At a time when the Hindi film industry insists on portraying enemies from across the border as kohl-eyed barbarians thirsty for Indian blood, Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, released in 2018, feels like a relic from a long-forgotten past. The film’s humanist portrayal of Pakistanis ushered in a new era of Dharma movies that continued with Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl and Shershaah. These films looked hyper-nationalistic on paper, but couldn’t have been more different from the kind of irresponsible hogwash that Sooryavanshi, Uri: The Surgical Strike and Bhuj: The Pride of India peddle in the name of mass ‘entertainment’.
Proving that he can go both ways, Uri star Vicky Kaushal played the jazz-loving, elaichi-munching man of culture Iqbal, the Pakistani soldier who marries Alia Bhatt’s Indian spy in Raazi. It seems almost unthinkable that the film released a few months after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which was controversial for all the wrong reasons. While a section of the public literally put a hit out on star Deepika Padukone, her co-star Ranveer Singh’s problematic portrayal of Alauddin Khilji was not adequately criticised for its historical inaccuracy and offensively stereotypical tone.
By most accounts, Khilji, despite his imperialistic ways, was actually quite the sophisticate. Not the ‘savage’ who gnaws meat off a bone, cackles like a hyena, and goes all Kabir Singh on a woman, as shown in the film.
This ‘otherisation’ is completely absent in Raazi, a film that pulls off the impossible and actually gets you to care about the men and women across the border. That, in itself, could be controversial these days. To a minor degree, it was even in 2018, when Harinder Sikka, the author of the source novel, launched an attack against Gulzar and Karan Johar for, get this, not making the movie patriotic enough.
I would argue that Raazi, along with Amit Masurkar’s Newton, are the two most patriotic Hindi movies of the last decade.
Everything that we need to know about Bhatt’s Sehmat is conveyed in her introductory scene. Spotting a squirrel staring death in the eye, Sehmat rushes to its rescue but injures herself in the process. Dizzy at the sight of blood oozing out of her foot, she asks her friend to help her. In less than a minute, it is clear to us that Sehmat is compassionate, and at her core, non-violent.
This is smart screenwriting; it foreshadows a later scene, and highlights what is arguably the film’s central theme. More than an hour later, when duty compels her to take a life, Sehmat is irreparably broken. Such is the psychological impact of the incident that she retreats into a shell for the rest of her life. Sikka took offence to this, stressing that Sehmat received a hero’s welcome when she returned to India, and never doubted the morality of what she had done in the field. It sounded like his issue wasn’t the humanisation of the enemy, but the humanisation of Sehmat.
But for all its progressiveness, the film’s gender politics remain sketchy. This aspect of the movie hasn’t aged as well as the rest. Despite being such a resourceful person, Sehmat displays a curious lack of agency. 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 handler, who literally tells her in one scene that she isn’t allowed to make decisions; and then, emotionally, her husband. To the film’s credit, when Sehmat’s father is hatching his plans, Jaideep Ahlawat’s character, the handler Khalid, calls him out on it. “Sehmat se poochha tumne? Bataya beti ko ke uski kismat mein kya likh rahe ho?” he asks, and Sehmat’s father offers some aggressively vague reasoning about espionage essentially being the family trade. “Humse poochha humare walid saab ne?”
Later, he wonders if he is making a mistake by sending her away. But then, Sehmat spouts rhetoric that comes dangerously close to sounding like something that brainwashed people would say: “Aap kehtein hai toh college laut jaati hoon. Lekin mere abbu ne bhi mujhe wahi taleem di hai. Ke watan ke aage kuch nahi. Khud bhi nahi.”
But under Gulzar’s assured direction, Raazi holds up really well. It might have even become more relevant in the years since its release. A close cousin to Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North, Raazi is a terrific example of what the spy genre can achieve when treated with tenderness, and not tacky populism.