Raazi Review: An engrossing spy thriller
What happens when a rookie, who was saving squirrels from turning up as road kill just a few months ago, commits her first murder?
Sehmat Khan (Alia Bhatt) commits her first kill. It isn't part of the plan and it is an extreme measure she has to take to not compromise her mission. It is messy. Sehmat is messy in general. She forgets to lock the bathroom door when she is doing her spy work. She is circumspect while getting down stools and ladders, and trips over them. She leaves her equipment out in the open, unattended for hours. All this not because she is incapable - she is the opposite of that - but because her training had to be fast tracked. What she went through was a crash course, hand-held by the Intelligence officer Khalid Mir (a washed out looking Jaideep Ahlawat). He doesn't so much hand-hold her through it as drag her from one stage to the next.
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat
Director: Meghna Gulzar
What happens when a rookie, who was saving squirrels from turning up as road kill just a few months ago, commits her first murder? Sehmat might be messy, but Alia Bhatt isn't. She internalises the soul crushing shock of performing the act, the physical and mental stress of the aftermath, and transforms it into a form of a stagger as she enters her house in Rawalpindi. It is definitely Alia's most physically apparent performance, but she does something minute to cover that too. Like in the middle of that stagger, she remembers her duty and composes herself to make that phone call.
Sehmat is not messy when it comes to making parathas. It is what she does on her first morning in Pakistan. Her marriage of inconvenience with Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal), the younger son of Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma) is a kind of domestic syzygy, with her caught between friends, families and two countries.
One of the things director Meghna Gulzar and her co-writer Bhavani Iyer accomplish well with Raazi (based on the novel Calling Sehmat by Harinder Sikka) is how they turn a domestic drama into a spy thriller. The bored housewife in a joint household is now a spy! There is no mother-in-law to turn against her but her parathas are unwelcome because one of the house helps feels threatened that she is encroaching on his space in the family. The new daughter-in-law is too precious to even be bothered with that. Even at a formal dinner, other army men talk to her about the fish on the menu, oblivious to the fact that she has bigger fish to fry. The brigadier's house is also the venue for afternoon meetings with the other Stepford wives, planning annual days at school, and at one point, she appeals to the army wives’ union for help. Her husband, also an army officer, is a man too decent and too progressive for his and her good, possibly making him the most challenging aspect of Sehmat's job in Pakistan.
Raazi is unlike any spy thriller and unlike any film that has patriotism hanging like a noose over its head. Gulzar and Iyer are careful not to tread into those territories as they deglamourize the facets of these genres. The glamour, or the lack of it associated with a family drama, is what adorns Raazi too, complementing its major concerns. It is about Sehmat and how she reconciles with her life having turned upside down on the other side of the border, about her carrying forward the legacy of her family and discovering some hard truths along the way. A family drama and character study masquerading as a spy thriller.
Films dealing with the India-Pakistan relationship can be a minefield but Meghna Gulzar tiptoes around the common pitfalls. There is no chest-beating and even some strong emotional moments (on the other side of the border - where majority of the film is set - concerning the people of Pakistan) are not played up, choosing to keep the tone measured and subdued. The sudden death of an army man cuts straight to the funeral. Even the intelligence work is deglamourized, not depicted as men in suits in swanky offices with advanced technology, mouthing Jai Hind in every alternate breath. There isn't a problem of good or bad Muslim because there isn't a major Hindu player on either side of the border. The border is the only differentiating factor between these people.
Gulzar depicts her characters as creatures of circumstance, caught on their respective sides, motivated only by the love for their country. It is not patriotism stuffed down anyone's throat. Raazi is also one of those rare spy films which doesn't have a well-rounded ending. The events didn't stop the countries from going to war. The events did not establish one country's superiority over the other. There is no fin where a file is closed satisfactorily and sent to the archives. It is a story about how far and deep we have fallen. It is about the loss of innocence.