Synopsis – Raazi is a 2018 period-thriller film directed by Meghna Gulzar, starring Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal in lead roles. The story revolves around an Indian spy married to a Pakistani man during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
My Take – While Bollywood is still reeling in from the major success of the Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif led actioner, Tiger Zinda Hai, we have yet another spy thriller to offer their take on patriotism. While in most cases, sides are taken, enemies are identified, and a triumphant gaze necessitates pitting one shade of patriotism over the other, in the rule book of Bollywood patriotism, there can be no greater win than hyper-nationalism. But unlike other spy thrillers, director Meghna Gulzar shatters this very trend, doing what most patriotic films don’t even think about, i.e, humanizing the genre.
Here, director Meghna Gulzar, whose last release was the astute 2015 film, Talvar, stays away from all kinds of jingoism, while questioning our thoughts over the unsung heroes & their selfless motives to keep India at peace. In an era where intolerant, chest-beating jingoism is the new moniker for patriotism, and where crimes can be committed with impunity in the name of loving one’s country, the film manages to nuance the idea of patriotism, and lace it with a conscience. Based on retired Navy officer Harinder Sikka’s 2008 book, Calling Sehmat, this devoid of any massive stunts, exploding cars, and thrilling chases, uses a more subtle and realistic approach, with a promise to delve into the behind-the-scene action, making the film ultimately more powerful as a result. With a showcase of strong performances matched by realistic dialogues helped by a strong score, the film does indeed set a benchmark for Indo-Pak theme films.
Set in 1971, right before the Indo-Pakistani War that led to the liberation of East Pakistan aka Bangladesh, the story follows Sehmat Khan (Alia Bhatt), a gentle Kashmiri girl studying in Delhi University. Her family now headed by her aging father, Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapoor), has been in the espionage business for at least two generations, and by using the pretext of business dealings, has been traveling back and forth between India and Pakistan, all the while building friendships and connections on the other side of the border, namely, Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma). However, as his health has been deteriorating, he is convinced that his daughter Sehmat, can pick up where left off.
In order to enable that, Hidayat arranges her to get married to Major Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal), Brigadier Syed’s youngest son, on whom she is expected to spy in order to find out as to what is their country planning against her country, all after Sehmat undergoes rigorous training under Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), the head of India’s intelligence agency. Once in the neighboring country, she starts siphoning information back to India, while also playing the role of a loving wife and diligent daughter-in-law to the hilt. While tensions begin to build up between India and Pakistan just before the war of 1971, Sehmat is compelled to provide undercover information about Pakistan’s secret plans that eventually led to the Ghazi Attack.
Yes, this is a sensitive subject and it treads a thin line. However, a tale that could have easily ended up as another jingoistic offering from Bollywood, has being dealt sensibly, thanks to the refined purview of director Meghna Gulzar. In fact, the beauty of this heart-stopping, heartbreaking espionage drama lies in the fact that, in the era of chest-thumping nationalism and hate-mongering that we live in, this India-Pakistan saga holds out an unexpected healing touch. She looks at the story not just objectively, but balances it so well that you forget that in the current times there is so much tension brewing between the two countries. While from the opening to the last scene of flashes of a projector on the screen the story clearly outlines the failed relationship between the neighboring nations, don’t be mistaken to consider this to be a war based period drama, but instead it is an over the seat thriller with few intense moments that come unexpected. The way the story unfolds layer by layer delights your senses and all you wish is to keep up with ongoing events.
What is most admirable about the film is Sehmat’s character, she isn’t a clinical spy, brutal or heartless. Even though we get nervous seeing what Sehmat does in the film, ultimately it’s an empathy that we feel for her. Camouflaging under the garb of a newly-wed, and risking her life every minute, Alia Bhatt‘s Sehmat draws you in to her world so much so that your heart thereafter beats along with hers. Director Meghna Gulzar knows the fact that audiences are intelligent enough to understand what could be the end result of the mission and therefore the focus is rightly on the emotional aspect. You sense her vulnerability, embrace her courage, pulsate in her fear and eventually drench in her tears! She almost paints an emotional graph of the transformation of simplistic humans into ruthless individuals compelled by war and you cannot help but empathize with her as she breaks down in self-pity.
The film’s screenplay by Bhavani Iyer and Meghna Gulzar, with dialogues by the latter, does walk a political tightrope that never lets up. Sure there is a line about the country being above all else repeated by more than one actor, but it is woven so smoothly into the larger picture and delivered so naturally by the actors in question, that it serves its purpose without trumpets blowing or bugles calling. Even a line from Hidayat about how Sehmat is a Hindustani first and then his daughter passes muster, although it is the closest the film comes to bowing to Bollywood traditions in these matters.
Although the premise on which the establishment operates on both sides of the border, the film’s overriding theme is the human cost of war and compels us to ask uncomfortable questions, like is the destruction of your own humanity worth it for your country? Are undercover agents callous or dutiful? Does a father have a right to sacrifice his daughter’s future at the altar of a nation’s safety and survival? And above all else: If there is pain on both sides of the divide, then who is benefiting from this confrontation and why, in the name of all that is logical, are we fighting? I found myself debating this very point. On the one hand, soldiers, comrades, patriots will do anything for the greater good of preserving and protecting the mother land. Sacrifice must fuel some with immense pride allowing them to see the greater picture as a justification for actions that harm others.
On the other hand, one must always deal with the voice inside their head, their conscious, and it is incomprehensible to understand how one could handle this burden. What’s even more striking about this film is its even-handedness, as Sehmat’s new family is painted with an empathetic brush; Iqbal, for instance, is as accommodating a groom as one could hope for. Despite being pushed into togetherness, they develop the sort of connection that most people take years to find. Iqbal is thoughtful and chooses to earn his place in Sehmat’s heart instead of forcing it, while Sehmat takes to showing her concern and by extension affection in small ways. The first time they kiss, it happens on her own terms and their brief union is laced with a rare kind of sensitive sensuality. There’s no sense of ownership between the two and yet they start loving each other, one song at a time.
It’s precisely why their confrontation toward the end is laced with such melancholy. There’s no one who can understand their nationalistic actions better than the other and yet it’s their respective patriotic duty that sounds the death knell on their union. This gives the film that extra frisson when Sehmat begins her spying, far from being encouraged to hate the enemy, we actually don’t want some of them to be hurt. Plus, it’s very rare to find an Indian film that doesn’t callously demean the ‘enemy’. Usually, the audience is just supposed to hate the other side. Our side is always the best and the people involved think the same. Neither side is made out to be a villain or a Hero. For instance, in one scene, Iqbal tells his father that Sehmat’s actions are a result of her love for her country, something which even we would do if necessary. All characters are trying to do what’s best for their country. It’s also worth noting that every major character, Indian and Pakistani, gets a country-above-all-else speech, and everyone delivers it with the same conviction.
While an overtly dramatic and rather cliché climax could have been avoided, it’s only a minor hiccup in the otherwise compelling thriller. Director Meghna is also careful to leave emotions and sequences open to audience interpretation. Music director Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy also provide just the right tunes in the background that blend into the story with Gulzar‘s soulful words, a refreshing Kashmiri folk song and a reverberating Ae Watan by Arijit Singh. Coming to the performances, without a doubt, Alia Bhatt is the soul of the film. Calling her fabulous will sure be an understatement. Never for once does she let her character be hobbled with ‘filmy’ bravado as it were. She is phenomenal and you can see how she successfully fits the role of Sehmat in general. Alia once again reflects the assiduous hard work she must have employed, to achieve the perfection in her powerful role. Her teary eyes and loud wailing will move your soul. Vicky Kaushal on the other hand doesn’t have much screen time but manages to establish himself as a strong character in the film, with the discipline of a soldier and innocence of a lover he manages to gain your affection. The supporting cast which includes Jaideep Ahlawat, Shishir Sharma, Arif Zakaria, Rajit Kapoor, Ashwath Bhatt and Soni Razdan are also excellent. On the whole, ‘Raazi‘ is a performance driven espionage thriller packed with chilling twists and thought-provoking moments.
Directed – Meghna Gulzar
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 138 minutes