I was in the eighth grade when my school's Vice Principal graced our class for a special lesson in history. It was the day after an India-Pakistan match. The whole class was abuzz with match highlights. India had won. Sir caught a whiff of all the chatter around "how Pakistan faced a crushing defeat at the hands of our men in blue".
Once the commotion died down, sir said, "Hmm… Why can't Pakistan be a friend?" No answer came. He dismissed the class saying, "No lesson for today. All I request of you is to think a bit about whatever you hear in the news or read in your textbooks." That class left me confused, slightly disturbed and I couldn't absorb the gravity of his statement – not yet, not then. That was in 2006.
Cut to 2018. On the cricket front, India had defeated Pakistan by 203 runs in the U-19 semi finals and had secured the World Cup for a record 4th time. My tiny world had moved aeons ahead. I had finished school, moved cities, post-graduated, secured a job and got married. The relations between India and Pakistan hadn't changed much though. There was a series of skirmishes on the LOC. Raazi was released in May that year against this backdrop and bowled me over.
The movie opens to a young Sehmat, played by Alia Bhatt, who undergoes rigorous training to become a spy. She is determined to make her ailing father proud and quashes all doubts her mentor at RAW might have about her abilities. She leaves for her spy mission as the bonny bride of a Pakistani army officer, the son of a Brigadier. As she strikes connections and deepens her grip on all the key stakeholders in 'enemy' territory, one can't help but marvel at her sharp wit and nimble skills.
And yet, as Sehmat advances on her spy tasks, we are shown how caring her new family is. We get a sneak peak into her new world comprising of a warm sister-in-law, a husband who loves her with all his heart and a revered father-in-law. It is a very realistic and fresh portrayal of a military family in Pakistan. One realises that they are no different from us. Their hopes, aspirations and fears mirror those of an average Indian family. It would have been easy to demonise the enemy like many Indo-Pak war movies do. Director Meghna Gulzar chooses not to do that. And I feel that elevates the stature of her film.
No character is at fault in the movie. Rather everyone is as much at fault as the protagonist. Everyone acts out of devotion to their own country. In fact, the protagonist is the double-crosser who, in her bid to protect her own country, destroys an unsuspecting family that takes her in. When the school kids sing 'Ae watan watan mere aabaad rahe tu', they sing it with the same love for their Pakistan as Sehmat's love for her India. The song lyrics when played out in this unique scenario are stunning. They still give me goosebumps, each time I watch the film.
Abdul, the loyal house servant, is the trouble-bearer who suspects the new bride all along. The scene where Sehmat chases him after he discovers her secret sends chills down one's spine. The same girl who couldn't bear seeing a squirrel getting hurt in the opening scene braces herself to commit her first murder. She is devastated after she runs him over and weeps in the shower. She is afraid, alone, remorseful and anguished. It breaks her heart when she has to kill her brother-in-law next. Back home, Sehmat is unable to act normal before her loving sister-in-law on the day of the crime.
Towards the end of the movie, I feel bad when Sehmat's husband, Iqbal is blown into pieces. Sehmat has no reason to warm up to the unsuspecting, doting husband. And yet she does. Her anger at her mentor Mir for killing Iqbal is palpable. It shocks her to learn that Mir had intended on killing her as well. Mir explains to her firmly the vagaries of war: "Jung mein aisa hi hota hai. Kai beqasoor maare jaate hain. Lekin jung mein sivai jung ke aur kuchh maaine nahin rakhta." The message hits home when Sehmat expresses her inability to comprehend Mir's worldview, abhors the thought of turning into the likes of him and requests him to get her home. Our protagonist is not invincible or self-assured. She's vulnerable. She's shown for what she is – a human being.
The movie made me see the futility of the tensions between countries. The human cost of it all is heartbreaking. The climax shows an old Sehmat sitting alone in a solitary house with dilapidated walls. Not much is revealed. Yet the frame says it all. War has no winners. There is no such thing as glory or pride for the ones who sacrifice everything for the country. We may sing songs about the unsung, make movies about the likes of Sehmat or decorate our army-personnel with medals. Yet we can't erase their scarred memories. The burden is theirs and they live with it. The least we can do to honor the work of our war heroes is support peace and discourage shallow war-mongering.
Today when I read something in the papers or watch the news, I hear the voice of my teacher ringing in my ears. I try to think harder and question more. And I say a little prayer for the bravehearts and their families who lead a lesser life just because there is no truce between two nations that are more alike than not.