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Raazi review: Alia Bhatt adds another incredible story to her name

Release Date: 11 May 2018 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 18min

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Mayur Lookhar

Though not a masterpiece, the gripping true story of a Kashmiri girl operating as Indian spy in Pakistan is what makes Meghna Gulzar's Raazi worthwhile.

Wars fought on the battlefield speak of heroism, bravery and martyrdom. While heroes on the battlefield are honoured for their bravery, there are many heroes who remain unsung. They don’t engage in combat on field, but take great risks by penetrating into enemy territory, gathering intelligence that helps a nation stay one step ahead of the enemy and foil their nefarious plans. Welcome to the world of spies, undercover agents, people whose identity and heroic acts often get lost in classified files.   

Director Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi tells the tale of an unsung spy Sehmat, a Kashmiri girl who helped gathered vital intelligence for India in the lead up to the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Based on the book Calling Sehmat by author Harinder Sikka, former Lieutenant Commander in the Indian Navy, Gulzar and Bhavani Iyer (co-screenplay writer) have taken a few creative liberties to make Raazi.

This reviewer deliberately chose not to read the book as it would have been a killjoy. Calling Sehmat, too, is said to be a fictionalised account of a true story. So who really was Sehmat? Her real identity will perhaps never be known. You can only draw a picture of her through the words of Sikka and the vision of Gulzar.

Raazi is not a quintessential India-Pakistan war film: Vicky Kaushal 

At one time, Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) is a delicate girl who saves a squirrel from being crushed by a speeding vehicle, and the next morning, she willingly accepts the path that her father Hidayat has chosen for her. How could a girl, who until yesterday wouldn’t hurt a fly, transform into an undercover agent? Sehmat is trained by the best Intelligence Bureau sleuth, Khaled Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat).

Alia Bhatt

The story is set in 1970, when East Pakistan (now the independent nation of Bangladesh) rebelled against the Pakistani state. Sehmat finds a few helping hands once she sets foot in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. How does she go about her spying task? Does she succeed in her mission? We leave that for the audience to find out.

The mere thought that there was once a Kashmiri girl who operated as a spy inside Pakistan, is unbelievable. And that is precisely what attracts you to Raazi. Gulzar’s Sehmat will be hailed by those who put nation before everything else.

Hindi cinema largely celebrates an the Indian victory over Pakistan on the battlefield, often through jingoistic action dramas. The more recent spy flicks — The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003), Agent Vinod (2012), Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) — have taken the James Bond route. While such films have a charm of their own, they seldom come close to reality. It is here that Gulzar manages to give us a more realistic account of a spy’s life.

The world she creates is very real: Alia Bhatt on Raazi director Meghna Gulzar

Gulzar refrains from demonising Pakistan. It’s a war between two governments, two armed forces, but not civilians. Gulzar brings out the humane side of the Pakistani characters. You empathise with the Pakistani Brigadier Parvez Syed (Shishir Sharma) and the family as Sehmat cleverly eliminates few threats in the household.  

No matter the nationality, soldiers are merely doing their jobs. The victor is hailed a hero, but one should also spare a thought for the family of the vanquished. Also, victory comes at a price. Raazi depicts the pain, agony and sacrifices of a spy.

The film drags a bit in the first half, but it picks up pace after the break as Sehmat gets down to serious business. Calling Sehmat tells the back story of Hidayat, but Gulzar only briefly touches upon it. Rajit Kapur is brilliant as Hidayat and you wish to see a little more of Hidayat purely for Kapur's performance. Bhatt's reel and real mother Soni Razdan, too, doesn't get much space. However, she moves you with her tears.

Alia Bhatt, Soni Razdan and Rajit Kapur

As for Bhatt, she adds another great story/film to her resume. Is it a commanding performance? Bhatt does well to bring out the innocence, fragility of Sehmat, a characteristic that she displays even while spying. It is this fragility that make the Syed household butler Abdul (Arif Zakaria) suspicious of her. You can't call it a drop in intensity, but there are moments when Bhatt doesn’t look all that convincing. For instance, her emotional outburst in the business end of the film. She set the bar high after her commanding performance in Udta Punjab (2016). Though good, Bhatt is not great as Sehmat.

Jaideep Ahlawat plays true to his character, Khaled Mir — a cold, tough taskmaster, for whom national interest comes before anything, one who is not afraid to even sacrifice his own.

Alia Bhatt and Jaideep Ahlawat

While most of the cast performs admirably, it is the character of Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal) that confuses you. Iqbal is a bit too modest for a soldier. The shy Iqbal barely communicates with his wife Sehmat. Kaushal doesn’t disappoint as an actor, it is just that Iqbal comes across as a reluctant husband, and an army officer.

Vicky Kaushal

Though brief, it is Arif Zakaria who chips in with a flawless performance.

Sitting in an Indian city, you can't be the best judge of how well Gulzar has created the Pakistan of the 1970s, but there's a perception that the generals, brigadiers, top officers of the Pakistani armed forces hold great power and wealth. The sprawling bungalow, lavish parties, vintage cars used by the Syeds only bolster that belief.

A gripping story, overall fine screenplay, but Raazi doesn’t hit the fourth gear. Maybe the expectation was sky high. And why wouldn’t it be, especially since Gulzar was hailed for her last film, Talvar (2015), also based on true events. Raazi is no masterpiece, but through the two films, Gulzar has shown that she is more than adept at telling true stories with a touch of sensitivity. For that humane quality, Gulzar and her Raazi have our nod.


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