Not even the impressive shoot-outs are enough to redeem this clunker of an espionage drama involving Indian and Pakistani intelligence operatives, the Taliban and campaigners for Balochi independence.
Director: Ribhu Dasgupta
Writers: Bilal Siddiqi (novel), Mayank Tewari, Gaurav Verma
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Sobhita Dhulipala, Vineet Kumar Singh, Kirti Kulhari, Jaideep Ahlawat
“Jo chaaho woh har baar mil jaaye, toh zindagi aur khwaab mein fark kya reh jayega?” (If we get all that we wish for, then what would be the difference between life and dreams?). This dialogue from Bard of Blood holds true for those who were looking forward to the show, which promised cutting-edge action drama.
Cross-border terrorism, Indian and Pakistani intelligence, the Taliban, Balochistan’s liberation movement, an off-the-book rescue mission and Shakespeare references… Bard of Blood had all the makings of an Indian espionage thriller for the ages. A high-profile collaboration between Netflix and Red Chillies Entertainment, the show was one of the most anticipated web series of the year. But in their ambitious attempt to treat the audience to Hollywood grade action, the makers have neglected something far more important, the script.
The story begins with four Indian agents in Balochistan getting captured by Talibs. The Taliban chief Mullah Khalid (Danish Hussain) is about to have them executed when Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat), the Taliban handler of the ISA (fictional equivalent of the ISI), intervenes and convinces him to spare the four men for a short while. Shehzad apparently has a plan that would serve the greater good.
Back in New Delhi, Sadiq Shaikh (Rajit Kapoor), the operations director of the IIW (fictional equivalent of RAW), summons his old protege Kabir Anand aka Adonis (Emraan Hashmi) in order to send him to Balochistan to rescue the captured agents. Kabir is a former spy who now teaches Shakespeare to school kids, hence the title Bard of Blood. He’s also frequently inclined to quote the bard. That’s pretty much the extent of Shakespeare in this show, making the association seem like juvenile literary swagger on the writers’ part.
Kabir is dealing with the trauma of a botched operation in Balochistan five years ago that led to the death of his comrade and best friend Vikramjeet (Sohum Shah), and is therefore hesitant to return. But a sudden change in circumstances compels him to launch an unsanctioned mission along with Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala), the Balochistan analyst for IIW. They also bring in Veer Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh), an agent in Afghanistan nearly forgotten by the agency, and together they enter Balochistan.
What ensues is a series of directionless high-octane action sequences that seem almost independent to the plot. In the first few episodes the story hardly moves forward, with our three protagonists simply running for their lives. The action sequences, though shot spectacularly with gorgeous aerial shots of the landscape, are unbelievable most of the time. Our trio is outnumbered by the enemy every single time, yet they manage to escape without much harm. During the climax, a fancy motorcycle materialises in the middle of nowhere for Kabir to ride.
The makers of the show have visibly drawn from Hollywood. A combat scene in a public bathroom reminds one of a similar episode in Mission Impossible: Fallout. Mullah Khalid, the Taliban chief, is portrayed a paedophile, a feature evidently borrowed from The Kite Runner. Yet, the show is riddled with Bollywood cliches. The Talibs and Balochis have generous amounts of kohl in their eyes. There’s a romantic angle that’s wholly unnecessary. And the hero decides to kill the bad guy with his bare hands (and suffer few blows in return) when he could have shot him point blank.
Some aspects of the story just don’t add up. Kabir hatches a plan to get himself kidnapped in order to meet an old acquaintance, when he could have just knocked on his door. Veer Singh has spent years shuttling between Afghanistan and Balochistan and has successfully infiltrated a Taliban group, yet he is shown to be incompetent on a number of occasions (Kabir calls him the weak link in the team). Isha has no experience on the field and displays hesitation in killing a man early on. But as the show progresses, she wields an AK-47 effortlessly and kills enemies by the dozen. Jannat Marri (Kirti Kulhari), who is Balochistan Azad Force (BAF) leader Nusrat Marri’s (Abhishekh Khan) sister, speaks Hindi flawlessly while the rest of the Balochis (including her family members) converse either in Pashto or heavily accented Hindi.
The entire cast puts in a decent performance, a consolation for the below-par script. Emraan Hashmi does well as Kabir Anand, even though his character is so arrogant that his painful backstory fails to elicit much sympathy. Vineet Kumar Singh is wonderful as the under-appreciated Veer. The brilliant Sobhita Dhulipala is terribly underused. Her character is generally at the mercy of her two male colleagues, and is time and again subject to misogynistic barbs. Kirti Kulhari, meanwhile, has a more powerful role and does justice as the young matriarch of the Marri family, flag-bearers of Balochistan’s liberation movement. Jaideep Ahlawat is terrific as the cunning and ever-scheming Pakistani intelligence operative, Tanveer Shehzad.
The cliffhanger ending in the last episode indicated that season two is on the cards. We can only hope that the makers will pull up their socks and redeem themselves the second time around.