Kashmir has other stories to tell as well: 'Mukhbir' actor Zain Durrani
"People always look at Kashmir in a certain way. Frankly, there’s more to Kashmir than focusing on the trouble and violence in the region in the movies," says Kashmiri actor Zain Durrani, who plays the lead role in Zee5 spy fiction 'Mukhbir - The Story of a Spy'
Mukhbir – The Story of a Spy, in which Kashmiri actor Zain Durrani plays the lead role of an Indian secret agent, is more than a spy thriller. Set in the time just before India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, the series, which is streaming on Zee5, is also a historical fiction, as it is based on a book by a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) joint director, the late Maloy Krishna Dhar.
The book Mission to Pakistan: An Intelligence Agent in Pakistan is set against the backdrop of a volatile time in the history of relations between India and Pakistan. It details the tumultuous life of a secret agent who manages to cross the border into Pakistan, marries a Pakistani woman and has a family with her. However, his cover gets blown after another Indian agent is caught at the border and he is arrested to languish in a Pakistani jail for years.
However, Mukhbir, which starts off at a stuttering pace before picking up momentum, tells the story of a young Kashmiri orphan, Harfan Bukhari (essayed by Zain Khan Durrani), a commoner and glib talker, who is roped in by an IB officer (Prakash Raj) and sent to Pakistan to gather sensitive intel on Pakistan’s plans to attack India, and learn more about the military strategy behind their Operation Grand Slam. At that time, this was all part of Pakistan’s attempts to jeopardize India’s control of Kashmir and bring them to the negotiating table.
As Bukhari charms his way around as the long-lost son of a simple Pakistani family, the series is also about his transformative journey from a cocky, happy-go-lucky, youth into a cold-blooded, ruthless spy who does not hesitate to stain his hands with blood for his country.
Based on real-life IB officials
Some of the characters in the series are based on real life IB officials. Prakash Raj’s character SKS Moorthy is based on real life IB and RAW director, the late KS Nair, while Adil Hussein dons the hat of RAW founder RN Kao, as Ramkishore Negi. The audience gets a rare glimpse of how the intelligence agency operated in the early days sans advanced spy equipment and resources.
They are the ones behind the scenes orchestrating Harlan’s moves as he networks his way into the higher echelons of Pakistani society and manages to connect with the major general Agha Khan (based on Yahya Khan). Harfan also gets to romance Agha Khan’s mistress, a ghazal singer, Begum Anar (Barkha Bisht) who is at a vulnerable stage grappling with a fading singing career. The Pakistani army men, however, in this series are either shown as bumbling fools or pompous, deluded men.
The Indian Intelligence is also a clueless bunch tussling with ineffective Russian Intel equipment and lack of resources to plant spies in Pakistan. Much like Raazi, Mukhbir tries to tap into the anguish and guilt spies grapple with as they betray the trust of innocent people they befriend and love in Pakistan.
Armed with Harfan’s crucial intel, the series shows Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri making that bold and affirmative decision to actually storm Lahore in Pakistan, while the neighbouring country is busy attacking far-away Akhnoor near Jammu, with the purpose of cutting Kashmir off from India.
Mukhbir incorporates footage of news of the war, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s address to the nation ahead of it, and newspaper clippings of how the 1965 war played out. On how the Air Force comes to the aid of Indian soldiers bravely fighting Patton tanks on the ground. A lot of real history gets woven into the series at this point, which makes it engaging. The series is not without its flaws but the production design and strong writing effectively transport you to that time.
This eight-episode series has gained a lot of traction after its release last month and is becoming as popular as the other OTT spy thriller series, Kay Kay Menon’s Special Ops on Disney+Hotstar. Here are excerpts from an interview with Zain Durrani, the lead actor in Mukhbir.
The actor who came in from the cold
For Zain Durrani, the Kashmiri actor who plays Harfan with singular sincerity and conviction, the portrayal of these historical events in the series in which he got the plum role of an Indian spy, is an eye-opener. He feels every young Indian should know about them. “The series goes back in time to explore a certain space and era. It is essential for young people like me to understand what our country waded through before it reached where we are now. It is important to keep the contributions of the stalwarts, our soldiers, our spies and leaders, alive in our heads,” he says in a conversation with The Federal on Zoom.
Durrani is only a few films old, having done Onir’s Kuch Bheege Alfaz, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara (where he plays the protagonist’s friend who turns into a militant), and Bell Bottom, the 2021 Akshay Kumar action thriller where he played the role of hijacker Daljeet Singh Dodi. But playing the lead in this series has been a leg-up for the handsome Kashmiri in the competitive world of Bollywood.
Durrani, who was born in a Srinagar suburb to a Kashmiri Pathan family and did his schooling in Kashmir, has talked in the past of the worst part of growing up in a “tumultuous and politically unstable state” and insidiously getting used to the violence around.
In his interview with The Federal, however, Durrani wants to steer clear of talking about Kashmir’s troubles or wading into The Kashmir Files controversy. He prefers to remain “neutral”, on being asked about the row over the film, pointing out that there are other stories about Kashmir that need to be brought on celluloid.
What Kashmir offers
“People always look at Kashmir in a certain way. But there are a lot of other stories waiting to be told. Frankly, there’s more to Kashmir than focusing on the trouble and violence in the region in the movies,” he says
Kashmir’s rich history is teeming with amazing stories about the kings and people who had lived in the region, he says. “Pick up any history book on Kashmir, there’s so much literature about its past and they are replete with stories. For example, besides the fact that Kashmir figured on the Silk Route, there’re books like the legendary and historical chronicle of the kings of Kashmir, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (River of Kings); Kashmir, the Land of Kashyapa, the saga of the Kashmiri Pandits (by CK Gariyali), all of which, I am sure filmmakers and OTT platforms can tap for solid material to make films,” he points out.
In Mukhbir – The Story of a Spy, Durrani plays a Kashmiri and though the series is not set in Kashmir, it figures largely in this spy drama. On the danger of being typecast in Kashmiri roles, he says: “Bollywood is highly competitive. There are only a few openings and a lot of people chasing them. While cinema is a medium of art, it is also a fairly lucrative business. Investors will look at the story and casting from a business angle rather than the angle of art, which is justified, I think. It is not like, chalo let’s give this new idea or actor a chance. They only look at what is saleable. If a film is based in a particular region it is easy for them to cast people from there so that these actors can depict the character realistically.”
To put it in a nutshell, he continues, there is an argument for and against it. “It is up to us Kashmiri actors to convince people that we can do roles outside that ‘construct’ as well,” he adds.
Kashmir to Bollywood
Beside old-timers like Anupam Kher and AK Raina, a lot of young Kashmiri actors like Kunal Khemmu, Mohit Raina and Manav Kaul have in the recent past made a bid for Bollywood and are making a mark. In no measure, OTT has also helped to spread the good word about these actors.
Points out Durrani: “I am glad a lot of Kashmiris are entering Bollywood — be it filmmakers, writers, actors – I hope to see more of them. At the end of the day, this will help us to create an industry back home in Kashmir and that industry will be essential to tell other kinds of stories about Kashmir.”
Spy thriller genre and playing a spy
Bollywood has been exploring this spy thriller genre quite extensively, he admits, rattling off film titles like Naam Shabana, Raazi, Baby and Bell Bottom.
Mukhbir is more about this transformative journey of how an ordinary guy becomes a secret agent. It is about the sacrifices of these unsung heroes told in a simple way. It delves into the mind of the spy, he says.
For Durrani, keeping the character real and grounded has been the challenge. “So, for me, it was essential to keep it real and not play him as a heroic character from the start. It was the making of a spy, situations turn him into a hero. He’s brash, eccentric at times, has a certain courage and a certain sense of wit about him. I had to keep him fairly human and keep a safe distance from getting into a hero zone,” explains the actor earnestly.
That was the challenge for this actor, who sees the future of Bollywood in actors like Rajkummar Rao. Durrani also never read Dhar’s book on which the series is based. “If the directors had asked me, I would have read the book. But they did not want me to cloud the vision they had about the character. I just extensively read and delved into the script,” he says.
Of late, Bollywood has been scrambling for stories, tapping novels to inspire them (Zee5 too has taken many novels and adapted them into series, including Indranil Sanyal’s edgy medical thriller Karkatkranti) and remaking south movies. On these trends, Durrani says:”That’s because the South film industry is doing better work. Their success lies in taking up fairly simple stories — what were Malayalam movies Angamaly Diaries and Kumbalangi Nights all about? They are stories from small towns and villages and the writers go there and sit and write their stories. I love these stories that lie in the periphery of lives. And, they are totally sincere to the environment they set their stories in.”
He raved about South films like Kantara with its intensely regional flavour, saying he’s fascinated by such story-telling. “It is clear that south filmmakers are finding these fascinating stories that India is full of and making movies around them. Hindi cinema too needs to find these interesting subjects to stay relevant,” he says.