Like Sacred Games, which dropped its second season last month, Bard of Blood is also a book-to-screen adaptation based on Bilal Siddiqi’s 2015 bestseller. It’s helmed by Ribhu Dasgupta (Te3n, Yudh) and is produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. Also like rival streaming service Amazon Prime Video’s recently released The Family Man, it involves espionage.
The similarity ends right there; the two shows could not be more different.
If the Manoj Bajpayee-led series is set apart in how it juggles the domestic and deadly, Bard of Blood is a sombre by-the-numbers, spy thriller spanning India, Pakistan, Baluchistan and Afghanistan.
Though I have not read Siddiqi’s novel, which I believe he wrote at the age of 20 while still a student of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, the Web series exhibits a fair amount of slickness and scale.
Told over seven episodes and 311 minutes running time, Bard of Blood — written by Mayank Tewari — works up several moments of intrigue and drama but falls short of culminating into a satisfying watch.
It’s as if Bard of Blood is holding back and consciously not showing all its cards in anticipation of a Season 2 — the twist at the end is a pretty obvious indication of one. As a result of this forced ambiguity, the characters and their motives suffer, often feeling half-baked and sloppy.
If I keep you in the loop, you will start looking for loopholes, says one character justifying his action of withholding information. Perhaps Bard of Blood shares his views.
At its centre is an unsanctioned rescue mission carried out as a dead man’s wish by his favourite protegees.
Following the capture of four Indian agents by Afghani Taliban, a previously ‘dishonourably discharged’ intelligence agent, Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi) has no choice but to give up his school teacher duties and embark on a long, arduous quest alongside Isha Khanna, an analyst (Sobhita Dhulipala) on her first field job and Veer Singh, an undercover agent (Viineet Kumar Singh) desperate to return home.
Kabir is in it for personal reasons. A nightmare early on reveals memories of an assignment gone wrong and the loss of his workmate (Sohum Shah) burdening his guilty conscience that won’t let the man be.
Taking refuge in Shakespeare inspires a touch of comfort to him as well as the title of its seven episodes ranging from Hamlet (My stronger guilt defeats my stronger intent) to All’s Well That Ends Well (Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none).
More of a stylish tool to compensate for the wisdom it cannot raise on its own, the Bard’s words ring hollow in the absence of context.
While Kabir and team are on to a series of misadventures where every move is a major blunder and still leads them closer to their objective because the creator wished so, enemies flourish on the side doing less, implying lots.
This inert nature of antagonism is shaken out of slumber intermittently to throw in gunners and guards and give Kabir some challenge and the narrative its thrills.
In classic Bollywood tradition, the adversary is denied even the possibility of grey in the unquestioned authority of a sinister Pakistani spy (Jaideep Ahlawat).
The troublemaker’s influence on his puppet-like superior and bargains around the creepy Taliban chief (Danish Hussain), a fictionalised Mullah Omar, and his fierce son (Ashiesh Nijhawa) provide Bard of Blood its straightforward conflict.
The more interesting angle of this broadly tackled Indo-Pak geopolitical mess is in the acknowledgement of Baluchistan’s liberation movement.
But Bard of Blood treats it superficially and as cliched device to digress into a short-lived romance and wobbly dynasty politics.What emerges triumphant is a confident turn by the always reliable Kirti Kulhari.
Considering the treacherous political and terror-laden landscapes it treads on, Bard of Blood is oddly sanitised in its violence. You seldom feel the stakes, the urgency, the tension and the terror of its three-against-tons odds. Five plus hours is a substantial time to flesh out characters and establish a camaraderie between Kabir, Isha and Veer.
It’s funny how they keep talking about being a team but there’s nothing to uphold those claims. Besides Kabir, none of the other characters have the luxury of an emotional presence. Isha’s struggle with gender bias is skimmed through and Veer’s homesickness is barely tapped into. The bad guys don’t have it any better.
We see glimpses of Ahlawat’s no-strings attached arrangement around an assistant and hear mentions of Taliban head’s paedophilia but it never adds up.
Scattered in different corners of a bleak terrain full of craggy walls and dusty roads (Ladakh and Rajasthan masquerading as different parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) sans a steady arc to pursue, it’s up to the actors to follow their instincts and create an environment of heft and jeopardy. They don’t disappoint one bit. It’s what draws you in despite the predictability and pretentions of a stale premise.
Emraan Hashmi’s sturdy reserve and emotional eruptions cut a realistic picture of a spy who knows better than he is believed to. Although a tad too put together for a person operating from a space of grit and grime, Sobhita uses her inherent poise and smarts to assert she’s earned the right to be where she is. The incredible Vineet shows he’s capable of doing so much with so little. Sly manipulations aren’t novel territory for Jaideep Ahlawat. His talent lies in not making it monotonous. Danish Hussain’s comfort in Pashto is as sound as his capability to appear menacing without turning into a caricature.
I wish Bard of Blood would go in darker places with him. Or as the original Bard would say, Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.