Bard of Blood Review: A Tiresome Spy Thriller Let Down By a Dispassionate Emraan Hashmi

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Bard of Blood Review: A Tiresome Spy Thriller Let Down By a Dispassionate Emraan Hashmi

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In the last two years, every Indian original series (Sacred Games, Selection Day, Leila) sanctioned by Netflix has in various ways demonstrated that the streaming giant’s formula for helming book adaptations isn’t the most copper-bottomed. In general, book adaptations are tricky to mount on screen. They can either serve as additives to imaginative filmmaking, broadening the scope of the book’s original universe or become outings that remain disconnected from the essence of its purpose. Netflix’s book adaptations have oscillated between both these ends. But their latest effort, Bard of Blood, an espionage thriller about an Indian spy who returns from self-inflicted retirement for a mission, is an indubitable nudge that perhaps it’s time for the streaming giant to develop a new strategy.

The most glaring dissonance of the series, adapted for the screen by Mayank Tewari, is that it feels foremost, at odds with the format it has chosen. Based on Bilal Siddiqi’s eponymous novel and directed by Ribhu Dasgupta (Te3n), Bard of Blood boasts neither the complexity nor the suspense to warrant seven episodes that run at a length upward of 45 minutes. The plot and the filmmaking are disturbingly spare – perhaps more appropriate for the duration of a two-hour film that condenses its shortcomings. But when stubbornly stretched over six hours, its shortcomings start unravelling at an alarming speed.  

Bard of Blood opens in present day (there is no mention of the year it is set in): Four Indian spies are held captive by the Taliban in Baluchistan. RAW bosses in Delhi are all too happy to wash their hands off them, but Sadiq Sheikh (Rajit Kapur), the second-in-command thinks otherwise. He calls back Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), a guilt-ridden agent dishonorably discharged after a botched mission in Baluchistan that ended with the death of his partner five years ago, to lead an off-the-books mission to rescue the men. The rest of the six episodes shuttle between Delhi and Baluchistan as Kabir and his team, Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala), a RAW analyst, and Veer Singh (a wasted Vineet Kumar), a neglected undercover agent, race against time to track the agents.

For one, Bard of Blood sticks close to the beats of a spy thriller: The show comprises a haunted protagonist looking for redemption, an intelligence agency that treats spies as liabilities, infighting and betrayals, ample flashbacks, crushing tragedy, and menacing villains who go to any lengths to send a message. There is nothing wrong for a spy thriller to take refuge in these recognisable templates as long as it strives to build on them or subvert the expectations of the audience. But Bard of Blood refuses to reimagine these beats. Instead, it regurgitates them with a one-size-fits-all approach, resembling just about any other spy thriller. Its demerits are best evidenced in “Love All, Trust a Few, Do Wrong to None,” the show’s fourth episode, which could have been nail-biting if the makers weren’t so resolute in making it utterly generic. 

The biggest victim of Bard of Blood’s incompetence is Dhulipala’s Isha whose existence is routinely undermined in every episode.

It is this episode – operating between two timelines – that ignites the plot in the truest sense of the word, laying bare the connections between its multiple narratives. It introduces Jannat (Kirti Kulhari), an idealistic Balochi secessionist forced to stand one step behind the men in her life, as well as divulges the true colours of Tanvir Shehzad (an entertaining Jaideep Ahlawat), an ISI agent in cohorts with the Taliban. Besides the fact that both of them are arguably two of the show’s most promising characters, the episode also offers a flashback to Kabir’s five-year-old mission, features a tense hand-to-hand combat sequence, and unwaps two separate betrayals. 

And yet, there is a surprising aimlessness about the way these subplots are translated on screen – they don’t intertwine seamlessly and stand out as disjointed montages instead. Much of this stems from the show’s “tell but don’t show” approach that discloses a barrage of information to highlight the urgency of the situation instead of recreating the racy pacing it demands. For instance, the flashback scenes are let down by the unhealthy reliance on a voiceover that has a rehearsed quality to it: Hashmi delivers key lines in English, as if he’s reciting poetry and not recollecting tragic fragments of his life. The combat sequences feel too disinteresting by the time the tragedy unfolds (a scene that the show goes back to at every given opportunity) and Jannat’s predictable motivations are derailed by the screen time afforded to the soulless love-story between Kabir and her.

It’s precisely why Bard of Blood is unable to convey the significance of that one revelation – involving a subterfuge on the part of the Taliban – that it parades as a crucial clue. In sepia-toned episode after episode, characters repeat this discovery to each other, convinced that it is the last missing piece of the puzzle. But by the time the show brings it up for the fourth time, the piece of information feels like an irrelevant detail, reducing the whole mission to a low-stakes affair. 

It’s a similar problem that faces Kabir, the show’s lead, who is rendered as its weakest character, devoid of any depth or charisma. The makers offer insufficient insight into his motivations or guilt beyond the obvious broad strokes. Even though, we are told that he feels responsible for “killing” his partner, we rarely sense the weight of his guilt. Moreover, the little details that make for a formidable protagonist are lacking: Kabir’s life isn’t etched out beyond that doomed shootout and there is no explanation given behind his code-name (“Adonis”), which the show promptly discards after the first episode. It also doesn’t help that Hashmi, an occassional misunderstood actor, misunderstands his role here, underplaying Kabir to an extent that he largely appears distant. 

Even then, the biggest victim of Bard of Blood’s incompetence is Dhulipala’s Isha whose existence is routinely undermined in every episode. If one character claims that “Indians won’t make the mistake of sending a woman for such a big mission,” then Kabir himself wonders why Sheikh would send a woman to Baluchistan. On her part, she spends the first two episodes complaining about not being sent on the field and pouting indiscriminately. If the intention of the makers was to highlight how female RAW agents are second-guessed in the field and not necessarily endorse that line of thinking, then it’s undone by how the show uses Dhulipala: She is made to always exist in the periphery of proceedings. Even in the dusty terrains of Baluchistan, Isha is presented as an aesthetic; her appearance untouched by the bloodiness of conflict.

More than anything, Bard of Blood feels primarily let down by a trademark Netflix Indian original problem: the inability to strike a balance between being accessible and being engrossing. It’s a tightrope that every show, barring Sacred Games, has struggled to perfect and Bard of Blood is no different, playing out more like an extended cliffhanger rather than a show. It remains gloriously ignorant about its politics and adopts a sanitised gaze, which weighs down the show’s inconsistent writing.

Unlike the Hindi dialogues, Bard of Blood’s self-conscious English lines (“Please give me the respect of a fellow warrior,” Jannat pleads in one scene), don’t flow like they are part of routine conversation. Instead, they feel like performative dialogues whose insincerity is impossible to shake off. Throughout its runtime then, Bard of Blood remains more inclined to be a series that caters to an international audience rather than taking its job of becoming an Indian series on an international platform, seriously. The trouble is, it’s a dull, awful attempt at being either.