While the filmmaker is aware of the challenges involved in making a film on India-Pakistan relations, she is confident that people will realize Raazi is not a cliched war tale.
Meghna Gulzar: Raazi looks at Indo-Pak dynamics very differently
Mumbai - 12 May 2018 12:00 IST
Meghna Gulzar comes across as a sensitive filmmaker who handles tricky subjects with care and precision.
Though she made her directorial debut with the critically acclaimed Filhaal... (2002), Meghna found success only in 2015 with Talvar, starring Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Sohum Shah. Talvar was a hard-hitting thriller based on the sensational double murder of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in NOIDA in 2008.
Now, the director has again delved into real-life events with Raazi, based on the life of Sehmat, a Kashmiri woman who married a Pakistani soldier to spy for her home country in 1970.
Having a star like Alia Bhatt in your film certainly helps to promote it and this might be the first time Meghna has found herself in such media glare.
In an interview with a group of journalists, she spoke about her reasons for making Raazi and why Bhatt was her choice to play the lead. While she hopes the film is released in Pakistan without any trouble, she believes authenticity is vital while making a film on a real-life incident.
The lady seemed at ease, was articulate in her speech, listened carefully to every word in the question and put great thought behind her answers. Her fluid speech might make one think she is a philosopher. This is, perhaps, a trait inherited from her father, the legendary poet-lyricist Gulzar, who often leaves his audience spellbound. Excerpts from the interview:
Vicky Kaushal had earlier said the film is one story from the vast book Calling Sehmat. How did you plan your script around this story?
The strange thing is that the book and the story came to me from two different places. The talks between Harinder Sikka and the production or whatever was not coming through, while I was developing my own script as well.
When the film came to me for the third time, somehow, something connected. [I realized] that there is a reason why this story keeps coming to me. So I took it up. I met Harinder Sikka, we had a conversation. He said I don’t know who is going to produce the film, but I only want you to direct it. I told him, 'If you trust me with the material, let me develop it. Let me cull a cinematic story out of the book, and let me take it to a studio.'
That is what I did. I took the story right back to Junglee Pictures’s Priti Shahani, because she was the first person who told me about the book. It was morally the right thing to do.
When you read the book, the most powerful thread in the book is the journey of this girl. A decision is made for her by her parents, and she is married to a Pakistani across the border to be the eyes and ears of India. Apart from that, there is her parents’ back story, and then whatever happened after that was like an epilogue. You have to make a two-, two-and-a-half-hour film.
The best way to tell a story is that you have to focus on the most important part of the story, to be able to do justice to it and tell it in the best way possible. That was my only guiding principle in pulling out this thread from the book.
The movie is based on the life of a Kashmiri woman, but the state hardly has functioning cinema halls. How will those people connect with the film?
Her [Sehmat's] journey starts in Kashmir, but most of the story is told from Pakistan. In my last visit to the state, I was told there is one theatre that is functioning. I am hoping they will get to see [the film] because a lot of them have also made an appearance in it.
The cross-border relationship is a very sensitive, risky subject. While you were fashioning your film around Calling Sehmat, was there a sense of fear that others may not be able to perceive the film the way you did?
I wouldn’t say fear, because if that was the case then I wouldn’t have ventured to make the film. Yes, there was the awareness that one is treading into sensitive territory, but so was Talvar (2015). It is about your own intent. Why are you picking this subject?
If that intent is pure and your integrity is in the right place, it will show in the film. It will subliminally seep in the way you execute the film. And the audiences will get that. I believe the audience is more attuned and aware than we give them credit for. That has been my biggest learning since Talvar.
When you are adapting a book for the big screen, how do you look at the characters?
This is the first time I am adapting a book. I was working purely on the principle that when you have cinema, you have so many different tools at your disposal. You have visual, sound, music, costume, sets. When you have all this at your disposal, you damn well make them work and take the film higher than where the book has reached.
The attempt should always be to carry the written word forward through your visual interpretation, which is what was my approach to the film.
With the characters, the advantage of a book is that you have so many words to explain, what this person is, what his characteristics are. You can have a character saying, ‘Sehmat was an innocent girl, her husband Iqbal was a sensitive man.' To show it visually is a task. How do you bring out that sensitivity?
If you have seen the trailer, then this girl was handling a squirrel. That sequence was done to show what she was before she started. For her, to save a squirrel was a big thing. That is how you give a visual interpretation to the written word.
What characteristics were you looking for in the protagonists while casting Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal?
With both these artistes — because I knew this story and the arcs that their characters are going to have to travel — there is a level of performance that is required. The first demand was that the artistes I cast should be able to deliver that performance. Both Bhatt and Kaushal have that ability.
With Alia, it was her physicality that worked for me. This [Sehmat] is a 20-year-old from Kashmir. Now, though she is a spy, she is not a Lara Croft, she is not the Bride from the Kill Bill series. She is a young, fragile, innocent girl who is put through a tumultuous journey, but her fragility remains intact. She doesn’t metamorphose into Superwoman. Alia has that vulnerability and fragility in her.
With Vicky, you see him and you know there is a namrata [humility] in him, which is what I wanted. Vicky’s character is a Pakistani from the army. With the film being made in India, he should be a villain, but he is not. So, I needed that sensitivity. Even his character’s journey is as tenuous as [Sehmat's]. So, [I chose] Vicky.
What are the odds of the film being released in Pakistan?
I know it is being released worldwide. We hope it is released there. As of now, I don’t think there are any plans. Something inside me tells me that when the film is released you will realize that it is looking at the Indo-Pak dynamics very differently.
There is nothing in it that should [stop] its release in Pakistan, but this question should not be relevant only because it is Raazi. As it is, our films are not being released there. Cultural exchanges should not be driven by politics.
This is your second film based on true events. What is the toughest part of portraying true events on celluloid?
Authenticity. I treat the audience with a lot of respect. I don’t underestimate their intelligence at all. With the internet around, anyone can point out a fault. I have got that feedback on my Raazi poster, which has a Sea Harrier [a British-made naval fighter plane], but then I was told there were no Sea Harriers in 1971.
The jet fighter was developed in the 1980s. I will not answer that question because once that person sees the film, he will realize why that Sea Harrier was there in the poster. You have to keep it real and not be offensive to those whom you are talking about — whether it was the deceased and the parents in Talvar or this character, Sehmat. Keeping their dignity intact is of prime importance. That is the toughest thing when you make such a film.
Talvar showed us the different probabilities surrounding the 2008 NOIDA double murder. In that scenario, you presented all the perspectives and left the judgement to the audience. I could be wrong, but the film gave the impression that it was empathetic towards the Talwars...
It wasn’t intended that way. All I did was present the facts and the facts themselves lead to the innocence of the Talwars. I didn’t do that. There is nothing in there that is fabricated.