Raazi - A tribute to unknown heroes
Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal and Jaideep Ahlawat shine in this understated story that could have been much better with a more taut script and direction, but still manages to strike a chord.
In Delhi University in 1971, a girl jumps in the middle of a street to save a little bird as her friend quickly pulls her back in time before a vehicle could hit her. The girl is injured; a piece of glass has entered her foot. ‘You pull this out, I can barely tolerate the sight of blood,’ she croaks. Soon after that, we are shown that she has a knack for memorizing phone numbers almost instantaneously, and is called back to Kashmir by her freedom fighter-turned-RAW agent father, who has a task for her.
This is all the insight we are given into Sehmat (played by Alia Bhatt), the protagonist’s life and character right before the film takes us into her wedding to Iqbal (played by Vicky Kaushal), a young Pakistani soldier who is the son of an influential army general. While Meghna Gulzar-directed film definitely doesn’t waste any time before jumping straight into the plot, we do end up wishing for some more background – how did a regular college girl suddenly make up her mind to marry into Pakistan and spy for her country? It couldn’t just be that her father is ill and she comes from a family of freedom fighters. Surely there’s some more thought, some more conflict?
Iqbal and his family are good, decent people (quite a departure from the usual depiction of Pakistanis as cruel deviants) and treat Sehmat perfectly well after she arrives in the new household – except for their loyal servant Abdul (played by Arif Zakaria), that is. Iqbal and Sehmat smoulder in a slow, quiet, unhurried attraction for each other, but that is not the main crux of the film. We are shown Sehmat doing spy-like activities (hiding devices inside books, tables and whatnot) – all with the windows, more often than not, open. Sehmat is the ideal daughter-in-law surrounded by good-natured people who happen to work in the Pakistan army – people who are, honestly, quite real and simple, and thus it is very difficult to dislike them. In all of this, Sehmat’s steely determination to cast aside all feelings of love and affection for her new family for her patriotism is, while commendable, a bit difficult to understand considering the film does not dwell on that much, instead focusing on Sehmat communicating information to her Indian agents (Jaideep Ahlawat in a superb role as Khalid Mir) and removing any obstacles, however close and beloved, from the path. We aren’t really taken into a tour of Sehmat’s head, and our only insight into her inner conflict is when she cries in bed, or in the shower.
Things happen quite fast, however, and soon Sehmat’s cover is dangerously close to being blown (‘If you start thinking your cover is blown, then assume it is blown,’ Mir tells her.) – and she has to move fast. And move fast she does, but here’s where the film falters: it makes her narrow escapes a bit too convenient. There are some glaring loopholes in the film: when Sehmat murders Abdul before he could blow her cover, she leaves fingerprints everywhere. And when the fingerprints were being investigated by another member of Sehmat’s family and she kills him off too, how did the investigation stop magically? And when Sehmat and her family are being investigated for a suspected transmission from their house back to India (this is where Sehmat is at the risk of discovery), Sehmat goes to the head of the Pakistan Army Wives’ Association to implore her to stop this investigation due to the family currently being in mourning over two deaths – and the investigation is stopped! Why would a serious, official committee handling a matter of great national importance listen to the head of an association and halt investigations?
There’s also a scene where Iqbal realizes who Sehmat really is and what she was doing, and Sehmat confronts him with a gun in her hand – it is shot beautifully, with much pathos, and we feel Iqbal’s heartbreaking over the fact that the only woman he had ever loved was a spy and valued her country above everything else. We feel Sehmat’s hands tremble, her eyes well up. But then comes the most ludicrous part: Iqbal lets her go to wherever she was going, alone, even after realizing her credentials – and then rounds her off in a marketplace! Why did he let her leave the house in the first place if he had to corner her with his men after all?
Afterwards, Sehmat is told that she is pregnant – and while this may have been missed by several moviegoers, this is what she says in reaction to the news: ‘I’ll raise it, I cannot kill anymore.’ A subtle nod to abortion equaling murder, but this is probably the values that existed at that time (and continue to, still).
One feels for Vicky Kaushal in his affecting performance as Iqbal – one feels his glowing joy at having Sehmat, one also feels his torment on getting to know who his wife is, in reality. But I couldn’t connect the same way with Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat, even though the performance is beyond reproach. And yes, this one also has a traditional Alia breakout scene, and it is just as beautiful as it was back in Highway when people were still getting used to Alia’s power as an actor. And here we are today, and Alia is better than anyone at the game.
Here’s to the ones who are forgotten in the face of war, but deserve to be honoured and celebrated as well. Here’s to the many Sehmats still in hiding, still out there, still suffering.