‘It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by a firing squad.’
That was how I have always visualised spy novels, cold and dark and dreary in their betrayals and Frederick Forsyth is the undisputed God of everything related to spies. But when I watched the trailer of Bard of Blood offered on Netflix, I was interested in the heat and dust swirling amid Kalashnikovs being fired in air and Indian spies in Balochistan about to be executed.
Indian spies? Adonis to the rescue? What?!
I admit that I have been a reluctant fan of Tom Clancy (never understood why readers needed to know page after page of details of guns and bombs) because the central hero of most of his books - Jack Ryan Sr was not just an action man but cerebral too. But Paul Greengrass created Jason Bourne and changed the way we look at spy-action thrillers. The only Indian writer who comes close to giving us a taste of gunpowder has been S Hussain Zaidi, chronicling the Bombay baddies from real life, whether it was Rohit Verma (Chhota Rajan’s right hand man) who started his life as a gangster with a hammer and became famous by his technique of climbing on to a bulletproof car, shattering the windshield with a hammer so someone could put the nozzle of a gun into the broken windshield and kill the person who thought they were protected, or Jenabai Daruwali who could mediate not just between gangsters but between the cops and the gangsters as well...
When the book showed up at the bookstores, with stories about how S. Hussain Zaidi read the manuscript and Penguin published the 20-year-old author, I had to find out more. But couldn’t bring myself to buy the book after browsing simply because cute bomb expert Isha in the book was nothing more than a young person’s idea of a ‘hot chick’ (pardon!). So the Netflix trailer of Red Chillies production was tops in curiosity value.
Still hate the code name Adonis (More Hrithik Roshan than Emraan Hashmi, methinks) but Emraan Hashmi is very very good as a disgraced spy turned schoolteacher (thank goodness there’s not as much Shakespeare in the show as used annoyingly in the book) and back into assignment mode. There’s something more to him than serial kissing and he has proved it again. As Kabeer Anand, he is rather interesting, broody schoolteacher who is taking care of the family of a dead comrade. Pissed off with the system that does not recognise that the two had to do what they did when on assignment. That assignment predictably is never revealed (as is the nature of the beast that is a Netflix show), but we learn slowly that they were betrayed.
That’s the very betrayal of the author to the readers: the book was written like it were a show. Sometimes, it makes the characters uni-dimensional and predictable. But I have binge watched the first season because there were other things that made the show brilliant, world class even.
But let’s get through the predictability of the characters: The Bosses of the Intelligence Agency and how they react: Shishir Sharma and Rajit Kapoor can play the roles with their eyes closed. And they’re well cast. The Pakistani counterparts are cardboard cutouts too (and mouth ‘janaab’ whenever possible). Jaideep Ahlawat is a pleasure to watch on screen. He’s the ISA baddie, working with the Taliban in Balochistan (I thought the constant use of Afghan-Taliban was redundant because they were born out of the need to liberate the Afghans). And you don’t have to be a fan to understand that he could play the betrayal game well. There is a woman associate as well. And yes, the pointless, rather blah mandatory sex scene.
The Balochi people depicted seem to live an interesting rebellious life: the daughter of the martyred leader seems to have plenty of freedom (she drives, she is allowed to express her opinions and chastise the ‘elders’ in conference; the very young son of the leader naturally takes over as leader after the death of the father; the brother-in-law looks at all times like he’s going to betray the cause… But it is the Indian undercover agent who hums along and listens to Pashto music when driving is the most interesting character, Veer. Played by Vineet Kumar Singh (whom you saw in Mukkebaaz), Veer is an Indian asset who is forgotten. He is vulnerable and yet strong, his need to finish the assignment is as great as his need to get back home. His fearlessness shows up not only in his fights with Adonis, but also when he saves the young Balochi leader. I have not mentioned Isha the cute chick who accompanies Kabeer on this dangerous mission because her character is the weakest. I hate it when women spies are made to dither when they have to shoot, and then they close their eyes...This is not a training video, It is such a shame that she is made to be ‘never killed anyone in real life’ trope. Thankfully she shoots better in the later episode. Shobhita Dhulipalia as Isha makes for a decent analyst despite the cliches. And yes, the super creepy Mulla played by Danish Husain is a convincing villain, a jihadi paedophile…
If the characters are uni-dimensional, why did I binge watch the season? The fabulous cinematography by Chirantan Das, of course. The action scenes are nothing short of brilliant whether it is the Isuzu trucks chasing each other in the dusty, rocky terrain or the gunbattle between the hero and the baddie through the narrow lanes of the settlements in Balochistan, the cinematography is mind-blowing. The camera captures the hostility of the terrain in daylight and even the nights seem to be monstrous. It is this that catapults the Indian show on to the world stage effortlessly.
On a lighter note, I am so fed up of the call dropping phenomenon on my phone in the city and I was amazed at how quickly Isha was connected with a dongle to the Net and how the Baloch people could forward videos and pictures to one another quite quickly. They seem to have better cell phone service in that mountain terrain!
I quite liked the idea of the last episode surprise reveal. As Forsyth said in The Odessa File, ‘But the words did not come. They never do, when one needs them.’ I only hope that in the second season, they simply use the book as the base and rise above it.
Am also looking forward to more content from India as I turn to Between Two Ferns-the movie on Netflix, finish the final episode of Unbelievable (which has been awesome!) and watching the Manoj Bajpai spy show called The Family Man on Amazon Prime. And also looking at You Tube tutorials of tying the scarf a la Shehzaad (Jaideep Ahlawat) like a cool cap...
Bard of Blood releases on Netflix on September 27.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
Read her columns here.
First Published: IST