“It is a tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” –
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
“Ne’er hath a quote so apt
Doth describe a travesty as grave as this”!
The first, as the erudite will know, is a quote from the legendary Macbeth. And we’re astonished at how perfectly it describes Bard of Blood, the latest Indian Original offering from Netflix.
The last is a humble attempt from yours truly, to describe a piece of content that is but a sheer waste of precious resources, ultimately leading to a creation of no real significance. So if Bilal Siddiqi, Gaurav Verma and Mayank Tewari, the writers of the web series, can invoke the Bard of Avon to unleash their travesty on unsuspecting netizens, then so can we, Milord, so can we.
When Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and Netflix had announced Bard of Blood in 2017, an adaptation of Bilal Siddiqi’s eponymous novel, the collaboration between the two giants of entertainment had left the digital audience licking its lips in anticipation of a high octane spy thriller, expecting a spectacle the likes of which India had never produced before.
Circa 2019; what we got instead was a ho-hum masala entertainer masquerading as a slick and sophisticated espionage thriller of international standards. Truth be told, Bard of Blood is as amateurish a production as the writer of its source material was, when he had first written the novel. For the uninitiated, Bilal Siddiqi was all of twenty, and still in college, when he had written his debut novel, Bard of Blood.
Ribhu Dasgupta is credited with the direction of the book-to-screen adaptation, while Red Chillies, as mentioned earlier, are the producers.
The story goes thus – Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi) is a teacher of Shakespeare in a Mumbai school, hence the allusion to the Bard in the title of the show. He therefore has a penchant for quoting the most celebrated playwright in the history of the written word, at opportune moments. And no, there’s no other reason whatsoever for the Bard reference.
In another time and age, five years ago that is, Kabir Anand was Adonis – the most respected and admired spy of the IIW, short for the Indian Intelligence Wing (the fictionalized version of the Indian Intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW as it is called).
A disastrous mission in Pakistan-Balochistan five years ago costs Kabir the life of his closest friend cum colleague Vikramjeet (Sohum Shah), his job as a spy and his peace of mind, all at one go. The trauma of losing his friend to a foolish blunder on his part refuses to go away, and even now, five years later, he suffers from nightmares of the incident.
Kabir, aka Adonis, is plucked, nay kidnapped, out of oblivion by his mentor, Sadiq Sheikh (Rajit Kapur), through his latest protégé, Isha (Sobhita Dhulipala), to carry out a risky operation. Four Indian agents have been captured by the Taliban in the Kech area of Balochistan while they are transferring some super secretive and super explosive information to Sadiq Sheikh, who is the Director of Intelligence at IIW. Said explosive piece of info is never revealed to us, the audience, till the end of the seven episodes of the season.
Sadiq Sheikh’s boss at IIW, Arun Joshi (Shishir Sharma) refuses point blank to rescue the four captured Indian agents, because apparently, a high level Chinese delegation is to arrive in New Delhi in less than a week. The Taliban can behead them, for all he cares. As he says, spies must be ready to sacrifice their lives for the country at the drop of a hat.
On the other side of the border, the Pakistani ISA agent and Taliban handler, Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat), doesn’t want Taliban leader, Mullah Khalid (Danish Husain), to behead the four agents – again, because of the Chinese. The ISA is short for Inter Services Agency (again, a fictionalised version of the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency). He coaxes the Taliban leader to keep the agents alive as bargaining chips with the Pakistani government.
Laughably, the reason both sides, that is the IIW and the ISA, behave the way they do is because the Chinese will reprimand both India and Pakistan if they discover that Indian agents have been captured spying on the Taliban in Pakistan. Since when has India been bothered about what the Chinese think, pray tell us?
But Sajid Sheikh isn’t ready to give up on his agents yet, and harangues Kabir into undertaking a dare-devil unsanctioned mission to Balochistan to get the four men out. His partners in crime are to be the rookie agent Isha, and a long-forgotten-and-forsaken-by-the-agency-Indian-spy in Balochistan named Veer Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh). From the number of its agents the Indian agency has apparently abandoned, it seems to have elevated the skill into an art form.
Veer Singh has been living in Balochistan for seven years and has infiltrated the Taliban, working as an opium transporter for the dreaded organisation.
An unfortunate murder galvanises Kabir into action and he enters enemy territory, diving headfirst into the hotbed of strife, regional politics and lawlessness that is the Baloch-Afghan-Pak border area.
What follows is a cat and mouse chase so juvenile that it makes Tom and Jerry cartoons look like something straight out of a slick spy flick. Most of the time, the trio of spies looks startled/confused/clueless (choose what you will) as deer caught in headlights. Their hair-brained, ill-considered plans go awry, more often than not. Several times along the way, they are on the verge of getting caught; but they manage to escape each time, because, well, they are the good guys, aren’t they? All three seem to be playing a game of one-upmanship as to who bungles the most.
Isha keeps calling up her analyst colleague in Delhi for help, even though it’s clear as day that he’s squealing on them to big boss Joshi. On the one hand, she wants to prove herself in the field, and on the other, she trembles at having to shoot a Talibani. How utterly illogical, for crying out loud! Not only that, she’s the most despondent and pessimistic spy one can ever have the misfortune to encounter. Several times in the show, she spouts lines such as “it’s over”, and “there’s no way out”, and more, along similar lines.
Veer’s is another poorly-conceived character. For a spy who has managed to infiltrate the Taliban, arguably, one of the most dreaded and brutal radicalised outfits in the world, Veer is woolly-headed and a total dunce. Each time the onus of a plan falls on him, he manages to botch it up, and badly at that. And he jumps at Joshi’s offer to bail him out of the country – effectively a bid on Joshi’s part to stymie Kabir’s mission – with no thought whatsoever for the lives of his fellow agents.
And about Kabir Anand’s character, the less said the better. Rarely has the lead character of a supposedly high octane show, a spy thriller at that, been as uninspiring and unremarkable as Kabir. The guy has zero deduction skills, is woefully lacking in intuitive abilities and makes impulsive decisions that hardly become a world class spy.
All three address each other by their Indian names, even in the midst of crowds, and from at least ten feet away. Shouldn’t spies be careful with every word they drop from their mouths, especially in a region as strife-prone as the setting of the show, where even the walls have ears and the wind picks up carelessly-thrown clues? Also, at no point of time in the series does the troika of spies display a sense of urgency or resolve to get to the bottom of the explosive reveal of the four covert Indian agents. Isha, especially, speaks in a slow, languid drawl, which makes one seriously doubt her zeal and passion for her craft.
Given the dodgy narrative and characterizations, it’s a wonder everything falls into place in the end. But then, it must, coz it’s fiction after all; the course of which is decided by the writers and director, however implausible it may seem to the viewer.
The only characters in the show that do make us sit up and take notice are the Balochi Marri family. Right from the patriarch of the family, to the young heir, Nusrat, to his sister Jannat Marri (Kirti Kulhari), who’s also Kabir Anand’s lady love, the Marri family is the only one that exhibits some semblance of drive and urgency. Jannat Marri’s entry into the plot, and her short but powerful role, helps the otherwise dragging series to pick up steam in the latter three episodes.
Apart from the lacklustre writing, Bard of Blood suffers from an appalling reinforcing of ludicrous stereotypes. The Talibanis sport dark slashes of Kohl in their eyes, along with the customary beard and the black thread about their necks. The concept of ‘bachabaazi’ (using young pre-pubescent boys for sexual pleasure) is randomly thrust into the narrative, only because it is the Taliban we are dealing with.
Women are considered lesser mortals, with almost every crucial character in the narrative expressing surprise at the inclusion of a female in the risky Baloch mission. And to top it all, the female spy Isha does everything possible to prove all those naysayers right. The Taliban chief is killed in a fashion straight out of a yesteryear B-grade Bollywood potboiler. If the Taliban was as dumb in reality as the writers of Bard of Blood have made them out to be, taking them down would have been a cakewalk for the Americans.
Most distressing was the skimming-the-surface of Baloch politics, without bothering to really get into the infinitely convoluted reality of insurgency in the region, or the actual reasons for it.
Lastly, we found the attempt at appearing erudite and knowledgeable – quoting Casablanca at one point, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and its oft-quoted mantra at another – rather forced and quite unnecessary. We are compelled to quote Shakespeare here for the creators of the show, if only to prove a point – “To thine own self be true”.
Honestly speaking, Bard of Blood is brimming with quite a lot that’s wrong. Right from the sloppy dialogues, to the shoddy characterization, and the average acting, to even the twist at the end of the seventh and last episode of the season (believe us when we tell you that we had a hunch that this would be the twist in the tale), there’s not much that really clicks for the show or makes it memorable. If we were to list out all the things that didn’t quite cut it in the narrative, we would need reams of space, but well, we’ll stop for now, for we have far exceeded our quota of words.
If something does stand out in the mess that is Bard of Blood, it is the breath-taking visuals of the sandy, mountainous, alluringly jagged terrain that is depicted as Balochistan. The long, winding roads, juxtaposed with the sharp hilly ranges on one side and the glittering emerald river snaking along on the other side, lend a surreal quality to the setting and the backdrop. The visuals are compelling enough to make one want to Google the locations the series was shot in, which turned out to be Leh, Ladakh and Rajasthan. Shot leisurely and lovingly by cinematographer Chirantan Das, the gold-flecked visuals are just that – gold standard.
The Bard must be turning in his grave this very moment, at the ignominy of being associated, if only as part of a title, with a series as singularly lacking in inventiveness as Bard of Blood. If he were around today, he would definitely have summed it up thus – “Much ado about nothing”.
In the meanwhile, 2.5/5 is our rating for Bard of Blood.