A bit politically, narratively and culturally muddled it might be, but Bard of Blood Season 1 reliably provides genre thrills.
This review of Bard of Blood (Netflix) Season 1 is spoiler-free.
Netflix has been making moves in India for a while now, with the nation’s heavy-hitter Sacred Games having recently enjoyed a successful second season and a smattering of other films and shows cropping up regularly to cash in on lucrative entertainment trends (the teen-focused horror series Typewriter springs to mind as a rather overt answer to Stranger Things.) But even so, Bard of Blood Season 1 feels like a big deal for the Big Red N’s relationship with the Indian subcontinent; a seven-part, multi-language, politically-charged action-espionage thriller adapted from the same-titled book by first-time writer Bilal Siddiqi, and with creative credits designed to court major Indian audiences. The good news is that it’s good. The not so good news is that it could have been quite a bit better.
Bard of Blood Season 1 opens with four agents of the Indian Intelligence Wing — the fictional equivalent of RAW — being captured by the Taliban in the tumultuous Balochistan region of Pakistan. The Taliban’s mustache-twirling Supreme Leader Mullah Khalid (Danish Husain) wants them beheaded by children as a rite of passage to manhood, but he’s talked into delaying their executions in service of a larger, more complex plan cooked up by Tanveer Shehzad (Jaideep Ahlawat), a Pakistani intelligence agent. When news of the captives reaches Sadiq Sheikh (Rajit Kapur) at the IIW, he deploys eager analyst Isha Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) to recruit a legendary agent codenamed “Adonis” in order to stage an off-the-books rescue mission.
“Adonis” is Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi), a mentally and physically scarred super-agent still haunted by a mission in Balochistan that, thanks to a mole, resulted in the death of his friend Vikram and his dishonourable discharge. Now teaching Shakespeare in Mumbai, he’s drawn back into the field by the death of a long-time associate and the promise of answers about his last, ill-fated mission. It’s the usual spy-thriller setup, warts and all, though with its potentially sharp political edges planed down to better highlight the contrast between Indian moral uprightness and cartoonish Islamic villainy.
Is this slightly irresponsible? Possibly. It also feels unintentional; Bard of Blood is much better at having things happen than explaining why they’re happening, and it often leans on simplistic ideas or ham-fisted exposition just to keep the narrative machinery whirring along. It assumes — perhaps correctly — that the bulk of its audience won’t care about the implications of its regional and cultural depictions, and so it doesn’t bother to be sensitive about them. It smacks of a general lack of foresight and polish, rather than antagonism, which makes the show easier to enjoy as a genre exercise despite its missteps. The soapy twists are easier to swallow, and the action easier to become invested in, if you don’t worry about everything else too much. Strong performances help to offset some of the obvious issues with post-production meddling and a general lack of care in the direction and staging of certain scenes, ensuring Bard of Blood Season 1 is always watchable, even if it doesn’t always convince that you wouldn’t be better off watching something else instead.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.