Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Soni Razdan, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shishir Sharma, Rajit Kapoor
The word “mulk” – meaning, nation – is repeated several times in Raazi. Close your eyes, and it won’t be clear which side of the border it’s coming from. And for most part, it won’t even matter. This, in a nutshell, is perhaps director Meghna Gulzar’s most remarkable achievement. In hyper-patriotic times such as these, it’s hard enough to make a spy thriller that humanizes the enemy; it’s even harder to suggest that the enemy lies in the eyes of the beholder. At no point in a film about a Kashmiri spy who marries into Pakistan army family on the brink of the 1971 war are we, the viewers, ever told what to think. Or who to blame, love or hate. No Indian in this is a hero, and no Pakistani in this is a villain. “Ae Watan,” a lyrical, passionate song that refuses to privatize the concept of nationalism, further symbolizes this lack of dichotomy. It sounds equally legitimate, equally inspiring, across countries.
In fact, eyes closed, and “mulk” is said with conviction only by the older characters in this story – the intelligence officers, the Partition-era brigadiers, colonels and major generals, the veterans who were hurt enough by history to form their own ideologies. They are the ones who know what to think. It doesn’t sound quite as convincing when the younger ones, Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) and her husband Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), use the word. Patriotism, for them, is an heirloom emotion, not unlike a family business. Their thinking is constructed, controlled. For example, early on we see Hidayat (Rajit Kapoor), a career double agent, breaking the news of his terminal illness to his teen-aged daughter, Sehmat. He wants her to continue his work of subterfuge in Pakistan to save India from being ‘broken’. He plants the thought, allows her to grieve a little, and then apologizes to her for the insensitivity of this idea. Classic mental manipulation – she caves in, obediently citing mulk before everything.
Sehmat spends the rest of the film doing this to others. Only, unlike in her father or trainer’s case, it doesn’t come as naturally to her. Every time she lies, overhears, hides and convinces a mind to think differently, there is a storm raging beneath her unassuming gait. When nobody is looking, she exhales in relief, almost as if she were surfacing for air after being dunked underwater. Everything she does feels like a race against time.
Raazi is an excellent film because of how easily it could have not been one. On another day, this might have well been a jingoistic Neeraj Pandey actioner called Naam Sehmat. But Gulzar and her co-writer Bhavani Iyer don’t lose cultural context of their material. Take, for instance, Sehmat’s initial training montage with intelligence officer Khalid Mir (a fantastic, poker-faced Jaideep Ahlawat). It’s nothing fancy: hand-to-hand combat, shooting, memory/awareness exercises and profiling, at a regular institution. A lesser (or male) filmmaker might have been tempted to reflect the stylistic physicality of Western spy dramas. Secret doors and MI6 gadgets aside, it wouldn’t be surprising to see situations simulated to make a female agent weaponize her sexuality – as if she were part of a cold Russian Sparrow program.
Raazi is an excellent film because of how easily it could have not been one. On another day, this might have well been a jingoistic Neeraj Pandey actioner called Naam Sehmat. But Gulzar and her co-writer Bhavani Iyer don’t lose cultural context of their material.
In Raazi, however, her domesticity is weaponized. All Mir does is stretch Sehmat’s lips into a wide smile, instructing her to “remember to maintain the twinkle of a new daughter-in-law”. He is effectively suggesting the same thing, the same level of exploitation, but with a muted hypocrisy – the kind all too familiar in today’s South Asian homes – that doesn’t allow him to use the ‘S’ word. After all, sex there translates to marriage here. Physical there is emotional here. Which is why Sehmat doesn’t infiltrate Pakistani society as a saucy siren, but as a mousey, well behaved “chotti bahu” in a patriarchal household. Her place in society extends to her place in war.
Given that the meat of this film unfurls in this house, there might have also been the temptation of writing different members of the family as arrogant caricatures so that we derive satisfaction out of watching her betray them. But there is no obvious moral posturing. The Syeds are presented as empathetic, upstanding members of Rawalpindi – as good, bad or driven as their Indian counterparts. As a result, each time Sehmat succeeds in relaying a message or decoding a confidential paper, there is a delicious duality of conscience at play. We want her to escape each close call, but seconds later we feel bad for the people she is duping. More importantly, she feels the same – and the makers rarely zoom out of these moments to broaden or justify her intentions.
She breaks down very often, which is perhaps what sets her apart from R. Madhavan’s similarly themed character in the recent web series, Breathe. His blind love for his dying son turns him into somewhat of a psychopath; her blind love for her country turns her into a wreck. Every time he kills an organ donor to bump his boy up the list, the music paints him out to be an unstable man who begins to enjoy his urges. But when Sehmat is in a similar situation, we sympathize with her for how much she hates herself. The people prone to clapping at incendiary acts of patriotism in cinema halls might be disappointed. Thankfully, she takes the “riot” out of “patriot”.
Alia Bhatt is terrific, but she works in this role for the precise reason Sehmat manages to remain undercover in broad daylight – she is fragile, tiny, tender and uncomfortable and rarely looks capable enough to understand what is at stake. Bhatt’s sheltered reputation, much like her breakout performance in Highway, informs and elevates her performance into a strange space of vulnerability. She is a great crier, but I’m not sure she has any tears left to shed after Raazi.
Alia Bhatt is terrific, but she works in this role for the precise reason Sehmat manages to remain undercover in broad daylight – she is fragile, tiny, tender and uncomfortable and rarely looks capable enough to understand what is at stake.
I haven’t read Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, the book from which Raazi is adapted, but I suspect it is written to highlight a woman who sacrificed her identity to boost India in the war. The film circles a woman at war with herself, and explores her in a way that bravely sidelines the larger scheme of affairs; the INS Vikrant sub-plot unfurls in passing, almost in a consolatory tone. Ironically, Raazi’s only shortcoming lies in the one part it invokes the book’s purpose – the opening scene, present day, on a ship, a naval commander proudly narrating the girl’s story to a new batch. This is at odds with the film’s anti-war core. He seems to be paying tribute to the woman who saved millions, rather than mourning the price she paid. Remove this – it looks to have been added separately to make the film less “balanced” – and Raazi thrives on its individualism.
In Talvar, Meghna Gulzar had designed three separate perspectives of the Noida double murder case, but stopped short of being objective. She clearly veered towards the parents’ innocence; this personalization of true events gave the film its own voice. With Raazi, she points no fingers, which in itself is a stronger voice – the camera is on a spy, but the perspective engulfs the humanity beyond her. When Sehmat is introduced as a girl with a heart – almost run over by a car while saving a squirrel – the focus is on her, and the vehicle looks dangerous. What makes the writing exceptional is that it simultaneously puts us inside that car, from where we see a careless girl defying the rules of nature. And even if the film were to be shot from this “opposing” point of view, it might still retain its pitch. Nobody would be winning.