When he left his family behind to fight in the Kargil war, Lieutenant Commander Harinder Sikka said he did not expect to return with the story of a Kashmiri woman-turned-undercover spy. He worked on it for eight years, publishing his novel Calling Sehmat in 2008. Set during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, its titular character marries a Pakistani officer so she can acquire intelligence and pass it on to the Indian Navy. In real life, the spy's discovery of the Pakistani plot to sink INS Vikrant helped saved scores of lives.
Ahead of the release of Meghna Gulzar's film – based on his book – Sikka spoke about why he first approached her father to direct the movie and what advice he gave Bhatt before filming began:
Tell us about Sehmat and what inspired you to write a book on her life
When the Kargil war started in 1999, little did I know that that would be the beginning of Calling Sehmat. At the time, I considered myself a brave man for having left my parents, wife and children behind and going to the battlefield. My temperament was foul. I wanted to know how the enemy had settled on our territory and why our intelligence had failed. One official stood up and said, "Sir not everybody is a traitor." He told me about Sehmat, his mother. It was like a bubble burst – here was a family who gave away their only child to ensure national security. In 2000, I located Sehmat in Kotla, with great difficulty. She refused to speak to me. I sat outside her door from 10am to 5pm with only a bottle of water. She didn't open the door at first, but when she realised I was adamant, she called me in.
The first thing I asked her was why she had shifted from the beautiful hills of Srinagar to Kotla. She said that Abdul lived here. When I asked her who Adbul was, she said he was Brigadier Syed's servant, who had died. When I asked her the cause of his death, she said, "I crushed him under a truck." Imagine a petite, beautiful, intelligent woman, who does not seem like she can kill a fly, killing a man. Our nation does not recognise such warriors. Instead, it paints Kashmiris as terrorists. I wanted this story to be told, but Sehmat did not reveal much. So I went to Pakistan twice in two years. There, I found out the name of Sehmat's father-in-law – a Major General – where he lived and which barricade Sehmat broke through to crush Abdul. That made finding out more information easier.
In an interview, Meghna Gulzar said that there is a lot in the book that is not explained, such as what Sehmat's training at RAW involved. Did you leave these out so as to protect Sehmat's identity? How did you find a balance between telling a story and protecting your protagonist?
Sehmat provided me with the skeleton of my book – how her husband died, how her father died. The remaining 70% – how she got close to the top brass etc – came from my imagination. She had a phenomenal amount of courage and I was in awe of her. It took me nearly eight years to complete the book as I had to keep digging for information. I shared the manuscript with a friend, who cautioned me against using real names. I code-named the protagonist Sehmat, which means 'agreement'.
You initially approached Gulzar to adapt the book. Did you always believe the book had potential to be cinematic?
Yes. I wanted Gulzar to adapt the book because I had seen a lot of his work. In Koshish (1972), he delved into the subject's depth using only a few words. I felt that anyone who had made Koshish could adapt Calling Sehmat. There are similarities – Sehmat did not speak much and in Koshish, the husband and wife are hearing and speech impaired. Secondly, Gulzar wrote some lyrics I have never forgotten – Pyar ko pyar hi rehne do, koi naam na do.
I had gone to his Pali Hill residence with one of the first 10 copies of the book. It had taken me a month to get an appointment with him. Gulzar said the novel was fantastic, but flatly refused to adapt it, saying I should not waste my energies on a movie.
Less than a year later, I went to him again with a friend – a lawyer who knew him personally. He was quite irritated that I had returned with the same proposition. He said that he appreciated my views but had given up making films by then.
What was the process of selling the movie rights of this book like? Meghna has said different production houses had been trying to acquire the rights to it?
After I produced (National Award-winning film) Nanak Shah Fakir, I was hellbent on making Calling Sehmat. Priti Sahani, president of Junglee Pictures, approached me but I did not want to part with the rights at that time and neither did I have the funds to make the movie myself. She reached out to publicity designer Rahul Nanda, who had helped me with the Cannes promotions for Nanak Shah Fakir in 2014. At his behest, I met Sahani and quoted a figure to her. She said no one in the film industry had asked for this kind of money. I refused to negotiate. Eight months later, she returned and accepted my terms.
I was also approached by Red Chillies creative director Samar Khan in 2009. He, however, wanted the movie to have a different storyline. He said he would use my story without buying the rights and give me credit for it. I wrote to Shahrukh Khan and told him what had happened. A week later, I received an apology letter from Samar.
I had wanted Akshay Kumar to star in the film. He is a large-hearted gentleman who stood by me and I owe him a lot. Unfortunately, he was doing a film and our schedules did not align. It was Akshay who introduced me to Meghna. I thought it was providence that I had approached Gulzar saab and got his daughter. I watched Talvar (2015) and spoke to Meghna because I wanted to know that she would be committed to adapting Calling Sehmat and it would not be just another film for her. I found everything I wanted in a director in her – passion, compassion, skills. She radiated honesty and sincerity. We had many sittings as she had 10 million questions about Sehmat. By the end, she understood the character to a T.
When Alia was cast, I met her and described how Sehmat looked, behaved, her patriotism, relationship with her parents and love for her father.
How involved were you with the script? Did you take an interest in casting choices?
My contract with Junglee Pictures had a few stipulations – that Meghna direct the film, I oversee the script, Gulzar write the lyrics and Alia Bhat play the lead role. My wife and I had spent hours singling out actresses who could play the role, but no one else fit. At one point, I thought of approaching Angelina Jolie. I had found a teenager who looked like her to play the young Sehmat and I thought Angelina could play the older one. When Alia was cast, I met her and described how Sehmat looked, behaved, her patriotism, relationship with her parents and love for her father. She's a smart and focused actress and I knew instinctively that she would do well.
I also gave Meghna photographs I had taken of Sehmat's house, so she could build sets based on them.
How difficult is it to give away something you've worked so hard on to another creative voice, and let them interpret it their way? Are you anxious about the end product?
I'm not anxious at all. I was glad when Karan Johar came on board because he has an eye for detail that is superior to many others. He has an intensity and focus. (Screenplay writer) Bhavani Iyer has done a fabulous job. I only went for the shoots twice; my fear was that I would not like something and I would be hurt. But the first time I went to set, Alia finished the scene, then came up to me and said, "Sir, was it to your satisfaction?" It was. I initially objected to the movie's name being Raazi instead of Calling Sehmat but I respected Gulzar's wishes.
Given the reach of cinema, what do you hope people take away from Sehmat's story?
I want people to understand that there are thousands of Sehmats in every nook and corner of our country. I want them to respect the soil. Like Sehmat says, "Watan ke aage, kuch bhi nahi".