“Why should we try to contact home with information when our country doesn’t care for us,” says a captive Indian spy to his comrade, urging him to escape. They are prisoners in a safe house of the Taliban, deep in Pakistan’s Kech area of Balochistan province. Channeling his inner John F Kennedy, the second spy responds that it’s the other way around. “We must care for our country even if it doesn’t care for us!”
That is the leitmotif of the eight-episode series Bard of Blood on Netflix (based on the book of the same name released in 2015). The country doesn’t care for the spy but the spy is ready to die time and again for the country.
In the show, the Indian intelligence apparatus run by Arun Joshi (Shishir Sharma) is a cog in the wheel of the larger political administration, which is focused on the visit of the Chinese premier to India. At this inopportune moment, four Indian spies are caught by the Taliban and become the subject of negotiations between the Pakistani “ISA” led by Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat) and the Taliban led by Mullah Khalid (Danish Hussain). Joshi is largely unconcerned with the fate of his agents and gives them up for dead. Amazingly, he is also not very interested in what possible information they may have been trying to relay when they were caught.
Meanwhile, coordinating with the spies on active duty is Sadiq Sheikh (Rajit Kapoor), Joshi’s deputy who also trains and motivates his agents. Helping them are analysts Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) and Nihar Gupta (Amit Bimrot). Isha Khanna is an ambitious analyst who wants to go on a covert mission but is constantly denied because she is a woman. It is interesting that the trade up from analyst to covert agent is framed in gender terms throughout the show when in fact they are two entirely different functions in actual intelligence setups.
In his book, The Unending Game: A Former R&AW Chief’s Insights Into Espionage, Vikram Sood writes, “Intelligence officers do not themselves unlock safes, drive around in fancy cars, wear flashy clothes or have knowledge of judo or karate. They are required to recruit, train and handle men and women who can lie, deceive, steal secrets and manipulate people. Their skill lies in being able to move around inconspicuously while being present…James Bond is a fantasy.”
The conduct of all agents in the show Bard of Blood makes sure intelligence is a fantasy. Rather a Bollywood fantasy where guns and cars racing across deserts are par for the course but actual intelligence and its analysis is left out or considered unnecessary and confined to tracking locations on GPS. Apparently, the writer Bilal Siddiqi was advised to make his book “visceral and graphic” and that is what they did with the series as well.
When Sadiq Sheikh is suddenly removed from the scene, his estranged but supposedly brilliant spy Adonis aka Kabir Anand, played by Emraan Hashmi, goes on a rogue mission to settle old scores and rescue the captive Indian spies. Helping him are Isha Khanna, who has also gone rogue, and Veer Singh (Vineet Kumar), an agent supposedly undercover but forgotten in Baluchistan for seven years.
The Baloch independence movement led by Jannat Marri (Kirti Kulhari) and her brother Nusrat Marri is also integrated into Adonis’s journey. The writers’ credit the producer of the show and Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan with conceptualising this track prior to the pitch of the show to Netflix, thereby adding a whole new angle not there in the book.
Siddiqui says the biggest change from the book to the show is in the “characters who are vulnerable, yet so much more intriguing”.
Produced at a cost of Rs 50 crore, the scale of the show, the production design and cinematography are of international standards.
Ladakh and Rajasthan stand in well for Balochistan and the dust and loneliness of the landscape lend superb character to the show.
As a thriller, Bard of Blood has all the conventional elements of the genre and there is nothing new either in the writing or direction. Hashmi is unfortunately uninspiring. Kirti Kulhari is excellent and holds the emotional reins of the show. She brings alive the pain and frustration of a people marginalised in their own homeland as well as the inevitable loss of love and life that such movements engender. The rest of the support cast is competent.
Perhaps, the theme of the Taliban and their power and influence in Pakistan are a little out of date today. The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001, and they are still struggling to find a way back in, waiting for the Americans to withdraw. It’s the Chinese who now hold sway in large parts of this region.
What is more, Amazon Prime seems to have won this spy battle with their quirky Family Man, headlined by the brilliant Manoj Bajpayee, and created and produced by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, also Bollywood producers with original films like Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone and Stree to their credit.
In Family Man, Bajpayee plays an intelligence analyst Srikant Tiwari who is caught between his demanding and top secret job and his life as a (largely absent) husband and father. This middle class man has to literally live out of his skin to try and succeed in either role. Both demand his total attention and he is struggling to do justice to both.
In an interview with the newspaper Mint, Raj Nidimoru says, “We were looking for a common man – a deglam version of an agent, a middle-class guy who has no perks, no swag. Who is that guy when you remove all the coolness, in terms of high-speed shots and the larger-than-life image, and make an interesting series that has geopolitics as the background?”
This is a fantastic out of the box idea and it adds freshness to the genre.
The show is also topical, and it is researched based on current news reports that have kept our intelligence agencies on their toes. Unlike the agents of external intelligence in Bard of Blood, Family Man is focused on internal intelligence: threat of terrorism from ISIS and its confluence with the militancy in Kashmir. The two are blended well in the show and Gul Panag even does a fun cameo as Saloni, Bajpayee’s former lover and temporary boss.
The show rests on three axes. Bajpayee as Srikant Tiwari is the main axis. The other two are the equally brilliantly Priyamani, who plays his wife Suchi, and Neeraj Madhav, who plays the main antagonist Moosa.
Suchi is tired of being a supportive wife and feels burdened by having to look after the family all the time. She is also excluded from her husband’s professional priorities and with little intimacy or communication, their marriage is more or less over. Meanwhile, she is assiduously wooed by a hot and understanding colleague, Arvind (Sharad Kelkar), who helps her shift jobs and indulge in her aspirations and desires. Will she or won’t she stay in the marriage?
Moosa is the villain of the story and has Srikant fooled till the end. Having lost his family to the riots in Gujarat in 2002, Moosa turns to Jihad and becomes a chemical explosives expert with ISIS in Syria. He has returned and been caught by the Indian intelligence. The season ends with Srikant and Moosa up against each other. But is Srikant too late?
In the same Mint interview, Krishna DK says they have already mapped three seasons of the show.
It will be interesting to see how Srikant Tiwari balances his life while saving the country; one hopes things will work out well for him and Suchi because that is what it means to be middle class. To overcome the struggle and challenges life throws at you with a winning balance of duty and desire. Perhaps that’s a whole different intelligence skill set both of them have yet to master.
Both these shows have blown open the doors to a new area of storytelling – our intelligence agencies and threats to the country.
One also hopes to soon see a show where a woman protagonist brings her skills to the intelligence game, either as a covert operative or an analyst who can provide a solution to the challenges facing the country. As the Hindustan Times notes about detective shows with female protagonists, “The female detective who just does her job is as interesting a protagonist as the cliched lonely misunderstood man who can be fixed by a woman’s love. It’s a positive new stereotype, and the small but accruing gains for the working woman character in popular culture give hope that real life is moving forward on that front as well.”
While it’s great that Indian films and shows are now moving towards varied stories and genres, we need these to be based on real-life events and historical research. In 2006, Kabir Khan made Kabul Express but it was a film ahead of its time and audience.
Perhaps, it would be wise to consult people from the intelligence community and learn from their professional experiences while making the next spy film or show. Former R&AW chiefs have written about their work and provided insights into the Indian intelligence community.
Maybe, we should also learn from international platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, as much as from Hollywood, how “real” films and shows on spies and intelligence agents can get. Israel has now mastered this genre. So should we.
The next Bollywood spy film or show should be grounded in solid research and reflect India’s national intelligence priorities and spycraft. Then it will be real and meaningful.