In an era when the Hindi film industry insists on portraying enemies across the border as barbarians with Indian bloodthirsty kohl eyes, Meghna Gulzar’s film Raazi, released in 2018, looks like a relic from a long forgotten past. The humanistic portrayal of Pakistanis in the film ushered in a new era of Dharma films that continued with Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and Shershaah. These movies looked hyper-nationalistic on paper, but couldn’t have been more different from the kind of irresponsible crap that Sooryavanshi, Uri: The Surgical Strike and Bhuj: The Pride of India peddle in the name of mass “entertainment”.
Proving he can go either way, Uri star Vicky Kaushal played Iqbal, the man of jazz culture and elaichi nibbler, the Pakistani soldier who marries Alia Bhatt’s Indian spy in Raazi. It seems almost unthinkable that the film would be released a few months after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which was controversial for all the wrong reasons. While part of the audience literally hit star Deepika Padukone, the problematic portrayal of Alauddin Khilji by his co-star Ranveer Singh has not been criticized enough for its historical inaccuracy and offensive stereotypical tone.
By most accounts, Khilji, despite his imperialist ways, was actually quite sophisticated. Not the “savage” who gnaws at the meat of a bone, cackles like a hyena, and goes all Kabir Singh on a woman, as the film shows.
This “otherness” is totally absent from Raazi, a film that achieves the impossible and actually makes you care about the men and women across the border. That, in and of itself, could be controversial these days. To a lesser extent, it was even in 2018, when Harinder Sikka, the author of the source novel, launched an attack on Gulzar and Karan Johar for, understandably, not making the film patriotic enough.
I would say Raazi, along with Amit Masurkar’s Newton, are the two most patriotic Hindi films of the past decade.
Everything we need to know about Bhatt’s Sehmat is conveyed in his introductory scene. Spotting a squirrel staring death in the eye, Sehmat rushes to his rescue but is injured in the process. Stunned at the sight of the blood flowing from her foot, she asks her friend to help her. In less than a minute, it’s clear to us that Sehmat is compassionate and fundamentally non-violent.
It’s smart storyboarding; it foreshadows a later scene and highlights what is undoubtedly the central theme of the film. Over an hour later, when duty requires her to kill herself, Sehmat is irretrievably broken. The psychological impact of the incident is such that she retreats into a shell for the rest of her life. Sikka took offense, pointing out that Sehmat had received a heroic welcome upon her return to India and had never doubted the morality of what she had done on the ground. It seemed like his problem was not the humanization of the enemy, but the humanization of Sehmat.
But despite all its progressiveness, the film’s genre policy remains sketchy. This aspect of the film did not age as well as the rest. Despite being such a resourceful person, Sehmat exhibits a curious lack of agency. The life and death decisions about her are made by the men in her life – first her dying father, who sacrifices her for the country; then her master, who literally tells her in one scene that she is not allowed to make decisions; and then, emotionally, her husband. To the film’s credit, when Sehmat’s father is making his plans, Jaideep Ahlawat’s character, manager Khalid, calls out to him. “Sehmat se poochha tumne?” Bataya beti ko ke uski kismat mein kya likh rahe ho? he asks, and Sehmat’s father offers an aggressively vague reasoning that espionage is essentially the family business. “Humse poochha humare walid saab ne?” “
Later, he wonders if he made a mistake in sending her back. But then Sehmat utters rhetoric that comes dangerously close to something brainwashed people would say, “Aap kehtein hai toh college laut jaati hoon. Lekin simple abbu ne bhi mujhe wahi taleem di hai. Ke watan ke aage kuch nahi. Khud bhi nahi.
But under the assured leadership of Gulzar, Raazi is holding up really well. It may have even become more relevant in the years since its release. A close cousin of Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North, Raazi is a prime example of what the espionage genre can accomplish when treated with fondness, not cheesy populism.