Director - Ribhu Dasgupta
Cast - Emraan Hashmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Vineet Kumar Singh, Kirti Kulhari, Jaideep Ahlawat
Ironically for a show about espionage that tips its hat to Shakespeare, Bard of Blood is undone by its rotten writing and a glaring lack of intelligence. Unfolding across seven painfully convoluted episodes, Netflix India’s latest has neither wit, wisdom, or value. And based on expectations alone, it is the streaming service’s most disappointing Indian original series.
Arguing that Bard of Blood is intended for an audience that isn’t accustomed to dense, thought- provoking drama is disrespectful not only to millions of paying Netflix subscribers, but also to an industry that is yearning to be more ambitious. It is so disappointing to see such wonderfully talented actors, each of whom has proven themselves on multiple occasions — Raazi actor Jaideep Ahlawat has shone even in the same genre — be wasted on such drab material.
You feel for poor Vineet Kumar Singh, who was so mesmerising in Mukkabaaz, as he struggles with his accent, which is supposed to be Punjabi, but sounds like it took a hard right from Chandigarh, and entered Haryana. I have a suspicion that he re-recorded a majority of his lines in post- production, unlike his cast-mates. You feel for poor Emraan Hashmi, eternally pigeonholed in the wrong boxes, like a dignified movie star at the mercy of a stylist who insists on dressing them in ill-fitting casuals.
But nothing can compare to my dismay at seeing the glorious Sobhita Dhulipala, who has been outstanding in literally everything she has done, be reduced to an exposition machine. In one scene, when the name of a Balochistani separatist leader is mentioned, Sobhita’s character, Isha, provides viewers with a quick summary of his hypothetical Wikipedia page. “Bashir Mari?” Isha says, “Yaani Balochistan ke Yasser Arafat? Kuch saal pehle unki death hui thi. ISA ne hi maara tha unko.” She says this in the presence of two others, both of whom are guaranteed to be aware of this information already.
This happens a lot in Bard of Blood. Information that should, ideally, be relayed through story and character, is simply blurted out loud. Every emotion, every thought, every fleeting idea is verbally explained, but rarely ever shown. After a point, watching a story that relies on such inelegant means of communication becomes exhausting. You’re hearing things, but not really listening to them. For a moment, I thought I’d been transported back to school, sitting in an unbearably boring class.
But even my maths lessons was occasionally more enjoyable than the seven hours it took for me to finish Bard of Blood, a show that feels at once glossy, yet bafflingly cheap. Based on the 2015 novel by Bilal Siddiqi, it tells the story of former spy Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), who is plucked from his life as a Shakespeare professor at a Mumbai college, and hurled headfirst into a dangerous mission in Balochistan. Kabir has a personal history with the region, and with the Indian intelligence agency that threw him under the bus after a botched job there several years ago.
I must confess that I haven’t read the book, but I am aware that several key changes have been made to the text. For instance, the names of the Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies have been tweaked, and Isha Khan has been renamed Isha Khanna. I wonder why; her name certainly bore no relevance to her character. But I was pleasantly surprised by how Bard of Blood avoided jumping on the patriotic bandwagon, especially when it could have, so easily, turned into a celebration of national pride. Neither is it antagonistic towards Pakistan, which, in today’s turbulent times, comes across as a minor miracle.
The central objective of Kabir’s mission requires him and his team — he is joined by the rookie Isha and the veteran Veer (Vineet) — to go rogue as they infiltrate enemy territory and attempt to rescue four Indian spies who’ve been kidnapped by the Taliban.
There are several interesting ideas in this premise that Bard of Blood flirts with, but never fully commits to exploring. It could, for instance, have examined the idea of patriotism, and how tragically some agents are treated by the government. The four kidnapped spies are considered collateral damage by the agency, whose flat-out refusal to stage a rescue compels Kabir to take matters into his own hands in the first place. But even in captivity, the prisoners of war display a sort of blind faith in their country that begs to be scrutinised, but is sidelined in favour of scenes that serve absolutely no purpose in the plot.
For example, on one occasion, Kabir concocts an elaborate plan to have himself kidnapped in order to arrange a meeting with a young separatist, when all he needed to do was simply knock on his door. They are old acquaintances. And then there is the objectively pointless romantic track, which was quite literally shoehorned in; it did not exist in the book. Again, handled with a delicate touch, the romantic storyline could have breached some morally dubious themes, in addition to making grand humanist statements, but Bard of Blood’s stilted writing makes Murder 2 look like Before Sunrise.
It is one thing to have a poor script to begin with, but the problems metastasise when neither the filmmaking nor the acting is able to elevate it. Director Ribhu Dasgupta maintains a consistently messy style, and handles the multiple threads by routinely tangling them up. But there is little he could have done with the material he had.
Ladakh doubling for Balochistan provided him with a suitably large natural sandbox to play inside, but the extras are laughably exaggerated, and the locations are distractingly glossy for a war zone. They don’t have a lived-in feel — instead, the several towns and villages our central trio visit appear to have been dressed mere hours before their arrival. The scenes set in Mumbai and New Delhi, meanwhile, give off a distinct whiff of having been completed in haste.
To discuss Bard of Blood’s handling of the very real, very relevant socio-political context of its story would be admitting that the show should be taken seriously. It shouldn’t. The very idea that a series which reduces Islamic terrorists to sloganeering, kohl-eyed caricatures can exist in the same world as Raazi, or even Amazon’s The Family Man, is mildly aggravating.
All this is evidence of a troubled production; of a building that was, in typical Indian fashion, constructed despite a rocky foundation, upon unstable land, and with subpar raw material.