Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya is quick to get off the mark. A botched assassination in Dhaka is traced to a mole in the Research & Analysis Wing in Delhi. Ravi (Ali Fazal) has been sneaking out classified documents for his paymasters. Krishna (Tabu) is tasked by her boss Jeev (Ashish Vidyarthi) to expose the traitor.

Binoculars, concealed cameras and recording equipment begin their work. The contours of Ravi’s domestic life come into view. His wife Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi) is suspected of aiding him. His mother (Navnindra Behl) follows a singing godman (Raghu Ram). There’s a personal dimension to Krishna’s involvement – the spy has her own hidden side that is known to a few, including her husband (Atul Kulkarni).

Despite already having given so much away early on, the 157-minute Khufiya continues to nurture lofty ambitions. Bhardwaj wants to deliver a character study alongside a smoke-out-the-spook thriller. Yet, despite solid craft, meaty individual scenes and a few sharp performances, the film converts a long-distance run into a slog.

Khufiya is out on Netflix. The Hindi-language film is baggily based on Amar Bhushan’s 2019 novel Escape to Nowhere. The screenplay, by Bhardwaj and Rohan Narula, follows the “Adapt or perish” rule that applies equally to survival and screen versions of literature.

Stick too close to the source and you could lose out on the surprise factor. Veer too far away and you may make viewers wonder about what attracted you to the book in the first place. Khufiya tries to address the conundrum by flipping the gender of a couple of characters – the book’s main problem-solver is male – as well as inventing new players and story arcs.

Wamiqa Gabbi in Khufiya (2023). Courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj Films/Netflix.

Despite its turgid prose, Escape to Nowhere is a strong candidate for adaptation in itself. Bhushan, the former Chief of RAW’s Counter Espionage Unit, based his novel on an actual operation against Rabinder Singh, who was spying for the United States. Despite RAW’s efforts – and because of diplomatic exigencies, according to Bhushan – Singh successfully defected to the US in 2004.

The book is packed with details about surveillance, inter-departmental rivalry and the high-level interference that nullifies the work of honest officials on the ground. Although Bhushan probably didn’t intend to, Escape to Nowhere paints a sorry picture of RAW as a bumbling organisation, too late in plugging leaks and unable to get the job done.

Keen on creating distance from the source material, Bhardwaj and his co-writer take Khufiya somewhere between conventional espionage thriller and psychological drama. If Bhardwaj has cited The Lives of Others as a source, Khufiya has the vibe of John Le Carré’s melancholic novels, about the inner lives of hard-drinking, fatalistic British spies.

Khufiya is set in 2004. India and Pakistan are keeping a keen eye on a crucial election in Bangladesh. Negotiations for the Indo-US nuclear deal are underway. Flashbacks reveal the source of Krishna’s intel on rogue Bangladeshi brigadier Mirza (Shataf Figar): the feisty Heena (Azmeri Haque Badhon).

Azmeri Haque Badhon in Khufiya (2023). Courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj Films/Netflix.

In the present in Delhi, Ravi’s apartment is throwing up surprising footage. The cameras on Charu reveal the porous line between surveillance and voyeurism. Wamiqa Gabbi has better scenes in Khufiya than the one in which Charu’s free-spirited nature is exploited for a racy moment.

This scene is set to a song from Jawaani Deewani. Bhardwaj’s own original score is used as scraps in a narrative that has far too much ground to cover and not enough time to linger on the melodies or their lyrics.

If moles have souls, why can’t plots have holes? The middle section wobbles under the weight of over-plotting. The RAW hunters are often hiding in plain sight, sometimes following their marks at a distance of a few metres. Having flirted with shining a torch on the moral darkness involved in espionage, Khufiya settles for a routine thriller with an unconvincing outcome.

The compelling female characters easily outshine the men. (As Ravi, Ali Fazal always looks ill at ease, and not only because of scripting requirements.)

Heena, memorably played by Rehana Maryam Noor actor Azmeri Haque Badhon, is on the screen long enough to leave a lasting impression. Wamiqa Gabbi provides domestic oomph as well as a valuable counterweight to the movie’s best invention.

Tabu beautifully plays a professional who is wary by training, obfuscates on demand, and pursues her desires in the shadows. Tabu is equally up for Krishna’s steeliness, which shows up when the Ravi escapade threatens to get out of hand. Even in the silliest of scenes, Tabu is always poised for something better.

Khufiya (2023).

Also read:

‘An espionage thriller is the most juicy genre’: Vishal Bhardwaj on ‘Khufiya’