War, espionage and covert operations often inspire action-packed thrillers or outlandish spy films on the big screen. Rarely does it so happen that a spy mission – and the responsibility to thrill – rests on the delicate shoulders of a newlywed, amateur 20-year-old, who is plucked from college and planted behind enemy lines. Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi , that stars Alia Bhatt as a Kashmiri girl married into a Pakistani family by her father to spy for India before the 1971 war, splinters the narrative that has been written so far for women in spy thrillers – she’s not a lethal weapon, nor a femme fatale, nor the honey-trap. She’s a vulnerable, scared but determined girl who makes this “frightful” decision, and lives by “very high principles” despite her deception. DANFES tries to decode Sehmat with Meghna Gulzar’s help. Edited excerpts:
If you had to write a one-line message to viewers, saying come and watch Raazi for ‘this’, what would that one thing be?
When I was first asked to give a line to describe the film, I said it was about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. And I still think that sums it up. That itself is so absorbing and compelling. And then nothing matters. When you are with that girl and her journey, the layers, the politics, the region… none of that matters, at least for me when I was writing the character. It just dissipated.
I know that even I tune out if I hear too many people say ‘never-seen-before’… So I would kind of hesitate to use that term, but it is a fact. Unfortunately or fortunately for us, it is a fact. Because the way she is – feminine, with the long, flowy hair, and the trinkets, and the new bride and the sari – it starts from there and then goes wherever, it is a new physicality of Alia. Here is this girl who’s sent as a spy, who’s going to be doing all these things, but visually, she’s always feminine. Always demure, in these flowy salwar-kurtas, and if you look carefully, she’s always in pastels, through the film.
This ‘recalibration’ extends to how she dresses, even how she talks…?
Oh the talking, yes of course (laughs). I had to… because Alia speaks really fast, and it’s today’s language, and we wanted that 1970s ka lehja, and that thairaav. So the work on this film went on subconscious, subliminal, visual, obvious, written, intended – all kinds of layers (laughs).
Is that a role model today?
It should be. (Pause) Because it’s not only about patriotism you know, there’s a righteousness in the character, there’s a devotion in the character to her father, to her mother, there’s an emotional honesty to her wedded family in spite of having her agenda. They’re very, very high principles to live by, almost to the point of making it unreal. And for me as the filmmaker also, when I was cueing the actors for all the scenes that happen in Sehmat and Iqbal’s bedroom – that world is pure.
Emotional honesty to the wedded family despite an agenda…. What other contradictions, what dualities, do we expect?
The film is full of dualities. And I think I want to decide to not be afraid of that duality, but to celebrate it. So it’s a thriller but not the way thrillers are implemented or interpreted. It’s interpreted differently but it thrills nevertheless. I never thought, with the way we’ve treated the film and the way we’ve shot it ki… ‘edge of the seat’ ‘we were getting nervous’… I didn’t expect to hear this feedback (from the previews). But it’s there. So… okay then!
The actual person who lived this tossed around existence – given that the movie is based on a true story – what do you know about her?
I had to do my own research to figure out whether she even existed. Otherwise the movie would not have gotten made, no matter how compelling the book. I met people…. defense think tanks, former RAW officials. When I got to know that yes, this file existed on this lady, then I said theek hai, now we will make this movie.
Would a male protagonist have faced similar emotional challenges?
You know, it could very well have been a male protagonist. We have a true living example of a male protagonist doing this. Not getting married – no, actually there was one who got married and lived there and everything. Ravindra Kaushik. The point is, it becomes far more dimensional and therefore also intriguing and involving when it’s a woman because with men you think okay, a man has gone to do this, he will single-mindedly do it and come out. The emotional counter-damage or the emotional destruction, you will never consider if your protagonist is a man. Those will get amplified if it’s a woman. But at the end of it, it’s human against human. It’s not India vs Pakistan, or man vs woman, its one human against another, it’s cyclical, it keeps going on.
Isn’t that universally true, beyond the subcontinent?
It is, it is. But… in some places it’s an industrial thing, where you have the entire business of equipment for war – that’s driving it. In another parallel realm there is the control over oil and resources that’s driving it. What is still driving us, in the subcontinent? Apart from that one daraar which was drawn by the British before they left – so successfully, I must say – what is it that is driving us? Are we doing it for economics? Are we doing it for industrial gain? Are we doing it for money? What are we doing it for?
Philosophically, yes, it’s gender-neutral, but for me it’s definitely a girl’s story.
It is a girl’s story. But what I’m trying to say is that the issue that the film is talking about or what the film wants to say is not gender-specific. Of course it’s a girl’s story. It is a girl’s journey and that’s what makes it so fragile and so uncertain, because it’s a 20-year-old girl doing this.
Is it a morally appropriate decision for a father to have married his daughter off into ‘enemy’ territory solely on this ground – spying?
It was a toss-up between morality and I’m guessing the onus of duty towards the country. Where he is coming from is one, there is a sense of urgency, you know war is imminent, you know you’re not going to survive. You need somebody to take your place. And yet you know that that person has to be someone who will win their trust immediately, which can be your daughter. But then again, you’re not throwing her to the wolves. You know this person, he’s your friend. At least he thinks he’s your friend, he doesn’t know you’re a double agent. So you know till her cover is blown she will be looked after, she’s not going to be ill treated.
Sending a son to face a bullet, and sending a daughter into a stranger’s bedroom – aren’t these very different benchmarks?
Why? You’re looking at it from the lens of gender. Don’t look at it from the lens of gender. Look at it as parent to child. Remove gender. By virtue of it being a parent to a child, it is a very, very brave and frightful thing to do.