Synopsis – A political espionage thriller based on “Bard of Blood,” by Bilal Siddiqi.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E07
My Take – Right from its announcement this series has been in the limelight, well why wouldn’t it be? As it marked the first collaboration between Netflix India and Shah Rukh Khan’s company Red Chillies Entertainment, and cast Emraan Hashmi, one of the most renowned Bollywood actors working today, in the lead. Deriving its source material from a 2015 novel written by Bilal Siddiqui, who serves as a co-creator and writer on the show, the series promised an intriguing espionage thriller never offered to the Indian audience before.
Having read the book as well, I can agree that series is not going to win any awards, nor does it work well in comparison to the quality of Sacred Games, or the similarly themed The Family Man, the also recently released Amazon Prime series starring Manoj Bajpayee, yet it manages to hold your attention, even if you aren’t clued into politics and current affairs.
This is perhaps its biggest win. With the help of its great cast, impeccable dramatic scenes, a gritty story-line, and refusal to resort to unnecessary subversion, it stays true to its genre – a popcorn spy thriller, nothing more, and nothing less.
Yes, there are times when the sequences transitioning would feel amateurish. And I do understand the flak the writing has been receiving, as viewers now have more easy access to western espionage as well, making comparisons inevitable.
To be honest, the 2015 book itself is quite Bollywood-ish with predictability marred in its veins, but while like most I too have grown to expect more layering and spectacle from OTT platform shows, I do appreciate the efforts undertaken here. In simpler terms, people looking to enjoy a series more in the lines of a nuanced Tiger Zinda Hai, binge on, while the rest can move to The Family Man.
The story follows Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), a High School teacher with expertise in Shakespeare. However, unknown to everyone, Kabir was formerly an Indian agent code named Adonis, who five years ago, after failed mission in Balochistan had been disgracefully discharged. Plagued by guilt and remorse as the mission end up taking the live of his best friend Vikramjeet (Sohum Shah), Kabir now lives in solitude with his only connection to the outside world being Vikramjeet’s widow and young son, who he takes care off.
However his quite life is disrupted when his former mentor Sadiq Sheikh (Rajit Kapoor), head of Intelligence operations, offers him a mission to rescue four Indian agents taken hostage by the Taliban. As that part of the province is in the firm grip of the Taliban supremo, Mullah Khalid (Danish Hussain), and his fire-spewing son, Aftab (Asheish Nijhawan), and Kabir being the only alive agent familiar with the tactical advantages/disadvantages of the area.
While Kabir flat out refuses at first, Sheikh’s mysterious death, implores him to fulfill his final wish and seek this opportunity to redeem himself. Undertaking the unsanctioned mission with Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala), an analyst with no field experience, the two seek out Veer Singh (Vineet Kumar), a forgotten undercover agent to help them travel into the battle scarred land.
Where Kabir while seeking to fulfill the mission must also come to terms with his past in the form of his old flame, Jannat (Kirti Kulhari), whose teenage brother and husband are a part of the Balochistan resistance movement seeking to free the area from Pakistan’s grip, and Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat), an ISI spy, who played an integral part in ruining his mission five years ago.
This entire journey, Mumbai-Dubai-Quetta, in search of answers and also the will to save the country’s soldiers, leads them to take decisions like any other agent of popular spy-thrillers.
The series plays with the tropes of its genre well. There’s loads of action, deceit, conspiracy, bombs and blood, love and lust, adrenaline-pumping scenes and genuine nail-biting moments.
In fact every episode, is espionage in every sense of the term, thrilling and blood curdling. But nobody can miss the political games that are played, and the men on the ground are but puppets, as director Ribhu Dasgupta keeps the suspense alive and kicking, forever or so it would seem, and draws the curtain with Adonis on the edge of a cliff, imaginary or real. All the while remaining on point.
Even the past story of Kabir Anand is kept very brief. There are no unnecessary side stories merged with the main plot. The romance scenes were not unnecessarily stuffed in or dragged. The style of storytelling is superbly done and the character development is done in bits and pieces, instead of all at once.
The premise of the show is based on sensitive ground, we all know that people have their eyes on Balochistan for claiming independence, and the pressure they have had to face from neighboring countries because of the same. But director Ribhu Dasgupta and writers Mayank Tewari and Bilal Siddiqi create several moments of urgency and keep it pacey. While you’re invested in the politics, you are also praying for the leads to escape the next attack. For example, there’s a scene where a man comes to serve tea to Kabir and Isha, and the next minute a cop breaks open the door to their house. It’s nerve-racking, but in a good way.
Which in fact is also the series’ biggest flaw. It plays too safe and sticks to familiar tropes and clichés. There is too much exposition, too much talking and explaining instead of letting the visuals drawing us in. For example, the Taliban chieftain is shown to be a pedophile. We get it as soon as we see a man escorting two young boys into his room. But literally two minutes later, another character accuses him of being a pedophile, and kills the effect of the previous scene.
The last few episodes have also a bit too much squeezed in it’s to race to the climax. While the series tries to pass this off as intelligent politicizing, it ultimately comes off being complicated and messy. At times everything seems to conveniently be working in the lead’s favor.
However, as I mentioned before it never loses sight of what it is presenting – popcorn entertainment, which is uplifted by Chirantan Das’s cinematography, the production design by Sunil Nigvekar, and its locations and action scenes. Another flaw I would like to mention here as the characterizations of the antagonists.
Yes, the book does model Mullah as cliché villain, so does the show, but in comparison, Tanveer Shehzad, the ISI agent handling the Taliban, is more nuanced and acts as a perfect foil to Kabir. But here, despite the casting of Jaideep Ahlawat, an excellent character actor, the series downplays him and makes him more comically menacing, unlike his literary counterpart, hereby making his track, especially with his second in command, Abida (Sahiba Bali), flat and one-dimensional.
I also found the dichotomy of how Muslims are presented quite cringe worthy. There is either the clean-shaven, English speaking, shirt pant wearing ‘liberal’ Muslim, or a bearded robe-wearing Taliban soldier who is rabid in his views and bloodthirsty for Jihad. There is also the token noble Muslim who does the terrorism is anti-Islam dialogue before being bumped off. There is no fresh insight, interpretation or nuance into depicting a long-standing global issue, or a deeply misunderstood religion.
To his credit, Emraan Hashmi, who despite being completely outside his comfort zone of twisty musical thrillers, makes a sincere effort. His earnestness in playing a no-nonsense spy, his eloquence, his subtle yet dramatic performance and his ability to sink into his character is bound to surprise even his biggest dictators. Sobhita Dhulipala too has done justice to her role, and to look at her non-glamorous avatar after playing an elite in Made In Heaven. However, her character is quite underwritten, at least in comparison to the book.
In comparison, Kirti Kulhari fares much better in a character written specially for the series. Her character, Jannat, touches a chord, and Kulhari provides the emotional thread in an otherwise clinical rendering as she gently conveys the complexities of her dual life.
Vineet Kumar Singh, continues to rise the ladder, with yet another hard ridden underdog character, and a compelling performance. In other roles, Jaideep Ahlawat, Rajit Kapur, Danish Husain, Abhishekh Khan, Sahiba Bali, Amit Bhimrot, Asheish Nijhawan, Shamaun Ahmed, Shishir Sharma, Shruti Marathe, Ajay Mahendru, Sohum Shah, and Kallirroi Tziafeta offer good support. On the whole, ‘Bard of Blood’ is a light yet ambitious espionage thriller, which despite its flawed writing makes for a smooth watch.
Creator – Ribhu Dasgupta
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix