Bard Of Blood cast: Emraan Hashmi, Viineet Kumar Singh and Sobhita Dhulipala
Bard Of Blood director: Ribhu Dasgupta
Bard Of Blood rating: Two and a half stars
The one thing that you are sure to do after watching the first few episodes of Netflix’s latest mega offering Bard of Blood is to Google, ‘where was Bard of Blood shot?’ Alternatively, you might type in Balochistan. Much of the show is set there, and while the makers —which include producer Shah Rukh Khan— couldn’t make it across the border to shoot, our own dry, arid terrains of Leh, Ladakh and Rajasthan make for a passably stunning Balochistan. So first things first, Bard of Blood is a mega-budget web series based on the eponymous 2015 book written by Bilal Siddiqi. The book, which was supremely detailed, has been crunched to befit a screenplay, a few elements have been heightened and the lead characters have been enhanced to a very dramatic plane. The show, directed by Ribhu Dashupta, has as its core, Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), a former agent of the Indian secret service who has been roped in for an off-the-books mission by his former mentor and father figure, Sadiq Sir (Rajit Kapoor). The mission at hand is to cross the border and rescue four Indian operatives who have been captured by the Taliban. Sounds simple enough. And for those who have followed Indian spy lore and spy narratives on screen, you know everything is possible.
Bard of Blood, while following a typical, formulaic, espionage template, tries to go for the human-heavy-on-emotion angle. We discover that relations between the former mentor/father figure and Anand have soured, courtesy a mission which went south in — you guessed it — Balochistan. No one trusts anyone. Anand has his own guilt to deal with, as he lost a dear friend and partner in the ill-fated mission in Balochistan. He now teaches English Literature at a college in Mumbai. Of course, we are not surprised when the able student is ready to go on a rogue mission, to do the bidding of his teacher. He is almost relieved to have an analyst — Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala), who has never had any prior field experience to come along for the ride. Sure, more the merrier, and to complete the trifecta, enter Veer Singh (Viineet Kumar Singh), a sleeper Indian agent who moonlights as an opium smuggler on the Pak-Afghan border. So far, so good.
But as the show progresses, the narrative falls prey to contrived writing and convenient plot devices. Keeping in tune with every spy tale ever written, the team faces hiccoughs and setbacks, and are often lagging behind in the cat-and-mouse game. Intel is gathered, information bartered, and an ex- flame appears in the nick of time. Simultaneously, we are also thrown into the deep end of international geo-politics. The Taliban and their nexus with the Pakistani military and intelligence services, the insurgency in Balochistan etc, all these are conveniently used to further the narrative, but they hold little depth. Spanning seven-episodes, the series was meant to be a slow burn, but it often drags. Melodramatic dialogues and cumbersome lines don’t match with the stellar cinematography. Lines like “Maut ki baat mat karo mujhse, maine maut ko bahut kareeb se dekha hai” don’t really work in today’s day and age, and neither does “To bury my past once and for all”. Added to this melodramatic khichdi is the flavour of personal vendetta and guilt. At times the show was strongly reminiscent of a Subhash Ghai meets Karan Johar epic. The horror. Anand’s moniker in the film is ‘Bard’ given his tendency to quote from Shakespeare, but apart from the first two episodes with token lines from Henry VIII, we don’t hear much from the Bard of Avon.
Many of the big-ticket items in the streaming world work because of the level of emotional attachment that the audience have with the characters, both big and small. Here, apart from Anand, no one else has even a trace of a back story. We know Veer’s father has Alzheimer’s, and that Isha Mathur lives with her mother. But, what else? Come on, there were seven, fifty-minute-long episodes. Surely a minute each for Khanna and Singh could have gone a long way. Singh, who is a brilliant actor and we hope to see him more, falls prey to lazy writing. An entire scene in the show is a frame by frame copy of the Murraba segment of Bombay Talkies (2013), directed by Anurag Kashyap. As for Dhulipala, she has adapted well to the non-glam avatar after her earlier appearance on the super dressy Made In Heaven.
A special note to the makers: Not all terrorists, members of the Taliban and men that side of border wear surma or kohl. Especially this dark, intense as night, non-smudge kohl, which stays put in the most violent of action sequences. And what’s with the weird Afghani/Pakistani/Baloch/Pashto accent? It all sounds like the actors were trained using old VHS tapes of Khuda Gawah.
We have not had many great spy stories in Hindi cinema, barring examples of the pioneering Ankhen (1958) and the slick Jewel Thief (1969). What has followed are offerings like Agent Vinod, The Tiger films and something forgettable like Dhishoom. This streak remains unbroken with Bard of Blood. Watch it for the beauteous surroundings shot so well that you can almost taste the brown sand. Because honestly, your chance to make it across the border in the current political climate is slim.