As I set out to watch RAAZI on the big screen, I was a bit, correction, VERY skeptical. There was nothing in the trailer that made me, as a Pakistani, want to watch Indian spy games on Pakistani soil. What with the present political climate of diplomatic unease, distrust and recent ban on the film itself in Pakistan, I even wondered at my wisdom to go and watch a film that might show my country in a negative light.
As I settled down in the theatre, I had made up my mind, that I will give RAAZI a fair watching till the intermission, after which, I will most probably, get up and go celebrate Mother’s Day with a coffee and dessert and lament at fine, promising actors like Alia Bhatt for giving in to sensational roles to get the spotlight.
Let’s cut to the quick then. Contrary to my plans above, coffee after intermission was a failed plan. RAAZI kept me riveted to the last scene. The plot, the execution, the production, the characters, the period sets and costumes, the emotion and drama came together to create a story that spoke to each and every person in the audience. What unfolded onscreen was an unexpected portrayal of a story that could have been told just like our school history text books, (on both sides of the border, mind you) – partisan, biased and one-sided. But RAAZI was so refreshingly NOT any of the above.
RAAZI – The Plot
The story is based on the events surrounding the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. With emotions running high on both sides of the border, winning at every expense was the order of the day. Sehmat, a young Indian girl is given in to marriage to Iqbal, a young Pakistani army officer. Unbeknownst to the family, Sehmat steps onto Pakistani soil for the sole purpose of uncovering Pakistani military plans and transmitting them to Indian secret service agencies. The drama that follows leaves us wondering where patriotism and love for one’s country takes precedence over all other human relations. Does treachery of the highest order find justification in nationalism? ‘My Country before all else’, is the slogan that is repeated throughout the film.
The Story behind RAAZI
It is relevant to mention here that RAAZI is based on the novel ‘Calling Sehmat’, a fictionalized account based on a reportedly true story of an Indian spy, by author Harinder Sikka. It has been said that he made several trips to Pakistan and also met the real Sehmat on many occasions to research his story while penning the book. Reportedly, the real Sehmat lived in a state of depression for many years after.
‘I just want to go home.’ She said to her trainer.
‘Before I become completely like you!’
Meghna Gulzar has struck gold with a slick production job! The period sets, army surroundings with pristine lawns, colonial architecture and detailed costumes, especially Sehmat’s wardrobe, deserve special mention. The pastel shades, embroidered shawls and chiffon dupattas were a treat for the eyes. Alia Bhatt carried off the look with a characteristic charm and grace that left us floored.
It would be fair to say, that many seasoned actors would have watched Alia play the role of Sehmat and wondered, in admiration, if anyone could have played it better! I have to say, it was a flawless performance from the very first scene till the curtains dropped. She gave it her all, and all is what the audience loved! Her character was not depicted through tiresome dialogue or lagging emotional scenes.
Dialogues were short and crisp, to match Sehmat’s role. Her tone and the myriad expressions that swept across her face throughout the film, spoke a thousand words. She managed to convey multiple human emotions in a fleeting moment. An art most actors master over many years. This not only gave credence to her character but endeared her to her audience.
Other cast who deserve special mention: Vicky Kaushal as Iqbal (Sehmat’s husband), Jaideep Ahlawat as Khalid Mir (Indian Secret Service), and Shishir Sharma as Brigadier Parvez Syed, all delivered laudable performances.
Nobody Wins in a War
When 2 nations engage in war, there are fatalities on both sides of the border. As I watched the film, I recalled my father’s words, who had lived through those times – beta, the trains that arrived on both sides of the border were slain. If we received them in Pakistan, they also received them in Hindustan. Nobody wins in a war … humanity loses though, for sure.
Sehmat’s character questions her actions, even as she commits the crimes upon the name of ‘love for one’s nation’. Even as her lips mouth the slogan learnt by rote …’Country before all else’, her eyes tell a different story. As does her final outburst towards the end of the film.
All War Stories are One-Sided
Thankfully, this one was not. The Pakistani family depicted in RAAZI was painted in a fairly positive light. Although the film was made across the border, no attempt was made to show them in typical enemy garb. Yes, they were part of the armed forces of a country. Yes, they were fighting a war. But they were also deeply betrayed. And no attempt was made to justify that betrayal. Except of course, the catch phrase: ‘Country before all else’. This phrase, repeated throughout the film, became more of a questionable anthem towards the end. One that kept the audience thinking long after the film was over.
Sehmat’s relationship with her husband flourished largely because Iqbal was shown to be a kind, considerate human being. ‘My family sometimes forgets that you come from Hindustan’, apologizes Iqbal to Sehmat in one scene, showing he is mindful of Sehmat’s origins.
The Pakistani army household was one that lavished respect and trust upon the newly arrived bahu. One does question the wisdom behind the plot. How does an Indian bahu come to occupy a Pakistani military household in the 1970’s? But for that, you’ll have to watch the film!
Nationalism – Where Do We Draw the Line?
The events depicted are rooted in nationalistic fervour no doubt. But we know that this was the order of the day at the time. Caught deep within this fervent nationalism, is a story about a girl, who was caught between the crossfire. A daughter who had to give in to her ailing father’s unreasonable wishes. It was a story about parents who expect their children to sacrifice their lives to realize their own failed dreams.
RAAZI asks pertinent questions. The line between right and wrong is very fine. How do we decide when we’ve gone too far? Where does it all stop? Do we continue to wage war at the expense of innocent lives? These were the questions nagging Sehmat. And the audience shared her inner turmoil.
Without giving away too much I hope, I add these lines from Iqbal. It was a poignant moment when he remarked to his father, Brigadier Syed:
‘After all, she only did for her country what we are doing for ours.’
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A Woman in a Man’s World
RAAZI is a story set in an age when human emotions, rage, love for one’s country, nationalistic fervour, obedience to a parent’s wishes were not an option, but a given. This was a world of men. And for a woman, to play a pivotal role and win in a man’s world, was practically unheard of! In all probability, there is a lingering sadness that tugs at our heart strings towards the end. it gives credence to the timeless poem by Wilfred Owen:
Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori in Latin.
Owen called it the Old Lie: It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Sehmat’s story intrigued me enough to uncover more on the internet. As I worked my way through Google, I came across these lines, said to have been penned by the real Sehmat during her stay in Pakistan:
I am captured by the whims and fancies of others
And my soul wishes to fly free.
Verdict – Pakistani or Indian, Go Watch!
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