When Vishal Bhardwaj first adapted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet many years ago, he and co-writer Stephen Alter envisioned it as an espionage story set in the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency. Claudius, a spy, betrays his elder brother, King Hamlet, forcing him to defect to another country; one day, at Heathrow Airport, he encounters his son, Prince Hamlet, and commands him to seek revenge.
“I was obsessed with cracking the idea of the ghost,” Vishal, who eventually made a very different Hamlet, 2014’s searing Haider, tells The Hindu. “In the original story, it was the father living under a ‘ghost identity’.”
Khufiya, Vishal’s new film releasing on Netflix on October 5, treads into similar murky waters. The film is adapted from the novel Escape to Nowhere by Amar Bhushan, published in 2012. Bhushan, a former chief of the counter-espionage unit of R&AW, fictionalised a real-life case, when a mole was discovered in the agency’s headquarters in New Delhi. In 2004, Rabinder Singh, an Army Major who later became Joint Secretary of the Southeast Asia desk of R&AW, fell under the suspicion of his seniors and was closely surveilled. His office and home were bugged; his every movement meticulously tracked.
Then, one day, he was gone.
“I have always found espionage stories to be very juicy,” says Vishal, proclaiming his love for Hitchcock’s Notorious (1949) and the novels of John le Carré. For Khufiya, he interacted at length with Bhushan, learning about the inner workings of R&AW and what distinguishes it from its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “In New Delhi, a bus leaves from Dhaula Kuan picking up R&AW employees standing at a point with their bags and tiffin carriers and dropping them off at six o’clock in the evening. It’s nothing like someone arriving on a bike wearing shades like in Hollywood movies.”
Another fascinating insight was the cultivation and upkeep of assets — often through cash or material help — in foreign countries. “In Nepal, there was once an asset who desperately needed a washing machine. But the accountant here wasn’t clearing the bill.”
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Ingrid Bergman is magnetic in this post-WW2 thriller, about a woman sent in to infiltrate a German household in Brazil. An unusually affecting love story from Alfred Hitchcock.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
A careworn spy, played by a wintry Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles, lays a trap for a suspected terrorist living illegally in Hamburg. Based on a book by spymaster John le Carré.
Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
While holidaying in Morocco, a timid college professor and his wife are enmeshed in a dangerous plot involving the Russian mafia and the British intelligence. Also adapted from le Carré.
Ali Fazal, who plays the suspected double agent, Ravi Mohan, in Khufiya, assented to the film within three hours of his call with Vishal. In a coincidence, the Mirzapur actor had recently played an ISI agent in his Hollywood outing Kandahar. The two are entirely different films and roles, Ali insists. “That was a hardcore action movie while this is a more dense, detailed, moody take on the genre.”
Indeed, one of the pleasures of Khufiya is Vishal firing on all his aesthetic and atmospheric cylinders. The film is grippingly shot by Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi, who was a camera assistant to Tassaduq Hussain on Kaminey (2009). While Ali is new, many of the cast members are Bhardwaj veterans. Leading the sting on Ravi is Krishna Mehra (KM), played by Tabu, a character who is originally male in the book. Ravi’s wife, Charu, is played by Wamiqa Gabbi, who also headlines Vishal’s new detective series Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley.
“Khufiya was my first project with Vishal,” shares Wamiqa. They were meant to collaborate on another series — Midnight’s Children — but the ambitious project fell through at Netflix over a budget-related stalemate. “I still feel pain (from Midnight’s Children not working out),” Vishal says. He hopes he gets to revive it in the future. “It was one of my best-written works ever. Salman Rushdie’s novel is exemplary but it’s also extremely complicated and difficult to adapt for the screen.”
We ask Wamiqa and Ali what is it like sharing screen space with Tabu for the first time. “This is Tabu’s world and we are just living in it,” Wamiqa laughs, recalling how, while filming a scene, she was so enamoured of Tabu that she would not leave her embrace. Ali’s experience, meanwhile, was a morbid mirror image of this. “I kept choking her by mistake in a violent scene,” he admits with rookie embarrassment.
Vishal’s last theatrical release as director was the bristly sibling comedy Pataakha (2018). He produced and co-wrote his son Aasmaan’s debut film, Kuttey (2023), but beyond that has concentrated his energies on streaming, directing short films and originals. Khufiya, though immersed in deceit and geopolitics, and releasing amid Indo-Canadian tensions in diplomatic and intelligence circles, is unlikely to ruffle political feathers. It is evidently safe enough for Netflix to express interest in mounting a Khufiya-verse.
“There were a lot of details that I could not incorporate into a single film,” Vishal says. “In a franchise, I want to keep exploring the humane side of the spy world.”