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It takes a moment, or even a while, before the Bollywood spy drama “Khufiya” gets going. The first 70 minutes of this 157-minute Hindi-language thriller, about a conspiracy to both survey and protect suspected Indian or Pakistani spies, mostly introduces who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Once established, these characters settle into their prescribed roles. Still, you might be wondering how quickly 70 minutes or so can move and if what follows necessarily warrants such a long buildup. Yes, mostly.
“Khufiya” doesn’t stray far from the stock tropes of post-Graham Greene and post-John le Carré espionage fiction, and its characters don't have so much depth that they transcend their genre. Rather, director Vishal Bhardwaj (“Rangoon,” “Omkara”), who adapted Amar Bhushan’s novel with co-writer Rohan Narula, hints at interpersonal connections and inner lives that are either conveniently repressed or unexpectedly prioritized by various Indian spies and their expansive network of informants, allies, and fellow double agents.
A plot in two halves begins after a groan-worthy pun and then a violent death by cutlery. In 2004, the enigmatic Pakistani ambassador Saqlain Mirza (Shataf Figar) sticks a fork in the neck of Heena Rehman (Azmeri Haque), a volunteer spy for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India’s foreign intelligence agency. Heena dies right after her features are rhapsodized by an unidentified voiceover narrator, who points out a birthmark on Heena’s throat, which leads to one of the creakiest dramatic transitions you’ll hear this year: “In fact, there was another mole in our lives.” The ensuing story also seems to have been made with easily distracted dads in mind.
In 2001, Heena offered to help the narrator, workaholic RAW agent Krishna Mehra (Tabu). In 2004, Mehra leads a mission to uncover the mole that warned Mirza about Heena. Indian bureaucrat Ravi Mohan (Ali Fazal) is suspected of selling classified documents, and his bubbly housewife, Charu (Wamiqa Gabbi), is presumed to be his courier. Mehra observes the Mohans, both inside and out of their apartment. She seemingly loses a lot of time watching Charu, who doesn’t do much outside of running errands and occasionally dancing as if nobody’s watching.
Mehra takes shifts watching the Mohans, working with fellow spies like Michael (Shashi Bhushan) and his wife Geeta (Priyanka Setia). Mehra still winds up staring at Charu and her husband so often and so intently that it winds up alienating both her teenage son Vikram (Meet Vohra), an aspiring stage actor, and her stolid but otherwise unremarkable husband Shashank (Atul Kulkarni).
Time passes, but not much happens for about 70 minutes. After that, Mehra’s assignment changes focus and inevitably becomes more personal. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that Mehra and Charu’s relationship takes on greater significance during the back half of “Khufiya,” which adds retrospective weight and successive importance to her and Charu’s actions. A new surveillance operation begins, emphasizing previously incidental side characters, like Ravi’s mom, Lalita (Navnindra Behl), and her spiritual adviser, Yaara ji (Rahul Ram).
Your reaction to “Khufiya” depends largely on how much significance you put on the developments and twists that build a transition from one half of the plot to the next. This brief but crucial middle section of the movie adds greater emphasis to the character-driven nature of this drama, a shift that Bhardwaj’s fans will probably already be anticipating. We only know so much about these characters and how they relate to each other because they could break out of their routines at any time. Violence and betrayals are jarring and sudsy here because everybody acts out supporting roles on the shadowy stage of statecraft. It’s the little people who can and eventually do surprise you anyway.
Bhardwaj hints at his movie’s lightly worn intelligence in an early scene, where Vikram performs a brief soliloquy as Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” That ostentatious flirting with symbolic meaning doesn’t happen often in “Khufiya” since key relationships, like the bond between Mehra and Heena, are carefully and deliberately elided. There are more heavy personal implications to the various characters’ alliances and betrayals during the movie’s back half, but never so many that the movie stops being exactly the kind of movie it always presented itself as.
“Khufiya” isn’t a deconstruction of the spy thriller, but it does blatantly re-orient viewers to what’s often missing or downplayed in stories about spies, many of whom are presented as solitary little wheels who work for big organizations that could stop needing them at a moment’s notice. Not taking things personally comes with the territory. Bhardwaj and his collaborators show respect for that guiding spirit of professionalism by only suggesting what various characters either aren’t saying or aren’t ready to admit to themselves.
On Netflix now.