With a title that literally translates to ‘secret’, this Vishal Bharadwaj-helmed film has layers to its title and its narrative. I had the opportunity to catch it before it premiered on Netflix on October 5. A preview was screened at the India Habitat Centre as part of the Jio Mami Year Round Programme, and my head was tabula rasa – or empty as they say in colloquial terms. The film’s promotional techniques had attracted me to it, with Tabu’s reel about not having any idea about the script, location and actors being a quirky introduction to the film. Here, I must confess to being an ardent Tabu fan and hence, was expecting and strongly believing that the film would be something to look forward to. After reaching the Stein Auditorium, where the film was being screened, we got to know that the film crew was also watching the film with us, and my heart raced thinking that Tabu would be in attendance. To my disappointment, Tabu was absent, but Vishal Bharadwaj, Ali Fazal, Wamiqa Gabbi and Rekha Bharadwaj were there. It excited my heart to simply recognize that the film-makers were in the same space as us watching the film, and that we had the opportunity to convey our feelings about the film directly to them.
Now, enough about the screening and more about the film. I must warn you, if you have not seen the film yet, better come back to this piece after you are done with it as there are spoilers ahead! Actually, writing about Khufiya is impossible without giving out a few spoilers, perhaps a reason why the trailers and teasers had everything under wraps. I feel, it is not Vishal Bharadwaj’s strongest film – having made such immaculate pieces like Haider, Makdee, Maqbool, Omkara among others in his filmography. Despite that, Khufiya shines for doing for spy thrillers, what Makdee did to children’s films and Omkara or Maqbool did to adaptations. Khufiya in its truest sense, explores the psyche of individuals who happen to be a part of a spy thriller. It is very rare that we find the explorations and depth of layered characters and their personal lives in a film that concerns a larger thematic thrust on the nation and crime.
The film loosely follows real-life events and is based on the espionage novel titled “Escape to Nowhere” by Amar Bhushan. It involves a story of betrayal and redemption, the typical arc that a spy-thriller usually follows. The film opens post-Kargil war in the early 2000s and delves into the politics of the cold war in the Indian subcontinent between India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The main characters are Indian R&AW officials who are trying to stop Pakistani agents from influencing the politics in neighboring Bangladesh, while also considering the geo-political intricacies of America’s relationship with India.
Tabu plays KM or Krishna Mehra, a tough, no-nonsense agent who upholds work before her personal life;
Ali Fazal plays Ravi, a double agent (sometimes the betrayal felt without a cause);
Wamiqa plays Fazal’s wife, Charu, a charming young lady whose character arc before and after the intermission is worth following.
In addition, there is Azmeri Haque Badhon as the mysterious Heena aka Octopus, Ashish Vidyarthi as KM’s boss and of course, Navnindra Behl as Lalita, mother to Fazal’s character, who is more than what it seems like \at the first look.
Without revealing too much about how the plot unfolds in the film, it’s worth noticing how in espionage and thriller films, the thrust is usually on the male characters. Here, however, the spotlight is on the women of the film; 4 women to be precise. These are Tabu (KM), Azmeri Haque Badhon (Heena/Octopus), Wamiqa (Charu) and Navnindra (Lalita). These women carry forward the narrative as the men in the story support their narratives. It is a commendable job by Vishal Bharadwaj and team to make a spy thriller focused on women, and not necessarily women who are protagonists and all positives, but women who are gray, who have their foibles and aspirations. The grayness not only provides the humane quality to these characters, but also makes us relate to them because at the end of the day, none of us are plain black and white.
It would be a shame if I didn’t write a few lines on Ammaji or Lalita’s character portrayed by Navindra Behl. At the outset, she felt like a supporting character, but as the film peeled back its layers, it became apparent that she was more than just a mother-in-law or a mother figure. Her active participation in her son’s disservice to the nation, and her aspirational dreams are to look out for. She provides the much needed comic relief through her actions and gestures, and the whole auditorium was laughing with her as she fumbled to make peace with her new reality away from her homeland. Her obsession with Yaara ji (played brilliantly by Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean fame), and her sheer passion to make it better in life kept me hooked to the screen. Kudos to the writers and Vishal Bharadwaj for not restricting an elderly character to just being a prop like our cinema usually does, and making her a breathing, complex, humorous and sometimes, dislike-able character. Navindra Behl did a fabulous job with her comic timing and her demure nature masking the malicious intentions that she carries so strongly.
Similarly, Wamiqa did a lovely job of being the charming, fun yet vulnerable wife of someone accused of being a traitor to the country. Her sequences in the home alone, dancing and letting it go to retro Hindi songs in the first half and her vulnerability and manipulative stance in the second half is to watch out for. However, her character felt a little rushed in the second half and we don’t get a lot of context for it, despite an overall runtime of over 2 and half hours.
Coming to one of the most important aspects of the film – queerness. When in the beginning of the film, my friend sitting beside me joked and said ‘Tabu’s character is queer’ while KM narrated a monologue on Heena’s mole in the middle of her collarbone, I scoffed and asked her to stop. Later into the film, it is actually revealed that Tabu’s character is queer. What’s interesting about Tabu’s portrayal and Bharadwaj’s dealing with the subject is how subtly he puts across this queerness without making the characters carry the badge of their identity on screen. Tabu’s character is QUEER, but that is just another aspect of her character like her loneliness, her independence, and her dedication to work, sometimes at the cost of her family. The queerness isn’t made out to be a separate character in itself, but just another aspect of an individual who happens to be a woman, a mother, and a professional among other things.
However, if we look at it, the whole story is driven around Tabu’s queerness without it being made too apparent. The antagonist of the film kills Tabu’s lover at the very beginning of the film, and although we get to know about their relationship later in the film, Tabu’s love for Heena lingers throughout the film in the form of flashbacks and recollections. Badhon as Tabu’s lover carries the charisma of being an undercover agent, but also the mysticism of an unattainable lover. Her sequences with Tabu, especially the one in Heena’s home in Dhaka brings about a sense of normalcy of being queer. They are shot in a very matter of fact way, without the dramatization of sequences, which happens to be a case with a lot of queer films. You notice the tension between two individuals, not a lot of hullabaloo is created around the fact that they are both women, but it tenderly explores the intimacy between these two women, one of whom is still unable to accept her reality. This struggle to accept oneself is portrayed very subtly by Tabu in her own style, where even her eyes speak volumes and the fragility of her outer strength gives way to a sense of vulnerability when she is with Heena. Badhon’s character becomes a catalyst to this realization and slowly brings Tabu’s character to the realization of being queer. Their chemistry on screen is spot-on and for that both Tabu and Badhon must be lauded.
Tabu’s character is not only grappling with her queerness, but also that of being a mother and a professional. Her relationship with her son is estranged, as she hasn’t been able to be truthful with him, and we see the awkwardness as her son asks her ex-husband, played by Atul Kulkarni, why he let go of such a wonderful woman. Similarly, her husband, who is aware of her identity, often checks in on her, and for a change, a divorced relationship is shown to be as comforting as any other relationship. They both care for each other, and keep a check on each other’s well-being. Similarly, at her workspace, a lingering feeling of being secretive is present. It feels like her boss knows about her queerness, but she never confronts him about it. In one of the sequences, where Tabu is blaming her boss for the killing of her lover, the boss confronts and says, “She died because of you”. The mud-slinging game also brings to the fore how emotionality at workspace is never appreciated, and in the end, we never really know whether her queerness would be accepted or frowned upon if she actually lived like truth. Considering that the film is based in 2000s India, it is quite acceptable that KM didn’t come out at her workspace as Section 377 was still in place, and even accepting to be queer meant being a ‘criminal’ in the eyes of the state.
There are numerous instances of queering done throughout the film without even making it about queerness, and I really loved that subtlety. For example, the film begins with Tabu’s narratorial voice describing Heena as, “Bohot ajeeb thi woh, gunah ki tarah chhupi chhupi” (rough translation: She was really weird; hidden like a sin). Now, if we read into these words, it could very well describe the life and social outlook towards queerness – weird, sinful, hidden are all words usually used to describe queerness in mainstream society. But from the get-go, the film doesn’t highlight the queerness outrightly. Again, as “Mat Aana” by Rekha Bharadwaj plays in her usual melancholic-dreamy voice, the scene shifts from Charu listening to the song to Heena singing the song to KM, one can’t help but think of all the queer relationships that remain incomplete, albeit for various reasons. A line from the song rightly encapsulates: “Jaana, tumko jaana ho toh mat aana” (roughly translating to “Love, if you have to go, don’t come”). Later, Tabu also recollects the memory of her lover through this song.
The title itself means ‘secret’, and the film carries secrets of various kinds – the secret agents, the secret betrayal, the secret lives of the individuals, and of course, the secret that KM carries in the form of her closeted sexuality. And ironically, the film keeps an open end to this secret – we never really know if KM actually comes out or whether she chooses to live in the closet, in order to survive the patriarchal set-up. Khufiya isn’t perhaps the best of the films, but it is definitely worth a watch, if not for anything then for the performances of all the cast members, the soulful music, the subtlety in unpacking the secretive lives, and for its handling of queerness – tender and subtle.