Vishal Bhardwaj is well acquainted with adapting literature to cinema. His adaptations include the works of Ruskin Bond (The Blue Umbrella, 7 Khoon Maaf), William Shakespeare (Maqbool, Omkara and Haider) and Agatha Christie (the web series Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley).
Bhardwaj’s new movie Khufiya is also based on a book. The espionage thriller, starring Tabu, Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi, has been adapted from Amar Bhushan’s novel Escape to Nowhere. Khufiya will be premiered on Netflix on October 5. It’s been five years since Bhardwaj’s previous feature Pataakha, and the director told Scroll that he is ensuring that he makes up for lost time.
You took a break after Pataakha until the recent releases on streaming platforms, Modern Love Mumbai and Fursat. What was that time between 2018 and 2022 dedicated to?
Actually, it was a forced break in a way because two projects did not work out. I was doing Midnight’s Children for Netflix. One year went into writing the show but when it was time to get into production, the platform pulled out.
Then I was supposed to do IC 814 for Amazon, but they had the Tandav issue so they also pulled the plug at the last moment. In that way, three years passed and then the pandemic hit. As soon as things opened up, I planned Khufiya.
What was the learning from the experience of dropped projects?
There is no way to know. How can you? Every time, there is some new issue or a new producer will come with an unique set of issues. But I believe that projects and films come and they get themselves made.
For example, I took Charlie Chopra to every platform and producer but no one wanted to make a film. Then Sony LIV suggested making a series and, within five months, it was made and broadcast. I finished shooting Khufiya over a year ago, but it needed a lot of time in post-production.
After so many book-to-screen projects, are there any rules for a successful adaptation?
No, there are no rules as such. I would say that one should not get burdened with the material and remember that they are two different mediums. Novels and plays have a different language and cinema and film have their own language. What to use and what to drop is key.
We know what to use – those are the parts that have excited us enough to take on the project. But what should be left out is important because sometimes there are so many exciting things that if you keep all of them together, they create a mess.
You had a foundation with Amar Bhushan’s book, but how much have you changed for Khufiya?
We have made a few changes to the story. For example in the book, the main officer is male but we have Tabu playing the part of RAW officer Krishna Mehra. I also wanted to create a personal story and not just a cat and mouse chase of how you catch a mole or how you bring back a defector.
We need a personal story like Krishna’s because, when we watch a story, we are affected by emotions and a journey happens inside us. When we connect with the emotion of the character we are watching, then our own emotional journey begins. This personal story arc for Tabu’s Krishna was created by myself and my co-writer Rohan Narula.
Also, the book does not have a third act. The book is a cold, clean account of an operation with phenomenal detailing, which takes you right inside the RAW office. My third act starts where the book ends. That’s our addition.
Why this book?
I wanted to do an espionage thriller. It’s the most juicy genre. Even now, when I put on the TV to watch something, I am seeking a spy thriller. It’s a wonderful genre that makes you feel like a kid.
I was very keen but I had not found anything exciting till this book came my way. The detailing is so rich, especially the techniques of bugging and surveillance. The German film The Lives of Others is a favourite, and that voyeuristic pleasure feeling is also there in my film.
You have reunited with Tabu after Haider, which was released in 2014. During this period, how do you see her evolution?
Our relationship is very different now. I have known her since Maachis , which was 1995. We have been working together for nearly 30 years, so now we even understand each other’s silences. To work with a person with whom you have such a deep understanding of emotions, such a deep bond, it’s a different kind of creative experience.
When you watch Khufiya, you will see what a restrained, subtle performance she has given. I needed that kind of secure actor who trusts me. Through most of the film, she’s observing and reacting to the situation, because her character is such. And she’s leading a secret life. So, I needed a person with an understanding of these dimensions.
She has evolved so much. She is a fine actress but now she’s like old wine – maturing and becoming more intoxicating with each year and passing day.
You have cast Wamiqa Gabbi repeatedly. What about her acting do you find interesting?
I think she has emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the emotion which you have not gone through but you can relate to, express and manifest. Because she comes from a small town and she has worked in the Punjabi film industry, she has seen life there. Then came the long struggle in Mumbai and now she has found a foothold.
People who come from a small town have a different kind of fire, and they carry their background experience of life with them. The kids and the people of Mumbai or other metros don’t get that kind of experience from life.
Actually, Wamiqa was finalised for the lead part in Midnight’s Children, but unfortunately, that show didn’t happen. I interacted with her at that time and I found her to be an extraordinary actor. Given a chance, one could see she would go far. Khuifya was actually the first project we started together. Nobody wanted to play the young mother and I needed a person who would trust me blindly. I had a comfort with her and that’s why we did so many projects together.
You have used old songs and new compositions in Khufiya. What is the thought behind the soundtrack?
It was not easy to put the music together for this film. Firstly, the old songs I have used are some of my most favourite ones from a period which had very good tunes. This came out of the character who dances when she’s alone at home. The idea was to convey emotions through music. It was difficult, but it worked out, and I’m very proud of this album. After a long time I feel happy, full and satisfied with this music.
After Modern Love, Charlie Chopra and now Khufiya, is streaming a more comfortable space or are you looking to take your work back to the cinemas?
I do want to make a film for the cinema now. Nobody wanted to make Khufiya or Charlie Chopra for the theatre, but these platforms gave me a reason to make this film and this show.
Obviously I would love to go back to the theatre, but you actually have to have a very solid reason and a film to go back with. I’m looking forward to finding that subject.