One of India’s most acclaimed directors and producers, Vishal Bhardwaj is making his Netflix debut with spy thriller Khufiya, starring Tabu, Ali Fazal and Wamiqa Gabbi.

Set to stream worldwide from October 5, the film is based on the novel ‘Escape To Nowhere’, written by Amar Bhushan, the former chief of counter espionage at India’s foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). 

Tabu plays Krishna Mehra, a RAW operative grappling with her dual identity as a spy and a lover when assigned to investigate a colleague who appears to have leaked information that led to the death of her girlfriend in Bangladesh. Fazal plays the colleague, an agent with complex motives for his disloyalty, while Gabbi plays his wife, an unwitting accomplice who is placed under close surveillance by RAW operatives in Delhi.

Bhushan’s novel is meant to be fiction but is clearly based on some of the real-life cases he encountered while working at RAW. Bhardwaj says he optioned the book years ago, but as he had so many other projects on the go, put it in a drawer. “It wasn’t the easiest read, because Bhushan is not a fiction writer, but he went into an amazing amount of detail about secret missions and operations that nobody else had ever dared to write,” Bhardwaj says. 

He didn’t revisit the book until late actor Irrfan Khan brought it to his attention some years before his death. “Irrfan said he’d met the writer and was very keen to play the protagonist,” Bhardwaj remembers. “So I renewed the rights and wrote it for Irrfan. But then he fell sick. I met him once when he was going for treatment, and he said, ‘please don’t make the film with anyone else, you have to make it with me’.” 

Khan died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 53. Bhardwaj was so distressed that he felt the only way he could make the film was to change the protagonist role completely. So he rewrote the role for a woman and cast Tabu, an award-winning actress he’s worked with in two of his Shakespeare adaptations, Maqbool and Haider. Like Khan, with whom she’d starred in Mira Nair’s The Namesake, Tabu is well known to international audiences, also through credits including Life Of Pi and Nair’s BBC series A Suitable Boy. 

The film marks the first time Bhardwaj has made a spy thriller, but he describes it as being more of a drama than a thriller, as it focuses on the characters’ deep-rooted emotional conflicts, which is something he’s become known for through his Shakespeare adaptations as well as films such as Kaminey and Seven Sins Forgiven (7 Khoon Maaf). 

“I’d say it’s more of a character study of a woman than an action film, but if I had to make comparisons I’d say the closest reference is The Lives Of Others,” Bhardwaj says. “It’s also very different to the kind of roles that Tabu has played before.”