the film, where the identity of a spy is revealed to Ravi, who discovers that he is a survivor, the suspense and shock elements are missing, which is a key element to the genre of such an espionage thriller. The songs used in Khufiya have metaphorical significance that only serves their purpose from the lyrical aspect, not providing any punch to the scenes and failing to create the desired impact. As a result, the film falls short of delivering the gripping and captivating experience that is expected from the filmmaker. Even the concept of geopolitics and how ISI and the CIA are responsible for creating difficult and compromising situations for Indian officials seems like a condiment used to provide flavor to an undercooked story.
The cinematography of the film by Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi creates a brooding atmosphere to give the film a noirish feel. He frames the characters with utmost precision to enhance their emotional depth and draw the audience into their complex world. The lighting and use of shadows further contribute to the overall mood of the dark and mysterious narrative. Whereas, the editing of the film seamlessly blends the timelines in the narrative but fails to bring a sense of cohesiveness to the story due to the lack of a sense of stirring and emotive resonance within the story. The sound design by Shajith Koyeri, Yash Darji and Shantanu Yennemadi is commendable, adding depth and intensity to create an all-pervading sense of inquisitiveness and bafflement.
Performance-wise, Tabu as Krishna Mehra brings a calm and composed presence to the character as she battles her personal conflicts, never allowing them to impact her professional life. Wamiqa Gabbi, as Charu, is sketched with fierce determination and unwavering loyalty to her nation rather than to her husband. She plays her role with such ardor that it leaves us in awe of her performance. Bangladeshi actress Azmeri Haque Badhon as Heena Rehman brings such mysticism and awe to her role that it is difficult to decipher if anyone else could have fit into the shoes of the character in the same way as she does. Navnindra Behl as Lalita, Ravi’s mother, who has pushed her son into the quagmire of spying, brings an eerie charm to her role. As for the male characters in Khufiya, Ali Fazal as Ravi and Ashish Vidyarthi as Jeev Bond needed to be fleshed out more. Atul Kulkarni, Shashank Krishna’s ex-husband, brings a command to his characters whenever he appears on the screen.
Overall, Khufiya comes as a disappointment from a filmmaker who seems to have been so engrossed in creating intrigue in the narrative that he forgets to deliver a satisfying resolution. What could have been an on-the-edge-of-the-seat kind of thriller ends up not living up to our expectations.